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A stint as a “trainee mortician” set Penn English Professor Peter Stallybrass on the path to scholarship. These days, he prowls old bookstores and library stacks in search of the objects that make the past come to life. BY BETH KEPHART
onday, five o’clock p.m., mid-December. Outside, the weather is crisp and the sun has faded from the sky and the lamps have started to flicker on above the walkways of the Penn campus. There is the electric buzz of early darkness, the potent ambiance of dusk. There is something akin to anticipation.

Inside, on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library, among antique books and oil paintings, Zola memorabilia and a well-worn Oriental carpet that decorate the Charles Lea seminar room, that expectant mood is magnified as musicologists, classicists, book binders, art historians, political scientists, language scholars, professors of religion, and an assortment of others gather for the semester’s final History of Material Texts seminar. At a narrow table before the swollen horseshoe of chairs, Assistant Professor of Music Emma Dillon, the evening’s featured lecturer, readies a talk that is titled, “The Sound of Sense: Devotional Designs in the Montpellier Complex.” About her, the din grows louder as graduate students catch up, and professors exchange notes, and more chairs are pulled out onto the floor.

By the time it is all over, some two hours hence, there will have been live musical demonstrations, courtesy of three talented undergraduates; collegial debates over Dante, Petrach, and Augustine; myriad reflections on the role of polyphonic music in medieval society; and an invitation to a post-seminar reception and party. “This is just one wonderful creative stew,” enthuses a graduate student whose own work centers on the performance implications of a particular Spanish music manuscript. “No matter what the topic of conversation happens to be,” agrees a professor of Romance languages, “it has implications for the work the rest of us are doing.”

Extraordinarily wide-ranging, often surprising, the History of Material Texts seminar has long been known for sparking the sorts of conversations one isn’t likely to encounter elsewhere. During the fall semester, Nigel Smith, professor of English at Princeton, came to speak on the way early modern religious nonconformists and political radicals used the printed book. Jennifer Thompson, a curatorial fellow in the European Painting Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, led a conversation about Peter of Poitiers’ Genealogy of Christ and its use in classrooms in the 13th through 15th centuries. The University of Cambridge’s Stefan Reif spoke on the Cairo Genizah and the two Victorian women who helped “discover” it. Penn Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Maurice Samuels reflected on illustrated historiography in 19th-century France, and Katherine Rowe, associate professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, spoke on the manual aspects of text production. The list goes on.

Now in its seventh year, the History of Material Texts seminar is the brainchild of Professor Peter Stallybrass, a Renaissance man (not to mention Renaissance scholar) whose passion for cross-disciplinary talk and collegial conversation is acutely transparent, persuasive. He is the perfect host—warm and inclusive, impeccably gracious, enormously interested in what others have to say. Blessed with the capacity to make the seemingly arcane not just accessible but fascinating, he is also blessed with the sort of rare sincerity and decent-mindedness that breeds affection and sympathy among those with opposing points of view. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you know, it seems. Stallybrass will find a way to make you feel at home, at ease in his Monday seminars.

 

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