Profile: Faculty Achievement

Discovering a new World of Renaissance Literature: Professor James Doelman

Written by: Pat Morden

Students of literature are familiar with the works of great writers of the Renaissance period – Shakespeare, Donne, Milton and others. But imagine discovering previously unknown works from this golden period – poetry that may have been read only by a handful of people hundreds of years ago.

That’s precisely what Professor James Doelman has been doing for several years. His research involves unearthing manuscript funeral elegies from the 16th and 17th centuries, transcribing them, and then studying their fascinating contents.

While working with manuscript sources for other research projects Doelman noticed several unpublished funeral elegies – poems written to express grief at a death – tucked away in archives and libraries. Doelman points out that death and grief are universal, spanning centuries and cultures. “Death is one of those
things that is always prominent in the human imagination.”

Another intriguing aspect of these works is that while unpublished, they were widely known in their time. Doelman’s most important insight is that while the elegies were primarily or ostensibly about the death of individuals, they often became a springboard to social satire or political commentary. For example, an elegy to Thomas Washington, a page to King Charles, who died in 1623 while Charles was in Spain courting the daughter of the King, reflects the author’s concerns about the intended match allying England with Spain.

Doelman has found manuscript elegies through the catalogues of major libraries and archives in the U.K., including the British Library and the Bodleian in Oxford. He has written several articles on his discoveries and
is currently at work on a book.

Doelman’s research is an important contribution to the field. “The elegies are rich and interesting works that in many ways have simply been ignored,” he says. “They are about much more than sorrow and grieving: they explore big issues of the time, and in that sense, offer a new perspective on the world of the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Being an active researcher makes him a better teacher, Doelman believes. “I’m working on an area that’s all new, to me and others. I can share with my students the delight of exploration, the joy of discovery and the depth and breadth of the discipline.”

Doelman’s research was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant. In addition to receiving the grant, he was also recognized for his research accomplishments when he was awarded the Brescia Excellence in Research Award in 2016.