Barbara Newman

Barbara Newman teaches at Northwestern University near Chicago.

A Thousand Slayn: Ars Moriendi

Barbara Newman, 5 November 2020

This book​ begins with a paradox: we speak incessantly of death, yet can’t say anything about it because it has no being. A subsidiary paradox has long puzzled medievalists: ‘It is hard to tell, when you read only the poetry of the late 14th century, that the Black Death had ever arrived,’ D. Vance Smith writes. There is nothing in all English literature to parallel...

Every age creates its own Chaucer. For Eustache Deschamps, a contemporary, he was the ‘grant translateur’. For Hoccleve, a disciple, he was ‘my deere maistir’ and ‘the firste fyndere [inventive poet] of our fair langage’. The 15th century revered him for his eloquence, while the 20th century gave us many Chaucers: genial naif, apostle of courtly love, austere Augustinian moralist, sycophantic courtier, ironist and, not least, duelling misogynist and feminist versions. In Marion Turner’s capacious biography – the first since Derek Pearsall’s in 1992 and the first ever by a woman – Chaucer is Bakhtinian and plural, a man of many voices.

Carved into the Flesh: Medieval Bodies

Barbara Newman, 11 October 2018

For​ medievalists, the bodily turn has had a profound impact not just on the histories of medicine and sexuality, as one would expect, but also on those of art, religion and ideas. Thirty-five years or so after the body emerged as a newly problematic category, an entity with a tangled history or a rebellious subaltern that had finally found its voice, ‘medieval bodies’ have...

No Peep of Protest: Medieval Marriage

Barbara Newman, 19 July 2018

Once upon​ a time, runs a medieval tale, a jealous wife quarrelled with another woman for flirting with her husband. As the women fought, the alleged flirt broke the wife’s nose and ruined her looks for ever, provoking her husband to have affairs in earnest. The moral of the story? ‘This is a good example for all good ladies and gentlewomen about how they ought to bear things...

‘In​ the Middle Ages,’ Shayne Aaron Legassie writes, ‘travel was nasty, brutish and long.’ Before planes, railways or steamships, it was inseparable from its etymological twin, travail – both derived from the name of an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Peregrinus, the medieval term for a ‘pilgrim’ or ‘traveller’, in classical Latin...

Anna had ‘to build an authorial persona that, on the one hand, was strong, impartial, intellectual, accurate, driven by research, trustworthy and authoritative, and on the other, female, modest, devoted and humble’. Under the circumstances, it’s astonishing that she succeeded at all.

When Medicine Failed: Saints

Barbara Newman, 7 May 2015

Why can​ the dead do such great things? Augustine’s rhetorical question, posed near the end of The City of God, launches Robert Bartlett’s massive, erudite compendium of saint lore. Bartlett never cites the bishop’s answer, which is that feats performed from beyond the grave vindicate faith in the resurrection. The martyrs who so publicly and bloodily died for their faith...

Astonishing Heloise

Barbara Newman, 23 January 2014

Nine hundred years ago, a celebrity philosopher fell in love with his star student and seduced her. Peter Abelard’s once brilliant lectures grew tepid, while his love songs placed the name of Heloise on every tongue. Passionate letters flew, and the Parisian gossip mill went into overdrive – until pregnancy, as so often, betrayed the secret. Much against Heloise’s will, Abelard insisted on marriage to soothe her enraged uncle Fulbert, and spirited their child off to his sister’s farm in Brittany. The pair married secretly at dawn, then went their separate ways.

Ailments of the Tongue: Medieval Grammar

Barbara Newman, 22 March 2012

Fifty years ago, Walter Ong startled classicists with the proposal that learning Latin offered medieval and Renaissance boys a rite of passage not unlike Bushman puberty rites. Torn from the company of women, the initiate was sequestered with his peers in a clubhouse-like schoolroom, trained in the special language of an elite, disciplined by flogging, and formed by a regimen geared to...

My Feet Are Cut Off: Lives of the Saints

Barbara Newman, 3 December 2009

For every medieval manuscript we possess, scholars estimate that at least ten have perished. The compendium of Latin saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend, with its staggering thousand exemplars, must have been second only to the Bible in popularity. Compiled by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine around 1260, it became a standard text on every preacher’s bookshelf and was...

Though this measure quaint confine me, And I chip out words and plane them, They shall yet be true and clear, When I finally have filed them. Love glosses and gilds them . . .

Arnaut Daniel, translated by Ezra Pound

The history of culture affords few absolute beginnings, but the temptation to posit them can be irresistible. The notion that there might have been a first...

Hildegard of Bingen, 12th-century prophet extraordinaire, would not have been alarmed by the outbreak of Y2K fever, but she would have known how to seize the moment. Eight hundred years ago, readers treasured yet trembled at her predictions of the apocalypse to come, asking: When will the ominous ‘Age of the Fiery Dog’ begin? Which monasteries were to be seized by secular lords, humbled and disendowed? Had the Antichrist already been conceived in his mother’s womb? Was there still time to avert the threatened wrath of God?‘

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