Julie Orlemanski

Julie Orlemanski photo credit Jason Smith
Director of Graduate Studies; Associate Professor
Rosenwald 415A
Ph.D. and MA, Harvard University, 2010.BA, University of Georgia, 2004
Teaching at UChicago since 2014


I teach and write about texts from the late Middle Ages and theoretical and methodological questions in present-day literary studies. I am co-editor, with James Simpson, of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eleventh Edition, Vol. A, The Middle Ages (forthcoming in 2023). I am also co-editor, with Shazia Jagot and Sara Ritchey, of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Our recent editorial introduction, “What Might a Journal Be?” is accessible here.

My monograph, Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causation in the Literature of Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), considers embodiment in the historical period just prior to medicine’s modernity—before Renaissance anatomy, before the centralized regulation of medical professions, before empiricism and the rationalist division of mental from physical substance. It tells the story of how bodies were interpreted and imagined between the arrival of the Black Death, in 1348, and the start of English printing in 1476. The period witnessed remarkable growth in the production of medical writings, largely for readers without university degrees. As medical paradigms mingled with other models for interpreting bodies, a growing number of readers found themselves negotiating the conflicting claims of material causation, intentional action, and divine power. Partly as a result, the later Middle Ages was, I argue, a period of etiological imagination, an age broadly fascinated with projects of explanatory invention and the tasks of narrating and arbitrating among intricate causal chains. Writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Henryson, Thomas Hoccleve, and Margery Kempe drew on the discourse of phisik—the language of humors and complexions, of leprous pustules and love sickness, of regimen and pharmacopeia—to chart new circuits of legibility between physiology and personhood. The book’s arguments unfold at the meeting of literary criticism, the history of the body, and the history of science, to chart conflicts over who had the authority to construe bodily signs and what embodiment could be made to mean.

I am presently at work on two new book projects. One, “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages,” experiments with how to conceptualize fiction within the density of historical time and in light of the complexity of literary semantics. The book falls into two parts. The first explores how medieval fiction has been theorized, both in the Middle Ages and in subsequent periods of literary history. There is a long tradition in the West of both distinguishing and deriving fictionality from categories of bad belief. I aim to theorize fiction otherwise, in a hermeneutic, comparative, and composite mode. The second part of the book uses this revised idea to consider a handful of generative, if messy, arenas of medieval fiction-making—in works occupied with mythography, the matter of Troy, dream visions, devotional meditation, and biblical drama. Most explorations of medieval fiction to date have centered on the genre of romance. I build on this rich body of scholarship even as I depart from it, by demonstrating what is to be gained by tracking fictionality at scales other than genre and in non-secular and semantically mixed contexts. Ultimately, the project aims to pluralize our literary-critical sense of fiction, by showing how in the Middle Ages as well as now narratives are semantically dappled things, shaped in response to authorizing institutions of truth as well as language’s fundamental capacity to depict the nonactual. An article laying out some of these ideas, together with a dossier of responses, is available from the journal New Literary History here.

A second book project, “Things without Faces: Prosopopoeia in Medieval Writing” begins from the seemingly simple question of what happens when textual persons speak. Writing conjures the likeness of a voice, and with it an embodied figure comes flickeringly into existence. This movement from text to speech to imagined corporealization fascinated medieval writers and is at the heart of “Things without Faces,” a new account of literary person-making, beginning with twelfth-century innovations in devotional imagery and speculative allegory and continuing to the reinvention of those figural techniques in the French and English poetry of the two centuries following. I argue that prosopopoeia was a means for authors to theorize the medium of writing in shifting conditions of literacy. The trope became an occasion to negotiate what it was to have voice at a distance and bodily presence in a fictional mode—in other words, what it was to be written. Prosopopoeia lends to “things without faces” (abstractions, institutions, inanimate objects) a mode of appearing in language. What, then, if writing is the ultimate faceless thing, shedding the demand for the corporeal speaker: how does it wear prosopopoeia’s mask? I have begun to publish work in answer to this question—an article on “Literary Persons and Medieval Fiction in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs” and a chapter on “The Heaviness of Prosopopoeial Form in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess.”

I am committed to critical and antiracist practices of teaching and studying the Middle Ages as well as to making medieval studies a more equitable field. In Fall 2022, I will host and assist Sierra Lomuto in leading an “Introduction to the Critical Study of Race in the Middle Ages” at the Newberry Library. I am part of the organizing team, led by Noémie Ndiaye, that will welcome the RaceB4Race symposium on “Performance” to the University of Chicago in Fall 2023. On campus, the Lexicon Project (sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality) has been for me a wonderful forum for exploring theoretically responsive approaches to the study of the medieval past.

Select Publications

Subject Area: Medieval, British Literature