Jane Zatta: Medievalist

Article excerpt

Jane Zatta is probably best known for her Chaucer web site, a superb pedagogical resource widely praised by scholars and students alike. But it may not be clear to those outside her field of research that she was an accomplished and innovative pioneer in other ways. In the perspective of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, Chaucer and the Chaucerian tradition we take as foundational in modern accounts of English literary tradition are in many ways a momentary neo-classical deviation (and were sometimes cast as that by Chaucer's successors even as they defer to him: some fifteenth-century over-writings of Chaucer nudge him away as a labourer on 'olde poesyes derke' and assert their own renewed purchase on a tradition of writing 'for Cristes feythe'). Before and after Chaucer's late fourteenth century, the literary culture of medieval England is most strongly represented in genres such as chronicles, saints' lives and devotional and doctrinal treatises now often seen as barely literary. Moreover it is often represented in French (nearly a thousand literary texts over four centuries), or in Latin, rather than in English. Jane Zatta fully recognized the complexities of medieval Britain's polyglot culture and wrote not only on the Middle English works of her home discipline but across the linguistic and generic ranges of medieval insular literary culture, in a way full of new implications for how we conceive the Middle Ages and literary history in England.

Nothing could better have prepared her for this work than her study Gli Zingari, I Roma: una cultura ai confini (Padova, 1988). In the multilingual field of post-Conquest medieval literature, she re-thought nationalizing models of literary history and crossed disciplinary boundaries with unpretentious authority and a keenly informed sense of textual, social, and political context, in which lesser and better known texts were related to each other and made mutually illuminating. As she worked her way across genres in a series of enterprising articles, the presence of a new mind in post-Conquest literary studies was increasingly evident: a mind steeped in the period and abounding with ideas and insights. Zatta took the apparently unpromising material of the earliest post-Conquest vernacular chronicle, Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis, as the vehicle for working out a newly politicised conception of courtly love as well as for fresh approaches to the reading of chronicles: and she re-thought generic models and boundaries in contextualizing romance, hagiography and chronicle against each other while offering new readings of texts in each genre. …