Benjamin A. Saltzman

Benjamin A. Saltzman
Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor
Walker 518
Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2014
Teaching at UChicago since 2017


My research, as with my teaching, reaches outwards conceptually and historically from the early Middle Ages. Starting with literature written in Old English and Anglo-Latin between the years 600 and 1100, I am interested in studying oversized social and affective phenomena—friendship, secrecy, gesture—through fine-grained readings and archival research across a wide range of sources and objects: from laws to monastic rules, poetry to visual art, architecture to cryptography. I also try to understand the implications of these medieval cultural practices as part of a longer history of modern thought.


My first book, Bonds of Secrecy: Law, Spirituality, and the Literature of Concealment in Early Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), investigates the tensions between the medieval Christian belief in divine omniscience and the social experience of secrecy. I argue that as these tensions manifested in the legal culture and monastic life of early medieval England, they profoundly shaped the practices of literary interpretation during the period. This book was supported by several grants and fellowships, including ones from the ACLS/Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’ve published several related articles that exemplify the different stakes of the project. For example, in “Secrecy and the Hermeneutic Potential in Beowulf” (PMLA, 2018), I try to push the task of literary criticism in new directions by arguing that the study of a poem’s specific configurations of secrecy can allow us to employ more sensitive and, in the case of Beowulf, more humble modes of reading. Taking a more archivally-focused approach, my article “Vt hkskdkxt: Early Medieval Cryptography, Textual Errors, and Scribal Agency” (Speculum, 2018) navigates the labyrinthine world of cryptography and scribal errors in medieval manuscripts. I also wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post and was subsequently interviewed by the New York Times about how the early medieval belief in God’s omniscience can help us understand the societal consequences of today’s global data economy.


In a similar vein, I am also interested in the ways the Middle Ages has influenced the intellectual commitments of more recent eras. I recently published Thinking of the Medieval: Midcentury Intellectuals and the Middle Ages (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2022), co-edited with R. D. Perry and featuring an afterword by Martin Jay. This collection of essays illuminates the enduring and influential engagements with the Middle Ages that emerged in the twentieth century. By tracing the ways that intellectual figures of the period—such as Hannah Arendt, Erich Auerbach, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Hans-Robert Jauss, Simone Weil—thought about medieval culture, the volume paves new avenues for understanding these thinkers in relation to one another, in light of their own contemporary moments, and in resonance with current turns in medieval studies and politics.


I’m currently working on a new book, Turning Away: Variations on an Ancient Gesture, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the new Thinking Literature series, edited by Nan Z. Da and Anahid Nersessian. This project has also been supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. A critique of the privilege of turning from the afflictions of others, I take up five premodern scenes in which a figure looks away or covers their face: Agamemnon in Timanthes’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Leontius in Plato’s Republic, Alypius in Augustine’s Confessions, the onlookers to the Crucifixion in medieval and early modern art, and illustrations of Adam and Eve in their postlapsarian state. Each of these scenes opens up into an array of related examples across media and historical periods to show how the affective multivalences of these gestures invite the reader or beholder of the work of art to reflect on their own positionality in witnessing the suffering of others. The project tries to uncover what I understand to be a central feature of our engagement with the world, the act of turning away. 

I am also beginning to work on a third book about the poetics of joy, but that’s for another time.

Work with Students

I work with students who are interested in any aspect of early medieval English literature and culture, whether they are looking to focus principally on this area of study or build a foundation for other avenues of inquiry (e.g., in late medieval literature, linguistics, theories of friendship, secrecy, the history of literary interpretation). I also welcome the opportunity to work with students who specialize in nineteenth/twentieth century literature and are keen to explore the important influence of medieval culture in these later periods.

Select Publications

  • “Witnessing Saint Margaret, or the Frenetic Historicity of the Inconceivable,” Yearbook of English Studies, special issue on “Literature to 1200,” ed. Lees and Davies (2022). Download Article
  • “Hermeneutics and the Medieval Horizon: Zumthor, Jauss, Barthes, and Gadamer” in Thinking of the Middle Ages: Midcentury Intellectuals and the Medieval, ed. Perry and Saltzman (Cambridge, 2022). Download Article
  • “Adam and Eve’s Hands and Eyes: Covering the Face in the Junius Manuscript” in Agency and Obedience in Early Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, ed. Stephenson, Trilling, and Fay (Boydell & Brewer, 2022).
  • “Community, Joy, and the Intimacy of Narrative in Beowulf” in Dating Beowulf: Studies in Intimacy, ed. Remein and Weaver (Manchester, 2020). Download Article
  • Vt hkskdkxt: Early Medieval Cryptography, Textual Errors, and Scribal Agency.” Speculum 93, no. 4 (forthcoming, 2018): Download Article
  • “Secrecy and the Hermeneutic Potential in Beowulf.” PMLA 133, no. 1 (2018): 36-55: Download
  • “The Friar, the Summoner, and their Techniques of Erasure.” The Chaucer Review 52, no. 4 (2017): 363-95: Download
  • “Towards the Middle Ages to Come: The Temporalities of Walking with W. Morris, H. Adams, and Especially H. D. Thoreau.” postmedieval 5, no. 2 (2014) 235-52: Download
  • “The Mind, Perception and the Reflexivity of Forgetting in Alfred’s Pastoral Care.” Anglo-Saxon England 42 (2013): 147-82. Download
  • “William Morris’s ‘Golden Wings’ as a Poetic Response to the ‘Delicate Sentiment’ of Tennyson’s ‘Mariana.’” Victorian Poetry 49, no. 3 (2011): 285-99. Download
  • “Writing Friendship, Mourning the Friend in Late Anglo-Saxon Rules of Confraternity.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 41, no. 2 (2011): 251-91. Download


  • Old English Language and Literature
  • Beowulf
  • Old English Riddles
  • Witnessing Medieval Evil: Art, Literature, and the Politics of Observation
  • The Middle Ages in the Twentieth Century
  • Nineteenth-century medievalism
  • History of the English Language