GPRC English Instructor Nominated for Prestigious Dissertation Award
Monday, April 22nd, 2019
Not many people would characterize fifteenth-century Europe as an especially great time for women. Yet recent research from GPRC English instructor Dr. Murrielle Michaud shows that many women in this time period still found ways to empower themselves through an unlikely channel: religious literature.
Michaud’s 2018 doctoral dissertation, which examined Middle English stories of medieval female saints, has been nominated for the ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award. Offered by the Council of Graduate Studies, the ProQuest Award honours doctoral dissertations that “make an unusually significant contribution” to the author’s field of study.
Michaud’s research challenges the traditional assumption that “in hagiography [stories of saints’ lives], the women suffer and the men act.” According to Michaud, an important shift in literature took place in the fifteenth century which upended old ideas about female sainthood, probably as a result of an increase in female readership.
“Stories began to be altered to be much more about women with agency,” she said. “Women readers were much more interested in stories about ‘trailblazing’ women. It fostered a new movement.”
Michaud’s fascination with stories of Catholic saints is a reflection of her academic background. With dual training in religious studies and English literature, Michaud saw her dissertation as an opportunity to merge two passions together.
“I just love the stories of the saints because they’re so exceptional,” she said. “They’re surreal.” She likens Christina the Astonishing, an uncanonized saint from the twelfth century, to a superhero: she can fly, resist injury, bargain with God, and even rise from the dead—twice. It’s easy to see why female readers in the 1400s liked Christina; stories like hers prove that defying male control has been a feminine tradition for centuries.
The key contribution of Michaud’s research was the new connections she drew between contemporaneous texts.
“People have always said the Book of Margery Kempe [a well-known fifteenth-century autobiography] is without influence, that it stands alone,” she said. “But with my research I said, no, wait a minute! These stories are all related.”
By identifying similarities between the stories, Michaud linked them in a way that had never been done before, creating a compelling argument for the existence of a literary “women’s movement” in fifteenth-century Europe.
“We always talk about how horrible the medieval period was for women,” said Michaud. “But if you look at history and read the extant texts in any given time period, you’ll see there have always been women doing exactly what they wanted to do.”
Michaud is honoured by her nomination for the ProQuest Award and thanks the faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University for their encouragement and assistance.
Congratulations Dr. Michaud!
Read more about GPRC faculty research here.