My research considers the broad range of post-conquest writing in England, with particular interests in literary theory, religious writing, mystical language, and concepts of poetic identity in medieval and early modern writers. I also publish on modern British drama (especially Harold Pinter).
At the core of most of what I do is a curiosity about the psychology of literary response: the ways in which writers struggle to express experiences and acts of imagination, the strategies they use to articulate their understanding of these experiences and imaginative acts, and the codes and conventions that develop between texts and readers to allow communication and understanding to develop and to be manipulated. When I began writing, this curiosity was focussed under the banner of ‘affectivity’, and that still usefully expresses a central facet of my work: how writing can engage with the affectus, and can work with and against the intellectus, to produce new and often more profoundly supra-rational acts of knowledge and understanding. What the Arabs called ‘the imaginative syllogism’ drives my interest in medieval poetic (as sharply distinguished from rhetorical) theory as it can be recovered from commentaries and theoretical writings from the twelfth through to the sixteenth centuries.
My long standing interest in contemplative writing fits very precisely into this category of exploration. Religious texts always seek to make an impact within a recoverable target range of acceptable responses, and the techniques they use offer fascinating fields for analysis, not least because those impacts are rarely sufficient in themselves and so always gesture to their own effacement as part of an ongoing and continuous process of cognitive and emotional understanding. These texts are songs from the threshold of lived experience, struggling to articulate and communicate ineffable showings or transcendent encounters. Hence my continuing fascination with Julian of Norwich, and her highly sophisticated and playfully manipulative relationship with the broad spectrum of religious writing in her period. This interest has linked back towards my original researches into catechetic and pastoral literature to give me an unusually broad view of, and sharp perspective on the field of ‘vernacular theology’ as it is now constituted. It also fuels my growing desire to explore the (as yet largely unarticulated) linguistic and semantic theory and (very substantial) praxis lying behind the extensive vernacular translation of orthodox religious texts in the fifteenth. These interests long predate the recent ‘religious turn’, and the even more recent ‘cognitive turn’, and my work and my teaching have had some impact on shaping both. Fundamental to this work, however, is another pillar of my scholarly priorities: that such texts have to be seen against the deep background of their contemporary textual, social and intellectual environment. Hence my interest in Julian’s parodic and imitative citation of the tones and modes of other genres of religious writing, and my belief that there is a definable spectrum of religious writing, and that scholars must command all of that spectrum to be able to understand any part of it.
My interest in deep context also drives my work on History of the Book. I am an enthusiast for ‘total codicology’– the evolution of palaeography into a highly detailed and finessed form of material and cultural history. No matter how abstract the ideas, the manuscripts and early printed books always have things to tell us, often in unexpected aspects of layout, ordinatio and metatext, as well as the more expected (and often exquisitely historically layered) signs of readerly response. How books look affects how we perceive them: why they look the way they do, and how they should look in modern editions of medieval texts, is an abiding fascination. (Indeed my standard approach to any research question tends to be ‘how does it happen’ and ‘why does it happen’.)