JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Walker Horsfall

March 2, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Walker Horsfall (Centre for Medieval Studies) is a literary historian whose work focuses on the medieval German poet Frauenlob (late 13th-early 14th c.). Walker is a Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellow.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

WH: My research is on the intersection between medieval German literature and natural philosophy. I focus primarily on Middle High German religious and love lyric from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, but I also look at Arthurian courtly romances and mystical texts. I am especially interested in the use of rhetorical strategies and diagrammatic ekphrasis in these texts as a way of encoding scientific information, particularly astronomical information.

JHI: What research project(s) are you working on now at the JHI and why did you choose it?

WH: I am seeking to understand how pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, acted as an ordering and organizing principle in medieval religious thought. This project very much evolved out of my dissertation, which analyzes the German poet Heinrich von Meissen (d. 1318), better known under the moniker “Frauenlob”.  In Frauenlob’s erudite poetry written in praise of the Virgin Mary, sexual pleasure is a central theme: in one text (the Marienleich), the poet has Mary herself describe how she "slept with [all] three" of the Persons of the Christian Trinity, reminiscing how they "wove and braided [her] pleasure". I believe this blunt sexualization of Mary may in part emanate from contemporary medical and physiological theories connecting female fertility with sexual pleasure and the ability to achieve orgasm—a remarkable incorporation of gynecological awareness into the hermeneutics of salvation history.  Finding and cataloguing analogues to this integration of pleasure into medieval religious worldviews has characterized most of my project work this year.

JHI: What experiences are you hoping for while you’re at the JHI?

WH: The final part of a doctoral degree can quickly become myopic and insular; I have found that a (necessary) hyper-focus on issues directly related to department and dissertation has threatened my appreciation for the sheer scope of the humanities. I believe the JHI has devised a brilliant strategy against this problem by choosing a theme rather than a field as its annual nucleus, this year being “pleasure”. It is an approach which not only encourages, but demands interdisciplinary engagement and discussion, and it has reinvigorated my original love of the academy as a place of learning. I have had moments this year that have sent me sailing back into the awesome stupefaction of a new pupil or a curious child, wide-eyed in wonder as I hear from the other fellows about people, things, and concepts I had never even once entertained to exist, and I am shown goods from ports miles beyond the horizons of my thesis. And those moments have been more significant than I could have ever hoped for.

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by.

WH: My current nightstand companion is the collected short stories of the British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington. After a day of dissertation intellectualization, nothing is more welcome than to dive into some surrealism and surrender to your instinct. I have also been enjoying a new English translation by Michael Sells of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq (Translator of Desires), a collection of spiritual love poetry by the Andalusian philosopher Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. Poem 16, “Star Shepherd”, has been a particularly potent snare for my soul.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

WH: I’ve been experimenting with preparing and jarring my own mustard. A Bavarian-style sweet mustard flavoured with bay leaves and juniper berries has been my most recent success.

This profile is part of the JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight, a series where we highlight each Fellow, their interests, and their research so that you can get to know them a little better.