Arthur Bahr

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 ELH, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Studies 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.

Old and Middle English literature; the structure and interpretation of medieval books; formalism(s), aesthetics, and the idea of the literary.


Chasing the Pearl Manuscript: Speculation, Shapes, Delight. In Progress.

Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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

Recent 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.

“Compulsory Figures,” ELH 84.2 (2017): 295-314.

“Sex, Plague, and Resonance: Reflections on the BBC Pardoner’s Tale,” in Screening Chaucer: Absence, Presence, and Adapting the Canterbury Tales, ed. Kathleen Kelly and Tison Pugh, (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2016), 230-238.

“On Being a Professor who’s More Teacher than Scholar,” for the In the Middle blog, October 2015.

“Translating Sonnets,” in The Pocket Instructor: Literature, ed. Diana Fuss and William Gleason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 204-06

“The Manifold Singularity of Pearl,” ELH 82 (2015): 729-758.

“Miscellaneity and Variance in the Medieval Book,” in The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches, ed. Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 181-198.

“Fear, Time, and Lack: the Egesa of Beowulf,” in Essays on Aesthetics in Old and Middle English Literature in Honor of Howell D. Chickering, Jr., ed. John D. Hill, Bonnie Wheeler, and R. F. Yeager (Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies / University of Toronto Press, 2014), 53-66.

“Celebrate Fragments,” written for the New Chaucer Society’s blog:

“Finding the Forms of Cleanness,” Studies in Philology 110.3 (2013): 259-81.

Co-Author, with Alexandra Gillespie, “Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text,” The Chaucer Review 47.4 (2013): 346-60.

“Reading Codicological Form in John Gower’s Trentham Manuscript,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 219-62.

Subjects taught the current academic year:

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

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


Subjects taught in recent years:

(Fall 2021)

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

21L.320 Big Books: Pearl, the Most Beautiful Work You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of (Spring 2020)

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

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

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 (múm, 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.

Arthur Bahr
Why study medieval literature?

Arthur Bahr
How are medieval manuscripts like snowflakes?