Julie Orlemanski

Julie Orlemanski
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. What distinguishes medieval thought from our own, and what links it, are of persistent fascination to me. Accordingly, I have longstanding interests in hermeneutics and historicism. Other ongoing research interests include the Song of Songs, disability studies and the history of the body, narratology, and the secularization thesis or so-called disenchantment of the world.

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 conjuncture 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, “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 start with a pair of texts that had profound influence on subsequent literary practice—Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs, with its novel mobilization of carnal fiction, and Alain of Lille’s Complaint of Nature, a defining work of personification allegory. From there, I follow the poetics of prosopopoeia into the French poetry of Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Machaut and then to the English works of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Richard Rolle, and the Pearl poet. All these texts deploy the metaphorics of face, body, and voice in a matrix of self-figurative possibility. Over the course of “Things Without Faces,” I argue that modes of literary personation now sharply distinguished—character, lyric address, and allegorical personification—should be considered in their mobile interconnection, and that medieval literature helps us to do so.

A second book project, “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages,” experiments with how to conceptualize fiction within the density of historical time. The book falls into two parts. In the first, I show that the idea of fiction is entangled with ideologies of disenchantment and secularization. There is a long tradition in the West of both distinguishing and deriving fictionality from categories of bad belief; within the framework of the secularization thesis, possessing fiction—which is to say, having the literary infrastructure for a “willing suspension of disbelief”—becomes the mark of an achieved secular modernity. In response, I seek to theorize fictionality otherwise, in a hermeneutic and comparative mode. I do so in part by analyzing fiction’s “commonplaces,” or the historically specific motifs, genres, and contexts for semantic unearnestness. The second part of the book, then, falls into ten short chapters, each exploring one of these commonplaces in the Middle Ages. The effect, the book’s second part practices methods of interpretation theorized in Part I. As a whole, “Who Has Fiction?” advocates for a comparative poetics of fiction, one that stands to pluralize the literary-critical concept by returning it to its volatile interface with language’s capacity to depict the nonactual.

I am committed to the project of teaching and studying the Middle Ages critically in the present era of ascendant white supremacism and to making medieval studies a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable field. For a statement to this effect signed by various University of Chicago medievalists, see here.

I serve as Book Reviews Editor at postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies.

Select Publications

  • Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causation in the Literature of Late Medieval England (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)
  • “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages,” in New Literary History 50.2 (2019)
  • “Langland’s Poetics of Animation: Body, Soul, Personification,” in the Yearbook of Langland Studies 33 (2019)
  • “Prosopopoeial Heaviness in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess,” in Chaucer and the Subversion of Form (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018), ed. Thomas A. Prendergast and Jessica Rosenfeld
  • “Leprosies,”forthcoming in the Ashgate Research Companion to Medieval Disability Studies, ed. John P. Sexton and Kisha G. Tracy
  • “Modernity within the Middle Ages,” in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.3 (2017)
  • “Philology and the Turn Away from the Linguistic Turn,”in Florilegium 32 (2017 for 2015)
  • “Literary Genre, Medieval Studies, and the Prosthesis of Disability,” in Textual Practice 30.7 (2016)
  • “Margery’s ‘Noyse’ and Distributed Expressivity,” in Voice and Voicelessness in Medieval Europe (2015), ed. Irit Kleinman, Palgrave
  • “Scales of Reading,” in Exemplaria 26.2-3 (2014), special issue on “Surface, Symptom, and the State of Critique”
  • “Thornton’s Remedies and the Questions of Medical Reading,” in Robert Thornton and His Books (2014), ed. Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston, York Medieval Press
  • “Genre,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies (2013), ed. Marion Turner, Wiley-Blackwell Critical Theory Handbooks
  • “Desire and Defacement in The Testament of Cresseid,” in Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture (2013), ed. Katie Walter, Palgrave New Middle Ages Series
  • “Jargon and the Matter of Medicine in Middle English,” in The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42.2 (2012)
  • “How to Kiss a Leper,” in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3.2 (2012), essay cluster on Disability and the Social Body
Subject Area: Medieval, British Literature