Arthur Bahr

Associate Professor

Arthur Bahr is a medievalist who likes to read old books as if they were poems: that is, for how their constituent pieces (texts and pages of a manuscript, like lines and stanzas of a poem) work together to create a whole that is larger and more interesting than any of those pieces would be if read in isolation. More fancily put, he blends formalist and materialist approaches in order to find literary resonance in the physical particularities of medieval manuscripts.

He is the author of Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London (University of Chicago Press, 2013) and co-editor of Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text, a special volume of The Chaucer Review (47.4, April 2013). His essays have appeared in ELHStudies in the Age of ChaucerStudies in Philology, and The Chaucer Review, as well as a range of edited volumes. He is currently writing a book about the so-called Pearl or Gawain manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. He is also working on a kooky project about figure skating (carving patterns into the ice) and scribal labor (drawing letter-forms on the page).

Bahr has held the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Chair at MIT (2012-2015) and in 2014-15 was an External Faculty Fellow at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities. Winner of the James A. and Ruth Levitan Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2012, in 2015 he received the Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, MIT’s highest recognition for service to undergraduate education. He recently served as Chair of the Committee 2021 for the Undergraduate Program.


Subjects taught the current academic year:

Subjects taught in recent years:

21L.014 Introduction to Ancient and Medieval Studies: The Trojan War (Spring 2023)

21L.460 Arthurian Literature (Fall 2021)

21L.601[J] Old English and Beowulf (Spring 2023)

21L.705 Major Authors: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Fall 2020)

21L.720 Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Fall 2022)

Research Interests

I’m interested in what the structure of medieval manuscripts can tell us about the texts that they contain: what interpretive strategies they suggest or enable, especially as contrasted with those normalized by the printing press and consequent mass production of literary texts. As hand-crafted objects that are nearly always the collaborative result of multiple agents (patron, author, scribe, decorator, etc.), each manuscript offers a unique constellation of literary and historical forces. Learning from, and finding beauty in, the material traces of those forces has animated much of my scholarly work thus far.

Only very rarely, however, can we securely recover the precise intentions that led to a given manuscript’s current shape. The temporal and cultural distance from which we must contemplate our objects of study thus frequently demands some degree, or form, of speculation. Medieval and modern theories of speculation therefore inform my current study of the so-called Pearl-Manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x/2, to be precise), the only surviving copy of four beautiful Middle English poems, including Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Analogies between the book itself and the poems it contains are too numerous and too resonant to be dismissed; yet they cannot be attributed to a single author-figure, and many of them were created by chance (or Providence). My second book explores these paradoxes, using the Pearl-Manuscript as a lens for better understanding and appreciating the artistry of the poems it contains.



Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 285 pages. Paperback edition published 2015.

Co-editor, with Alexandra Gillespie, Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text. Special issue of The Chaucer Review (47.4, April 2013).

Chasing the Pearl Manuscript: Speculation, Shapes, Delight. In progress, currently ca. 115,000 words. Submission expected Spring 2022.


Articles and Essays

“Birdsong, Love, and the House of Lancaster: Gower Reads Chaucer,” in Chaucer and the Subversion of Form, ed. Thomas Prendergast and Jessica Rosenfeld (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 165-181.

“Teaching Pearl with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in Approaches to Teaching
the Middle English Pearl, ed. Jane Beal and Mark Bradshaw Busbee, (New York:
Modern Language Association of America, 2018), 131-138.

  • MacVicar Faculty Fellowship (2015)
  • External Faculty Fellow, Newhouse Center for the Humanities
    (Wellesley College, 2014-15)
  • Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Chair (2012-15)
  • James A. and Ruth Levitan Award for Excellence in Teaching (2012)
  • Fulbright Fellow (Iceland)
  • What Is a Text in the Pearl-Manuscript?,” University of Düsseldorf, 2021
  • Teaching Literature through a Pandemic,” New England Medieval Conference, 2021
  • Little Lewis’s Astrolabe,” New Chaucer Society Expo, 2021
  • The Pearl-Manuscript as Kaleidoscope,” University of Washington, 2020.
  • Sir Gawain, Chaucer’s Squire, and the Ends of Cotton Nero A.x,” Bowdoin College, 2018.
  • In Praise of Speculation,” University of Pennsylvania, 2018.
  • Teaching Miscellanies,” Renaissance Society of America, 2018.
  • Some Temporal Problems with Patience,” Harvard University, 2018.
  • The Pearl-Manuscript and the Consolations of Geometry,” Rutgers University, 2017.
  • Sheets of Parchment, Sheets of Ice; Or, Why Book History and Figure Skating Must Be in Dialogue,” University of Texas, Austin, 2017.
Additional Information

Medieval Studies and Form: Bahr is a member of FORMER, a collaborative group of medievalists whose work is variously inspired by literary form and aesthetics. Other members include Seeta Chaganti (UC-Davis), Rebecca Davis (UC-Irvine), Shannon Gayk (Indiana U), Eleanor Johnson (Columbia U), Marisa Libbon (Bard C), Ingrid Nelson (Amherst C), Sarah Novacich (Rutgers U), and Jennifer Sisk (U of Vermont).

AMS@MIT: At MIT, Bahr has worked with colleagues from across the Institute to strengthen and expand MIT’s program in Ancient and Medieval Studies (AMS@MIT). This initiative has involved bringing Latin instruction to campus, launching a monthly colloquium series of distinguished speakers from art history, musicology, literature, history, and philosophy, and designing “Empire,” a team-taught, interdisciplinary exploration of the representation and reality of pre-modern empires.

Elsewhere: Arthur can also be found serving as a National judge with the United States Figure Skating Association; undertaking long, involved, and sometimes overly ambitious cooking projects; and listening to Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, various Icelandic bands (m√∫m, Of Monsters and Men, amiina), and a wide range of baroque opera. He misses his much-loved, recently departed cat Alcina very much, and he wants the world to know that he was devoted to Betty White long before she was all the rage.

Why study medieval literature?

How are medieval manuscripts like snowflakes?