D. W. Robertson, Jr.
Durant Waite Robertson, Jr. (Washington, D.C. October 11, 1914 – Chapel Hill, North Carolina, July 26, 1992) was a scholar of medieval English literature and especially Geoffrey Chaucer. He taught at Princeton University from 1946 until his retirement in 1980 as the Murray Professor of English, and was "widely regarded as this [the twentieth] century's most influential Chaucer scholar".
|Photo of D.W. Robertson, Jr. from Princeton Alumni Weekly October 21 1998|
Robertson studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1944. His dissertation on the work of Robert Mannyng, A Study of Certain Aspects of the Cultural Tradition of Handlyng Synne, was written under the direction of G. R. Coffman and Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr. Subsequently he revised and published three important articles from it.
Robertson’s deeply historical approach to medieval English literature challenged and even angered many of the leading medievalists of the mid-20th century. Opposition to Robertson’s critical approach at length took the form of a scholarly debate at the meeting of the English Institute of 1958–59. The book of papers published from that event proved that Robertson's "exegetical criticism", sometimes simply called "Robertsonianism", had many learned supporters as well as opponents.
Robertson’s magnum opus was published in 1962 by Princeton University Press: A Preface to Chaucer. Studies in Medieval Perspectives, a massive work of 500 pages of text and 118 illustrations from medieval monastic manuscripts and religious sculpture and art. Critics were impressed by the extent of Robertson’s reading in and grasp of primary sources, mainly in Latin and French, and secondary literature in every major European language as far back as the 19th century. Lynn Staley, Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities and Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Colgate University and one of Robertson’s students, described it thus:
- "His major study, A Preface to Chaucer (1962), challenged medieval studies when its tenets were increasingly influenced by the New Criticism; he insisted on the priority of primary texts in interpreting the hierarchical, Augustinian culture of the Middle Ages."
It was also intimidating to medievalists of his generation, most of whom had never seen any need to study the range of primary sources, particularly religious writings in Latin, which Robertson had mastered. As late as 1965, medievalist and folklore scholar Francis Lee Utley called it "a strange hodgepodge...insulting to the community of scholars and, indeed, to the Twentieth Century itself".
Scholarly supporters of Robertson’s critical school gathered in March 1967 at the first annual conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies at State University of New York at Binghamton, an event often referred to among medievalists as "the Courtly Love conference". The volume of papers from this conference, published the following year, has retained its importance as a watershed in the spread of a new paradigm of the concept of medieval courtly love.
Teaching at Princeton
Robertson was a popular and engaging lecturer, and his seminars were usually full. Professor Staley has summarized his approach as follows:
- "His gift for impersonation gave life to the dead: he could stage a conversation between John of Gaunt and John Wyclif as though he had been a fly on the wall, or recount Ovid's tales in a Carolina accent and with down-home details that made them as meaningful as they are slyly ironic. He insisted on the ways in which humor was fundamental to meaning. He shared his ongoing work with us, his moments of revelation, his tremendous interest in literature and cultural history. He insisted that we find proof for what we said in class or wrote in papers. He made it possible for me to learn in ways many professors might not have by giving me the freedom to chase my ideas through Firestone Library...He read the work we turned in quickly and willingly; he praised and criticized. The key to his approach was patience: he would not hound a student to finish chapters or to meet deadlines; you had to be self-directed, but Robbie met you more than halfway, and was quick to promote work he saw as significant."
Among Robertson’s most important scholarly legacies is the number of his students among the prominent medievalists of succeeding generations. These include Robert P. Miller, Paul Olson, Chauncey Wood, John V. Fleming, Alan T. Gaylord, David Lyle Jeffrey, Marc Pelen, and Lynn Staley.
Robertson retired from Princeton at the age of 65 in 1980. In his honor, Princeton University Press published Essays in Medieval Culture (1980), a collection of 24 of his essays. Among them are some of Robertson’s bold attempts to extend the application of "Robertsonianism" beyond the confines of the Middle Ages: to Renaissance art (Leonardo), sixteenth-century literature (Sidney, Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and beyond (Alexander Pope).
Robertson married Betty McLean Hansen in 1937. They had one daughter, Susanna Howley, and two sons, Durant Waite Robertson III and Douglas Robertson.
Robertson’s research in retirement took him in the direction of the social historical context of literature, an interest he had occasionally expressed earlier. He did it so well that scholar Peter G. Beidler included one of Robertson’s later essays, "Simple Signs from Everyday Life in Chaucer" (1981) in a bibliography of Marxist approaches to Chaucer. Robertson would be shocked, but also no doubt amused, at this gesture.
Suffering from declining health, Robertson entered a retirement home near his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he died in 1992.
Alan T. Gaylord, Dartmouth College:
- "Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives ... was and is, quite simply, the most important book on Chaucer in the twentieth century."
Lee Patterson, Yale University:
- "...Exegetics remains, apparently against all odds, the great unfinished business of Medieval Studies."
Steven Justice, University of California, Berkeley:
- "Robertson shows something important. I have been suggesting that the last generation of medieval literary study could not trenchantly criticize Robertson’s intellectual vices—and the habit of creating a kind of period subjectivity for the Middle Ages was the direst of these—because it practiced similar vices in different tones of voice. Of course, no one “stole” Robertson; it is just that anyone was apt to be embarrassed by thinking closely about him. But in this last inconsistency of his we can see one of his virtues and one of the reasons younger scholars, rediscovering him, have found a wealth of suggestiveness in his work (at least this is my impression) that their elders did not. His reading of Augustine here displays a counterenergy, a willingness to be surprised by the past."
- 1961. Ronald Salmon Crane. "On Hypotheses in 'Historical Criticism": Apropos of Certain Contemporary Medievalists." The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968: v.2, 236-260.
- 1965. Francis Lee Utley. Robertsonianism Redivivus. Romance Philology 19. 250-260.
- 1967–68. A. Leigh DeNeef. Robertson and the Critics. Chaucer Review 2. 205-234.
- 1967. Paul Theiner. Robertsonianism and the Idea of Literary History. Studies in Medieval Culture 6-7. 195-204.
- 1982. M. A. Manzalaoui. Robertson and Eloise. Downside Review 100. 280-289.
- 1987. Lee Patterson. Historical Criticism and the Development of Chaucer Studies. Negotiating the Past. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press: 1-40, esp. 26-36.
- 1996. Lynn Staley. Durant Waite Robertson, Jr. Department of English. Luminaries. Princeton Faculty Remembered. Edited Patricia H. Marks. Princeton NJ: Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni: 229-234.
- Gaylord, Alan T. (2006). "Reflections on D.W. Robertson, Jr., and 'Exegetical Criticism.'". Chaucer Review 40 (3): 311–33. doi:10.1353/cr.2006.0003. ISSN 0009-2002.
- Justice Steven, Steven (2009). "Who Stole Robertson?". PMLA (Modern Language Association) 124 (2): 609–15. doi:10.1632/pmla.2009.124.2.609. ISSN 0030-8129. Essay has bibliography of other works discussing Robertson’s legacy and influence.
- 1951. Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (with Bernard F. Huppé). Princeton University Press.
- 1962. A Preface to Chaucer. Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton University Press.
- 1963. Fruyt and Chaff: Studies in Chaucer’s Allegories (with Bernard F. Huppé). Princeton University Press.
- 1968. Chaucer’s London. John Wiley & Sons.
- 1970. The Literature of Medieval England. McGraw-Hill.
- 1972. Abelard and Heloise. Dial Press.
- 1980. Essays in Medieval Culture. Princeton University Press.
- 1991. Lismahago's Meditations. As Recorded by Abel Goast. écrazez l'enfâme. Cleveland OH: The Cobham and Hatherton Press.
- 1941. Sidney's Metaphor of the Ulcer. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 56 (1): 56-61.
- 1945. Buzones, An Alternative Etymology. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 42: 741-44.
- 1945. The Manuel des Péchés and an English Episcopal Decree. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 60 (7): 439-477.
- 1946. A Note on the Classical Origin of 'Circumstances’ in the Medieval Confessional. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 43: 6-14.
- 1946. Certain Theological Conventions in Mannyng's Treatment of the Commandments. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 61 (8): 505-514.
- 1946. Correspondence - The Manuel des Péchés. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 61 (2) (1946): 144.
- 1946. A Study of Certain Aspects of the Cultural Tradition of 'Handlyng Synne'. University of North Carolina Record: 146-147.
- 1947. The Cultural Tradition of Handlyng Synne. (JSTOR) Speculum 22 (2): 162-185.
- 1949. Frequency of Preaching in Thirteenth-Century England. (JSTOR) Speculum 24 (3): 376-388.
- 1949. Marie de France, Lais, Prologue, 13-16. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 64 (5): 336-338.
- 1950. The "Heresy" of the Pearl. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 65 (3): 152-155.
- 1950. The Pearl as a Symbol. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 65 (3): 155-161.
- 1951. The Doctrine of Charity in Mediaeval Literary Gardens: A Topical Approach through Symbolism and Allegory. (JSTOR) Speculum 26 (1): 24-49.
- 1951. Historical Criticism. English Institute Essays - 1950. Ed. Alan S. Downer. Columbia University Press: 3-31.
- 1952. Amors de terra lonhdana. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 49 (3): 566-582.
- 1952. Chaucerian Tragedy. (JSTOR) English Literary History 19 (1): 1-37.
- 1952. Cumhthach Labhras an Lonsa. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 67 (2): 123-125.
- 1952. St. Foy among the Thorns. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 67 (5): 295-299.
- 1953. Love conventions in Marie's Equitan. Romanic Review 44: 241-245.
- 1953. The Subject of the "De Amore" of Andreas Capellanus. (JSTOR) Modern Philology 50 (3): 145-161.
- 1954. Five Poems by Marcabru. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 51 (4): 539-560.
- 1954. In Foraminibus Petrae: A Note on Leonardo's `Virgin of the Rocks'. (JSTOR) Renaissance News 7 (3): 92-95.
- 1954. The 'Partitura Amorosa' of Jean de Savoie. Philological Quarterly 33 (1): 1-9.
- 1954. Why the Devil Wears Green. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 69 (7): 470-472.
- 1955. A Further Note on Conjointure. (JSTOR) Modern Language Notes 70 (6): 415-416.
- 1955. Chrétien's Cligés and the Ovidian Spirit. (JSTOR) Comparative Literature 7 (1): 32-42.
- 1963. The Book of the Duchess. In Fruyt and Chaff (1963):32-100.
- 1964. Pope and Boethius. Classical Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies in honor of Berthold Louis Ullman. Ed. Charles Henderson Jr. Vol 2. Rome: Edizione di Storia e Letteratura: 505-513. Reprinted in 1980. Essays in Medieval Culture: 332-340.
- 1965. The Historical Setting of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. Medieval Studies in Honor of Urban Tigner Holmes Jr. Edited John Mahoney and John Esten Keller. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 169-195.
- 1968. The Book of the Duchess. Companion to Chaucer Studies. Ed. Beryl Rowland. Oxford University Press: 332-340.
- 1968. The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts. In Francis X. Newman ed. The Meaning of Courtly Love (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press): 1-18.
- 1969. Some Observations on Method in Literary Studies. (JSTOR) New Literary History 1 (1): 21-33.
- 1970. General Introduction. Medieval Life and Ideals. The Literature of Medieval England: 1-9.
- 1972. The Idea of Fame in Chrétien’s Cligés. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 69 (4): 414-433.
- 1974. Chaucer's Franklin and his Tale. Costerus 1: 1-26.
- 1974. Question of 'Typology' and the Wakefield ‘Mactatio Abel'. American Benedictine Review 25 (2): 157-173.
- 1976. Two Poems from the Carmina Burana. American Benedictine Review 27 (1): 36-59.
- 1977. Chaucer Criticism. Medievalia et Humanistica 8: 252-255.
- 1977. Some Disputed Chaucerian Terminology. (JSTOR) Speculum 52 (3): 571-581.
- 1979. 'The Book of the Duchess'. Ed. Beryl Rowland, Companion to Chaucer Studies (Revised edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press: 332-340. (Updated bibliography).
- 1980. A Medievalist Looks at 'Hamlet'. Essays in Medieval Culture: 312-331. Reprinted in Shakespeare's Christian dimension : an anthology of commentary. Ed. Roy Battenhouse. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, c1994: 410-417.
- 1980. "And For My Land Thus Hastow Mordred Me?" Land Tenure, The Cloth Industry, and the Wife of Bath. (JSTOR) Chaucer Review 14 (4): 403-20.
- 1980. Chaucer and the 'Commune Profit' - the Manor. Mediaevalia 6: 239-259.
- 1980. The Allegorist and the Aesthetician. Essays in Medieval Culture: 85-101.
- 1980. The Intellectual, Artistic and Historical Context. Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America: 129-135.
- 1981. Simple Signs from Everyday Life in Chaucer. In John P. Hermann and John J. Burke Jr., Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry. University of Alabama Press: 12-26.
- 1984. Chaucer and Christian Tradition. Ed. David Lyle Jeffrey. Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition. Ottawa: U. Ottawa Press: 3-32.
- 1984. The Wife of Bath and Midas. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 6: 1-20.
- 1985. The Probable Date and Purpose of Chaucer's Troilus. Medievalia et Humanistica. 13: 143-171.
- 1985. Who Were 'The People'? Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan, The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press: 3-29.
- 1986. Chaucer and the Economic and Social Consequences of the Plague. Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages. Papers of Fifteenth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies. ed. Francis X. Newman. Binghamton: SUNY Binghamton Press: 49-74.
- 1987. The Probable Date and Purpose of Chaucer's Knight's Tale. (JSTOR) Studies in Philology 84 (4): 418-439.
- 1988 The Physician's Comic Tale. (JSTOR) Chaucer Review 23 (2): 129-139.
- 1991. Wisdom and 'The Manciple's Tale'. Essays in Honor of Edward B. King. Ed. Robert G. Benson & Eric W. Naylor. Sewanee TN: The University of the South: 223-237.
- 1999. The Book of the Duchess. (With Bernard F. Huppé). Chaucer's Dream Visions and Shorter Poems. Quinn, William A. (ed. and introd.) New York, NY: Garland: 131-82. Reprinted from Fruyt and Chaff (1963).
- 1952. Alain de Lille, poète du XIIe siècle. By G. Raynaud de Lage. Speculum. 27 (4): 580-583.
- 1955. Pearl. by E. V. Gordon. Speculum, Vol. 30, No. 1: 107-108.
- 1957. Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature. By John Peter. Speculum. 32 (3): 600-602.
- 1958. "Piers Plowman" and the Scheme of Salvation. By R. W. Frank, Jr. Speculum. 33 (3): 395-397.
- 1959. Virtue According to Love-in Chaucer. By Eugene Edward Slaughter. Modern Language. Notes. 74 (1): 60-61.
- 1974. Chaucer the Love Poet. By Jerome Mitchell and William Provost. South Atlantic Bulletin. 39 (4): 136-143.
- 1974. Il Venerabile Beda, storico dell'Alto Medioevo. By Giosue Musca. The American Historical Review. 79 (2): 493-494.
- 1974. The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature. By George D. Economou. Comparative Literature. 26 (3): 263-265.
- 1975. The Medieval English Stage: Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays. by Alan H. Nelson. The American Historical Review. 80 (5): 1308-1309.
- 1976. The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. By Jane Chance Nitzsche. Comparative Literature. 28 (3): 288.
- 1976. Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World. By Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter. Comparative Literature. 28 (2): 187-188.
- 1977. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. By Dorothee Metlitzki. The American Historical Review. 82 (5): 1227-1228.
- 1980. From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307 By M. T. Clanchy; Sprache und Gesellschaft im Mittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Mündlichen Kommunikation in England von der Mitte des elften bis zum Beginn des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts. By Michael Richter. The American Historical Review. 85 (3): 612-613.
- 1980. Shakespeare's Chaucer: A Study of Literary Origins. By Ann Thompson. Shakespeare Quarterly. 31 (3): 441.
- 1986. Strangers and Pilgrims: From "The Castle of Perseverance" to "King Lear". By Edgar Schell. Shakespeare Quarterly. 37 (1): 139-141.
- Saxon, Wolfgang (1992-06-30). "Dr. Durant Waite Robertson Jr., Influential Chaucer Scholar, 77". The New York Times. pp. D.25. Retrieved 2009-11-22.
- Robertson, Jr., D. W. (December 1946). "Certain Theological Conventions in Mannyng's Treatment of the Commandments". Modern Language Notes 61 (8): 505–14. doi:10.2307/2909108.
- Robertson, Jr., D. W. (April 1947). "The Cultural Tradition of Handlyng Synne". Speculum 22 (2): 162–85. doi:10.2307/2854724.
- Robertson, Jr., D. W. (1946). "The Manuel des Péchés and an English Episcopal Decree". Modern Language Notes 60 (7): 439–47. doi:10.2307/2910194.
- Critical approaches to medieval literature; selected papers from the English Institute, 1958-1959 (Columbia UP, 1960)
- Staley, Lynn (1998-10-21). "Remembering Robbie: No one who heard D.W. Robertson read Chaucer can ever forget it". Princeton Alumni Weekly.
- Utley, Francis Lee (1965–66). "Robertsonianism Redivivus". Romance Philology 19: 250–60. p. 250
- Newman, Francis X. (1968). The Meaning of Courtly Love. Albany: SUNY Press.
- Jeffrey, David Lyle (November 6–8, 2008). "Lessons from the Locker-Room on Courtly Love". The Family: Searching for Fairest Love (Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture): 10. Retrieved 2011-03-21.
- Beidler, Peter G. (1996). The Wife of Bath. Boston: Bedford. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-312-11128-1.
- Gaylord, Alan T. (2006). "Reflections on D.W. Robertson, Jr., and 'Exegetical Criticism.'". Chaucer Review 40 (3): 311–33. doi:10.1353/cr.2006.0003. ISSN 0009-2002. p. 320.
- Patterson, Lee (1987). Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P. pp. 26–36.
- Justice Steven, Steven (2009). "Who Stole Robertson?". PMLA (Modern Language Association) 124 (2): 609–15. doi:10.1632/pmla.2009.124.2.609. ISSN 0030-8129. p. 614.
- Modern Language Association of America. Annual bibliography 1941-1992.
Gerald Eades Bentley
|Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University