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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Mary Carruthers

IAS Fellow at Hatfield College, Durham University (October - December 2010)

Mary Carruthers studies memory training and rhetorical practices of the Middle Ages, in universities and monasteries, in clerical and court cultures, focussing in particular on compositional and performative practice in the arts of the twelfth through the mid-fifteenth centuries in Europe. Her work has been fruitful to scholars in a number of other disciplines besides literature, including cultural history, comparative religion, the history of psychology and education, art and architecture history, and musicology. She has worked as well with professional 'memory artists,' film critics, and experimental psychologists. In 2005 she co-authored with a neuropsychologist a 'Comment' for the scientific journal Nature. Its subject was how human memory should be understood biologically to 'look two ways', to the past and to the future, an idea most appropriate to the theme chosen by the IAS for 2010-11.

Born in southern India of medical missionary parents and educated there as a child, she came to the United States as a teenager, settling with her family in Manhattan. She received her BA from Wellesley College (1961) and her PhD from Yale (1965), in English language and literature, though her work now is mainly with Latin materials. She is Remarque Professor of Literature at New York University, where she has taught since 1991. She served as Chair of her department (1998-2000) and as Dean for Humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Science from 2000-2004. In 2005-2006, she was George Eastman Visiting Professor and a Fellow of Balliol College at Oxford. From 2007-2009 she was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She retains her affiliations with both colleges, and now divides her time between Oxford and Manhattan.

Her early publications were on Middle English literature, centered mostly on Chaucer and Langland. Since the mid-1980's she has increasingly turned her attention to medieval rhetoric and the arts of memory, beginning with The Book of Memory (Cambridge, 1990). This was followed by two related studies, The Craft of Thought (Cambridge 1998) and an anthology of translated materials, The Medieval Craft of Memory, co-edited with Jan Ziolkowski (Pennsylvania 2002). The Craft of Thought dealt with memory training and meditation in monastic culture, and its influence on manuscript books and architecture; The Book of Memory dealt with memory training and composition technique in university and scholastic culture, especially influenced by Aristotelian concepts. A fully reconsidered Second Edition of The Book of Memory was published by Cambridge in 2008. Carruthers has published many additional essays on medieval memory practices, and has lectured on aspects of this subject throughout the world. Her work has been translated into Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese. Recently, her interest has turned to medieval aesthetics more generally. She has just published a multidisciplinary collection of essays called Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages (Cambridge 2010), and at present is preparing a study of several key concepts in medieval aesthetics.

Fellow's Home Page

Professor Mary Carruthers' Publications

Carruthers, M. (2013) The Experience of Beauty in theMiddle Ages. Oxford: Warburg Studies 

Professor Mary Carruthers Publications

Carruthers, M. (2013) The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Warburg Studies 

IAS Insights Paper


The ninth anniversary remembrance of the ‘9/11' destruction of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan was sharply different from the preceding eight. Whereas earlier years had been marked by a solemn procession and service of remembrance within the site, the 2010 anniversary occasioned bitter conflict and political division that carried over into the ceremony itself.  Why had it so changed? National media attention focused on the political opportunities generated by the midterm national elections, and on religious tolerance (or lack thereof) in American society. While acknowledging the importance of such factors, this essay seeks to cut a layer below the political tensions to examine the nature of the site as a place of social memory. Between 2009 and 2010, the original site had been greatly disturbed and changed by new construction. The anxieties this was producing, it seemed to me, were displaced, quite literally, onto the plans to build a new Islamic Community Center in a building a few blocks away from ‘Ground Zero.' Though many people, from the mayor to the center's planners, denied there were ever any plans to build a ‘mosque at Ground Zero,' their plain statements were ignored.  I argue that complex anxieties over remembering and forgetting gave rise to the often venomous protests surrounding the ninth anniversary, and that these stemmed from the new construction itself. ‘Ground Zero' no longer has a recognisable shape. The fact that the new memorial being built was not yet discernible within the site added to these anxieties. Using a strikingly parallel incident from fourth century CE Antioch, I analyse the controversy at the local and regional level in particular, in terms of displacement and replacement, destruction and (re)construction of an important social and cultural memory.

Insights Paper