Curtis Runstedler will be leading our next seminar, on ‘Alchemy and Exemplary Narratives in Middle English Poetry’ (https://www.facebook.com/events/331798223858669/). 5 December (A MONDAY), World Heritage Visitor’s Centre. As usual, tea and biscuits from 17:40, seminar at 18:00.
We chatted to Curtis about Canada, teaching and the inevitable proceeds of his philosopher’s stone.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?
I’m from the snowy landscapes of Ottawa, Canada. Actually, it’s not snowy all the time – in the summertime, it can get up to 40 degree Celsius (talk about extremes!). Good surfing weather in the summertime (just needs more tasty waves).
I completed my undergraduate degree at Carleton University and then swam across the pond to complete my MA degree at Durham University (I wrote on werewolves in the medieval romance and it was lots of fun). I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to stay on board for my Ph.D. degree, which hopefully I’ll finish sometime next year.
What brought you to Durham?
Well, I had a couple inspirational moments. I used to work at this great little publishing press called Oberon Press (I was the warehouse manager) that had been around since the ’60s and published the Where to Eat in Canada
annual guide as well as lots of wonderful Canadian novels and poems. I was really keen on doing an MA in the U.K., and the wife of my manager at the time told me about this amazing place called Durham University.
I also had a friend I’ve known since kindergarten who was studying there at the time, so he told me what to expect. Then one of my Studies in Arthurian Literature lecturer Siobhain Calkin encouraged me to attend an event with Professor Neil Cartlidge at the university about studying an MA at Durham University. I went to it and I was the only one who showed up, so we chatted for a couple hours and I ended up applying to Durham and getting accepted. I’ve loved every minute of it.
What do you love most about the medieval/early modern period?
Well, I love both periods, but I’m a medievalist at heart. I love the fantastic (i.e. the castles, dragons, knights, and those incredible medieval women!), but I’m also really intrigued by magic and the supernatural as well as the growth of medieval science (scientia) and society. Naturally, I’m really interested in astronomy and alchemy as well. We owe so much to the medieval period, and it’s great that scholarship in recent years is shining new light on all these long forgotten episodes and characters. It’s a beautiful time to be alive.
The early modern period is really interesting too (from the Tudors to Milton to Shakespeare to Marlowe to all the alchemy/chemistry going on). I find the sixteenth century particularly interesting, especially after reading the excellent book Dark Fire that my supervisor recommended to me. I’m really interested in the alchemical afterlives of many of the medieval authors in the early modern period, and this is something that I’d like to continue researching for a couple future publications.
What does your research focus on?
My research focusses on how alchemy is used to make moral points about human fallibility, metaphorical blindness, and more in Middle English poetry (Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as some key exa
mples). I’m also interested in how these alchemical poems form exemplary narratives and how they can be identified as exempla
for good moral behaviour and alchemical practice.
Most of my research is analytical and not practical, so thankfully I haven’t blown anything up yet! But I would be happy to share the gold if I discover the Philosopher’s Stone.
What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?
For my seminar, I’m planning to discuss one of the fifteenth-century alchemical dialogues (‘The Argument between Merlin and Morienus’) that I write about in my fourth chapter. This is a really interesting poem because it features a child Merlin talking to his father Morienus (a legendary alchemical adept) about alchemy in a religious context, and it’s also intriguing to consider how it can be read as an exemplary narrative. As well, there’s some incest in it, which will be fun to talk about.
If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?
I love teaching and I love learning, so I’d probably teach at sixth form level or teach abroad. I love travelling too. I also like to write short stories in my spare time, so I’d love to keep doing that on the side and hopefully publish something eventually.
Do you have a favourite medieval/early modern text?
The Canterbury Tales really takes the cake for me. Chaucer is so wonderfully subversive and it has so many layers and levels to the readings, it just keeps getting better and better each time you read it. My favourite tale? Definitely the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, but I love the ribaldry of The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale, and The Wife of Bath’s Tale is also pretty great. Honourable mention goes to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (my favourite book of all time), which was technically published in the ’90s, but I believe it’s based off a medieval text or something?
I guess I’d have to say Paradise Lost is my favourite early modern text for obvious reasons. I also really enjoyed Comus and Samson Agonistes, most of Shakespeare’s plays, Dr Faustus, and recently The Jew of Malta, which was a wild ride.