How the Journey Began…
I always loved to read books and talk about them, and am lucky enough to do that for a living. After studying at Johns Hopkins and Columbia, I joined the University of Toronto in 1995 and served as Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies (2013-19), moving to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study's School of Historical Studies in July 2019. I study and teach the literature and history of Europe and wider Mediterranean region, extending into the Islamic world and Horn of Africa: in short, you could say I want to know more about how ideas still current today – national identity; religious law; ways of dividing up time into periods – emerged from an interconnected medieval world.
The research projects I've taken up tend to fall into two areas: the philosophical and scientific background to medieval literature; and religious, ethnic, and racial borderlines in the Middle Ages. My first book, Seeing Through the Veil, shows how the metaphor of sight – saying “I see” to mean “I understand” – changed during the Middle Ages when new optical theories from the Arabic-speaking world transformed science in Europe. My second book, Idols in the East, shows how “Saracens” or Muslims were perceived by Europeans during the time of the Crusades both in terms of religious difference and in terms of bodily diversity. We can see this as part of a long history of racializing the ‘other,’ even while acknowledging how medieval views of body and identity differ from modern constructs.
These two research areas also underlie the edited books I’ve published, with the philosophical and scientific background to medieval literature informing The Ends of the Body (co-edited with Jill Ross), on the use of the human body as a metaphor for the individual and the community, and the focus on religious, ethnic, and racial borderlines informing two collections: A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (co-edited with Karla Mallette) and Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West (co-edited with Amilcare Iannucci).
Beyond this research work, I try to build virtual community around the processes of reading and writing, editing open-access volumes such as How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page and How We Read: Tales, Fury, Nothing, Sound, and serving as a co-editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature.