The Medieval Academy of America recently chose Russell Peck, John Hall Deane Professor of English, as the recipient of the 2015 Robert L. Kindrick-CARA Award for Outstanding Service to Medieval Studies. Peck will be sending Susanna Fein, who is the head of The Chaucer Review, to receive the award in his place at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana on March 13, as he will be in London teaching a theater course and unable to come himself.
Upon learning that he had received the award, Peck said that he “was very surprised” and that “it came out of the blue,” especially as he is “on the verge of retirement” after 54 years of teaching at UR.
Of his passion for the medieval, Peck explained, “It is a subject which interests me in terms of the literature itself,” which has “a lot of romance and adventure.”
“Studying medieval literature has enabled me to branch out and do about anything that I would want to do in literary studies or historical studies,” he said. “And as a medievalist, it seems to me very important that you continue to be a modernist as well. It’s an area that the 20th and 21st century writers are perpetually going back to for allusions and entertainment.”
Peck has been instrumental in expanding the accessibility of medieval texts at UR and beyond.
In the 1980s, he met a book collector named Rossell Hope Robbins who was looking to give the collection to a university which would keep it all together and name it after him. Peck convinced him to bring it to UR, and Robbins’ donation in 1986 then became the Robbins Library of Medieval Studies in 1987.
Around 1988, the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages (TEAMS) was just getting organized. TEAMS’ founders knew of the Robbins library and asked Peck if he would be the chairman of an editorial board.
“We needed a project to start with, so I wrote to 250 medieval literary scholars around the world, asking if they thought the creation of a series would be of interest to them,” he recalled.
Peck said he remembers that at the time, the selection of texts with which one could teach medieval literature was severely limited. The idea for the Middle English Text Series (METS), a non-profit organization, was to make individual and inexpensive texts with the original Middle English text, glosses, detailed notes and more so that it would be possible for a person – an undergraduate, for example – to study and read a text with considerable ease.
After the first five years, METS published six volumes. Then, after getting support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, METS began publishing five volumes each year.
“They have been very generous,” Peck said. “It’s been sustained by the U.S. government, the National Endowment, for over 20 years now. We have our proposal out for one further extension that would run until 2018.”
At present, METS has published 78 volumes in print and electronically and currently has four more at the printers.
“It’s completely revolutionized the teaching of medieval literature,” Peck said. “You may have a particular slant, you may be in women’s studies or feminist literature or in the sciences in some form of critical theory, and you could put together a syllabus with texts for all of those things which you never would have been able to do otherwise,” Peck said.
Peck’s office personally oversees the editing process for each text. In receiving the award, therefore, he said he feels happy not just for himself but for the “dozens and dozens of people” involved in making METS possible, including “very involved graduate students.”
Additionally, if there were a single book in the METS that he would recommend to everyone, he suggests “Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales,” ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren.
Lai is a member of
the class of 2018.