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The Lady Knight

PhD student wins a fellowship to finish her dissertation on epic romances and the martial body
July 13, 2016

Doctoral candidate Amanda Taylor with lion and shield sculpture

Doctoral candidate Amanda Taylor with lion and shield sculpture
Doctoral candidate Amanda Taylor at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland

How did PhD candidate Amanda Taylor become interested in the nexus of swordfighting, women, and armor? It might've been reading, as a pre-adolescent, a series of quasi-medieval young adult novels by Tamora Pierce in which a girl disguised as a boy trains to be a knight. "When as an undergraduate I encountered Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene," Taylor recalls, "and his character of Britomart, a lady knight, I was hooked on epic romances." Taylor is one of three English students awarded a 2016-17 Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the Graduate School, which will support her as she finishes her dissertation "Fabricating the Martial Body: Anatomy, Affect, and Armor in Early Modern England and Italy." Taylor won an Interdisciplinary Fellowship last year, also from the Graduate School, as well as a 2016 departmental Samuel Holt Monk Prize for Best Article by a Graduate Student for "The Body of Law: Embodied Justice in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D'Arthur," published in Arthuriana 25.3 (2015). Last winter, she provided perspective on the Game of Thrones television series for a CLA article. She also wields a mean medieval long sword (see below!).

More about your dissertation?

Armored figures fill the pages of 15th- and 16th-century English and Italian epic romances. These authors focused on fighting females and combat wounds. My dissertation explores the trajectory of what I call the martial body. How is that body composed anatomically, armored, and wounded? I combine epic romances with the history of armored and wounded bodies to argue that changing conditions in military technology as well as medical developments are implicated in these seemingly disconnected literary texts, suggesting a socio-cultural shift in the politics of gender and the body. The debate over women in combat is nothing new. 

"An injury to my right wrist has been
slowing me down, but the lady knights
I study never give up, so I'm using
them as motivation." - Amanda Taylor

Did certain professors significantly nurture the project?

Both my undergraduate and Master's theses featured Edmund Spenser, and I came here to work primarily on Spenser. That focus evolved when my co-advisor John Watkins told me that one couldn't hope to do justice to Spenser without considering the Italian context. So I started learning Italian and read the Italian epic romances by Matteo Boiardo, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso that Spenser drew upon for his English text. I was happy to discover many more female warriors, and my project evolved its gendered dimensions as I became interested in the ways that masculinity is constructed both by and against these female warriors and the lower-status male characters. Armor is a chief marker of the knight, and I've always been interested in material culture, so my work on armor developed organically from the project. Naturally, knowing what the body is made of is necessary for treating the injuries that follow from a life of combat, so with the guidance of Jole Shackelford in the History of Medicine, I turned my attention to anatomical and surgical texts.

What work do you plan to accomplish on the dissertation during your fellowship year?

I'm working on the fourth chapter (of five) this summer, which I hope to complete before I leave to spend the fall semester in Bologna, Italy. There I'll be doing research on surgical treatment of battle wounds that will contribute to the fifth chapter. I'll also be taking advanced language classes in hopes of finally reaching fluency in Italian. There will definitely be trips to armor museums in London, Vienna, and Madrid, which will factor into my revisions of the third chapter on armor and contribute to future projects. When I get back, my plan for the spring is to write the introduction, complete revisions, and defend May 4!

You were awarded summer Graduate Research Partnership Program support for this project as well. What are your other goals for this summer?

I'm working on an article manuscript that incorporates a significant portion of my first chapter on anatomy and the allegory of the body in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Besides the dissertation chapter, my main goals for the summer are to complete and submit this article and get my job search documents (cover letter, CV, dissertation abstract) in good shape. I'm about done with the article and making progress on the other two.  An injury to my right wrist has been slowing me down, but the lady knights I study never give up, so I'm using them as motivation.

You also won a Union Pacific Research Grant to research arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What did you find of interest?

I spent a week there just after the Fourth of July. I went to see the Greenwich Armor of Sir Scudamore (the inspiration for a character in Spenser's Faerie Queen) and George Clifford as well as embossed armor made by the Negroli family in Milan in the early to mid-16th century. It was an amazing experience to see these pieces, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is stunning. I'd never been there or to New York, so it was a great opportunity for me. When not in the galleries, I spent my time in the Arms and Armor library under the direction of Curator Donald La Rocca, who provided me with many recommendations about texts that contribute to my dissertation and future projects. I'm very grateful for his time and the support of the Union Pacific grant.
The Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship provides a year off from teaching responsibilities, but you've taught multiple classes during your studies here and last year received one of the first annual Department of English Graduate Student Teaching Awards. What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I had the opportunity to design and teach several courses, including Introduction to Literary Theory, The Historical Survey of British Literature I, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Shakespeare. I really enjoyed how different each of the classes was in both content and composition of the class. When a class has a mix of English majors and minors, students from other humanities disciplines, engineers, and pre-med students, like the Science Fiction and Fantasy class did, the discussions that arise, interactions, and areas of interest are quite different from a class made up almost entirely of majors and minors like the British survey. For the more general class, I most enjoy making a case for the value of literature and the humanities to students who might not feel that way. In the courses for majors and minors, I most enjoy seeing how student writing and engagement improves over the semester. I value debate and argument construction, which informs my assignments, class activities, and course design, so when students start to engage in debate and improve the structure of their arguments, I'm always gratified. Teaching is also just a source of inspiration and energy, in my opinion; there are few things that equal the teaching "high" that comes after a great class. It's easy to get excited about my scholarship when my students are energized about similar topics.
You grew up in Great Falls, Montana, and earned your BA at Carroll College in Helena and MA from the University of Chicago. What have you enjoyed most about living in Minnesota?
I've discovered that I love cabins up north, Minnesotan microbeers, the diversity of food and culture that just really isn't present in Montana yet, and, most of all, medieval combat at the Minnesota Sword Club. Who knew that the Twin Cities has a thriving historical European martial arts scene? With experts who teach the use of the two-handed long sword, using methods from medieval fightbooks!