Katharine Breen Associate Professor of English; Associate Chair of the Department of English
Katharine Breen (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) teaches and writes in the areas of medieval English literature and medieval book history. Her interest in the Middle Ages begins in the fifth century with Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin, which sanctifies the shift from a Roman to a medieval cultural landscape, and extends from poetry and drama to monastic chronicles and penitential tracts. She focuses her attention most intensely, however, on English literature from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries – especially William Langland's Piers Plowman and its tradition of poetic social criticism – and on the ways in which books seek to shape their readers through the interplay of material construction and textual content.
Her first book, Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150-1400 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), examines medieval theories of habitus in a general sense before going on to investigate the relationships between habitus, language, and Christian virtue. While most medieval pedagogical theorists regarded the habitus of Latin grammar as the gateway to a generalized habitus of virtue, reformers increasingly experimented with vernacular languages that could fulfill the same function. These new vernacular habits, she argues, laid the conceptual foundations for an English reading public.
Her current project, Engines of Thought: Experimental Allegory, 1200-1500, takes issue with the common critical assumption that allegory is located on the wrong side of history. Histories of allegory tend to find not only an empirical but also an ethical lesson in its decline: allegory ultimately lost ground to mimesis because it was less able to represent the ordinary lives of ordinary people with seriousness and fidelity. Engines of Thought asserts, in contrast, that later medieval allegory was an inclusive literary mode, one that made ideas and texts previously reserved for a clerical elite available to lay audiences. Rather than offering static representations of eternal truths, allegory in this period was innovative, indeed experimental, as authors and artists employed it to enable their audiences to grasp, manipulate, and evaluate unfamiliar ideas. Instead of positing a progressive development from allegorical didacticism to mimetic complexity, then, Engines of Thought traces an alternate genealogy of English literary writing. She argues that complex vernacular speculative writing – writing that is, by its very nature, simultaneously imaginative, experimental, and intellectually challenging – emerged from an allegorical matrix.