CSU professor delves into ‘love language’ of the Middle Ages

By Gabe Saldana

Lynn Shutters, assistant professor in the Department of English at Colorado State University, closes 2019 on the heels of two important accolades.

Formerly a non-tenure-track special assistant professor, Shutters accepted a tenure-track position in fall. She also has received the Thomas Mark Scholar Award for her research and influence on students.

Shutters is a specialist in gender, sexuality and changing cultural norms related to issues like marriage, love, domesticity and divisions of labor. She explores how the literary narratives of specific historical periods represent and shape these themes, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Fifty Shades of Grey and ABC’s The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise.

Lynn Shutters

Assistant Professor; Thomas Mark Scholar

In her research, Shutters unravels medieval representations of love and sex in marriage as well as gender and human interpretation of emerging cultural themes.

“There’s this idea that gender and sexuality are foreign to the Middle Ages, but this has been a driving force in the study of Middle Ages for quite some time,” Shutters said.

She focuses on how literature dealt with marital affection as it became an increasingly visible theme in throughout the 14th and 15th centuries across Europe.

“I work with stories about marriage in a time when it was a pretty unsettled institution,” she said. “Early 15th century marital affection was an emotion in need of a narrative. It was a relatively new cultural concept in terms of how prominent it was.”

She compares these motifs in medieval writing against those of modern literature, observing how ideas about cultural phenomena manifest comparatively. This year, Shutters continues her research as the Department of English’s Thomas Mark Scholar — her second acceptance of the fellowship, which she also won in 2018.

Cross-cultural experience

“Medieval literature and culture on the one hand is far enough away from us historically that it looks really different from what we might see in a novel today,” she said. “There’s a real pleasure for me in dipping into this. In some ways it’s like a cross-cultural experience.”

At the same time, Shutters said, she finds excitement in discovering origins of modern western society in the traditions of the Middle Ages.

“I love that tension where on the one hand you’re looking at something far enough away that seems very different, then on the other hand you’re looking at something very familiar,” she said. “As someone from western culture today, a lot of the western culture that we have, in some way, originated in the Middle Ages.”

She cited Christianity as an example of a cultural development often associated with a medieval past.

“Even though there are lots of Christians today, Westerners often imagine themselves living in a modern, ‘secular’ culture, as opposed to a medieval, Christian one,” Shutters said. “And yet, whether you’re religious or not, Christianity still shapes Western cultures’ perspectives and beliefs, including our ideas about gender and sexuality.”

Scholarly endeavors

As the Thomas Mark Scholar over the next year at CSU, she will continue co-editing the forthcoming book New Companion to Critical Thinking on Chaucer for Arc Humanities Press. She will also share research from her own book project Chaucer’s Pagan Women, as well as an ancillary project on the medieval poets John Gower and John Lydgate, in conferences at University of California-Berkeley, Notre Dame University and Durham University, UK in 2020.

In addition to her own research, Shutters maintains a teaching schedule that includes courses on Shakespeare as well as a literary research course, E310, for undergraduate students. In formulating the E310 course, Shutters draws from her interests in feminist theory and cross-cultural encounters, but teaches texts far outside her medieval wheelhouse—novels like Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

“The aim is to help undergrads draw on secondary sources like peer reviewed articles,” she said. “E310 helps students transition from analyzing the work in a silo. It’s figuring out how you can use someone else’s ideas to help you develop your own thinking about a literary work.”

Shutters holds a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and both an M.A and Ph.D. in English from New York University. The Thomas Mark Scholar Award supports scholarship on the life and works of major literary figures, particularly those of the early modern period. Professor Mark taught in the English department at CSU from 1957 to 1995. The award was established in 2018 by Greg Mark to honor his father.