Chaucer’s Plants and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Soundtracks

GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute funds five students’ summer research projects.

June 25, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

Scholars have observed that the 17th-century Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael was so accurate that botanists can identify the flora in his paintings. Mike Smith, a graduate student in the Department of English, has found similar precision and relevance in medieval literary botanical references. By examining topics such as poisonous plants and grafting, Mr. Smith sheds light on what he calls “human-plant encounters.”

Mr. Smith’s dissertation, which is tentatively titled “Vegetable Love: Desiring Plants in the Middle Ages,” is one of five projects funded this summer by GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute.

According to Jeffrey Cohen, professor of English and director of the institute, the funding for the projects comes from a donor “who believes strongly in GW’s strengths in medieval and early modern studies.”

Ecology also plays a major role in Lowell Duckert’s research, another project funded by the institute. Mr. Duckert, who grew up in Bellingham, Wash., where he says, “we tend to be much more conscientious,” takes eco-critical approaches to early modern literature in his studies at GW.

In particular, he studies “the interactions between nature and culture” and the “ways in which figures move through the landscape as much as by the landscape.” His dissertation addresses travel literature and drama in the early modern era, roughly the 15th to 18th centuries.

The other three students whose dissertations are funded by MEMSI are Nedda Mehdizadeh, who is studying British adventurers’ travel to Persia in the early 17th century; Jennifer Wood, whose dissertation examines the sounds and songs of “the other” in early modern travel narratives, such as the chants sung by Caliban in The Tempest; and Jessica Frazier, whose dissertation, “Object-ionable Fashion: Material Agency, Hybridity and Temporality in Transnational Early Modern Networks” tracks the ways early modern costumes, fashion and jewelry collect international materials into new English identities.

“We believe that these students’ projects, each of which will someday become a published book, will change the shape of medieval and early modern studies,” says Dr. Cohen. “We believe, in other words, that supporting these projects supports the future of the field.

Learning & Research