Professor's Work Spans Disciplines

By Melissa Maki
Bruce Holsinger

Bruce Holsinger
Photo by Melissa Maki

Bruce Holsinger’s work is not bound by a single discipline.  He holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia, but his dissertation focused on music and was directed by a historian.  Holsinger came to the University of Virginia in 2005 as a professor in both the English and music departments.  His research “looks at questions from different disciplines and tries to figure out how they might be put into critical conversation with one another.”

Holsinger’s first book, Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer, was published in 2001.  The book brought a fresh analysis to medieval music, which has traditionally been viewed as spiritual and numerical rather than corporeal.  Holsinger’s argument portrays “music as a practice of the flesh.”  He points to instances of “beating human skin as if the body were a drum performed in praise of God” and “images of Christ as a stringed, musical instrument” to back up his claims.  The book received critical acclaim and a number of awards, including the Medieval Academy of America’s John Nicholas Brown prize in 2005 and the Modern Language Association’s Prize for a First Book in 2002.

Holsinger published The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory in 2005.  This work looked at how French critical theorists such as Bataille and Derrida were influenced by medieval studies.

More recently, Holsinger has completed a short book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, forthcoming next spring from the University of Chicago Press’s Prickly Paradigm series that explores “the way the Middle Ages play out in modern culture, both institutionally and politically.”  Specifically, the book looks at the role of medievalism in shaping the use of language by the administration post 9/11 in the U.S.-led War on Terror.  For example, the usage of words such as “crusade” and describing the Taliban as a “medieval regime” as well as the influence of the international relations subfield known as “neomedievalism.”  Holsinger questions, “Why are we calling them medieval and not fascists?” 

Holsinger will take a sabbatical this year to use a Guggenheim fellowship (received in 2004 but deferred until now) to further develop The Work of God: Liturgical Culture and Vernacular Writing in England, 650-1550.  This large, long-term project involves analyzing both liturgical and secular works to determine connections between the two.  For example, why would a Papal bull from the 12th century have a secular English love poem written on the back of it?  Holsinger will travel several times to the United Kingdom to peruse an array of manuscripts, books and archives for his research.  This entails a “reassessment of the whole history of English literature,” notes Holsinger.  The differences “between the sacred culture of the church and the secular culture of English music-making are much more tenuous than we think,” he remarks.  When he returns from sabbatical in 2007, Holsinger will serve as chair of the McIntire Department of Music.