14 May 2018 12:30pm - 2:00pm CRASSH Meeting Room, Alison Richard Building


Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series.  All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings.  A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.

Helena Phillips-Robins

My current project – ‘Medieval Practices of Weeping: Investigating the Penitential Function of Late Medieval Italian Poetry’ – examines the mimetic, penitential and transformative functions of weeping in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italian poetry. In the late Middle Ages weeping was understood, in a whole host of ways, as a means of encountering the divine. Tears were held not merely to express, but to be a constitutive part of different stages of such states and activities as penance, self-sacrifice, compassion, desire for, and union with the divine. I am investigating 1.) the theological and social values attributed to tears in medieval poetry, and 2.) the ways poets call readers to realize those values in their own lives. In particular, I propose that poets – through explicit and implicit invitations to readers to weep – sought to cultivate readers’ capacities to enact ethical and spiritual change in their own lives. I bring together high and low poetic traditions, focusing on Dante’s Comedy, the experimental poetry of the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi, and the large and diverse corpus of popular poems (laude) sung in lay religious observances. In phase one of the project I am using thirteenth and fourteenth-century primary sources – sermon collections and Passion meditations – to research medieval concepts and practices of weeping. In phase two, I will use these new findings to undertake historically inflected analysis of the literary works.


I work on medieval Italian literature and culture, with a particular interest in Dante. My research sits at the intersection of Literary Studies, History and Theology. My PhD thesis, which I am now preparing as a book manuscript, examines Dante’s use of liturgy in the Comedy. Using medieval liturgical sources previously unknown in Dante Studies, I show that Dante adapts and reimagines specific medieval devotional practices, and that by doing so he invites the reader to engage in devotional activity while she is reading the Comedy. I demonstrate that Dante calls not only, as scholars normally assume, for the reader’s interpretative response, but also for her spiritual activity.

I completed my BA in Modern and Medieval Languages (2012), my MPhil in European Literature and Culture (2013) and my PhD in Dante Studies (2017) at the University of Cambridge. I have been a Visiting Graduate Scholar at the University of Notre Dame (2014) and an Erasmus Scholar at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (2010-11). My work has appeared in Italian Studies and I am also a contributor to the Tesoro della Lingua Italiana delle Origini project (a historical dictionary of the Italian language before 1375, edited by the Istituto Opera del Vocabolario Italiano).

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