Inventing the Past at the Virginia Dare Winery

Frances E. Dolan, University of California, Davis

Back when I was freer to explore California, I was driving with my partner through Sonoma County, heading south on US 101, when I spotted a sign for the Virginia Dare winery in Geyserville. Recognizing the name, I urged him to pull over so we could check it out. What we quickly discovered was a rebranding of one of Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries.

Why did I want to investigate and why am I sharing this with you now? As many will recall, Virginia Dare was the first child born to English Colonists in America (in 1587). But what I did not know at first, and what might be less familiar to other pre-modernists, is that Virginia Dare was also the name of a popular brand of wine, indeed the most popular wine made in the United States between 1835 (when the company was founded) and prohibition. Coppola bought the brand name in 2013 and began releasing Virginia Dare wines in 2014. The billboard that caught my eye repurposes the image and font of old Virginia Dare wine labels and advertising, and boasts of “American Wines since 1835.” But the winery’s website evokes stories about the sixteenth-century Virginia in ways I’d like to discuss. In mobilizing stories about the premodern past, while also reanimating the wine’s earlier branding, the winery’s website conjures a fantasy of Virginia as an icon for American identity conjured up in a period it never acknowledges: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-immigrant and anti-black movements latched onto the birth and christening of a white baby girl as an origin story that served white supremacy.1

Coppola’s comments on why he wanted to call his winery Virginia Dare focus on the sixteenth century and his own memories from the twentieth century, rather than the period that connects the two. “The myth of Virginia Dare always intrigued me,” he confided to an interviewer, “and as a child I remember the wine because of the pretty blond girl on the label and the ‘Say it again, Virginia Dare’ jingle they used to advertise on the radio. . . . My goal is to revive the brand so that it isn’t lost to future generations.”2

But Virginia Dare is always, inevitably, lost. She was born on Roanoke Island in 1587. So, like everyone else in what was first christened the “Lost Colony” in the 1830s, Virginia disappeared from the historical record.3 She stands as a first, an origin. And not. We don’t know what happened to her. But we can know the history that linked Virginia Dare to wine. This is a history that the winery both depends on and suppresses.

The Paul Garrett wine company started producing Virginia Dare wine in the early twentieth century. At first the company relied on the scuppernong grape native to North Carolina and named the wine Virginia Dare, since she was born on the island where Scuppernong was supposed to have originated, Roanoke. But soon the demand exceeded the supply and the Garrett company began to rely on grapes imported from California, despite its emphasis on the local nature of its wine and the tie between Virginia Dare and the scuppernong.4 The Virginia Dare winery today engages in a similar slight of hand, pointing to a vine it has planted from a clipping of the “mother vine,” a supposedly 400-year-old scuppernong vine in Manteo, North Carolina that was most likely planted in the nineteenth century. This enables the winery to insert itself intowhat it calls “the rich heritage of American wine making”—despite the fact that it does not grow or use scuppernongs. Asserting that “this vine was cultivated in pre-colonial times by Native Americans, and by English colonists after them,” the winery’s website invents and appropriates aNative American winemaking tradition.5

The slight of hand goes farther than this. Known as “the big white” grape, the scuppernong was often praised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in racialized terms, as historian Erika Hannickel shows. Writing in 1884, winemaker Warton J. Green, in a promotional brochure for his vineyard, claimed that the scuppernong was an especially valuable native grape, a “grape prodigy,” because its discovery was “coeval with Caucasian rule on the continent” and that scuppernong wines were more healthful because “pure’ and “without adulteration or artificial flavoring,” in contrast to foreign wines that were “impure and sophisticated abominations.”6 Whether he knows it or not, Green resurrects language used by Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to justify growing grapes and making wine in England, rather than importing wine, which was often spoiled by the time it reached England and adulterated by various efforts to improve its taste . The earliest pitches for English winemaking were always about the close connections between wine and blood, the risks of imbibing foreign and contaminated drinks, as well as the costs of relying on imports. Wine has never been separable from race; indeed, it is part of the etymology of that term in English.7 The meaning of race specific to wine is an early word for “terroir,” what distinguishes one wine from others, and what binds soil, climate, plant, and human consumer. When Garrett branded his wine as local in its relation to North Carolina and Virginia Dare, he added a post-reconstruction layer to this association of wine, purity, and race. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his early glass bottles were embossed with the confederate flag.8

Some of those bottles had the labels “Pocahontas” and “Minnehaha” as well as “Virginia Dare.”Here too, the new Virginia Dare winery follows the lead of its predecessor. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but it sold Navajo jewelry in its store and its restaurant, Wero, served what it called Native American fare. The winery’s website, under the label “History and Mystery,” presents at some length a story it calls “a Native American myth” but that depends on one text it does not name, Sallie Southall Cotten’s lengthy poem, The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend, printed for the author in 1901, under the auspices of the Colonial Dames of America. Cotten wrote at a time when interest in Virginia Dare revived, leading to countless poems, novels, and pageants about her as well as a monument dedicated to her in 1923. Cotten, a white woman from the South, describes Roanoke Island as home to “a wealth of climbing vines and clustering grapes which point instinctively to grape culture” and also as “the first home of the English race in America,” tying those two together.9

Cotten’s poem is the source of the name for one of the Virginia Dare wines, “Two Arrowheads,” and of the “Legend of the White Doe,” presented on the winery’s website. The website’s legend, like Cotten’s text and many of the fantasies about Virginia Dare, imagine that she survived and grew to adulthood, living with Indians yet always remaining both apart from and above them. As the winery presents it, Virginia, transformed into a white doe by a jealous sorcerer, is simultaneously struck by a charmed arrowhead––which transforms her back into a woman––and by a silver arrowhead (which Cotten specifies was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I). As the winery’s version puts it:

As the two arrowheads pierced her heart, the white doe changed back into a fair maid, but it was too late. As she fell dying, she whispered her true name. Then she was gone.

And where she fell, the stories tell us, her blood soaked the soil. Lush grapes grew there, the white scuppernong variety cultivated by the locals. The fruit on the vines was forever stained with her blood. And that, the legend says, was how wine in the Americas became red.

Virginia Dare was her name. The White Doe. The first born of English descent in the new world. The woman whose myth became the legend of American wine. And so to this day, when we savor American wines, we toast her: Virginia Dare, an American original.10

Cotten’s subtitle is “an Indian legend” and her preface insists that “The legend of the White Doe is probably the oldest and possibly the least known of all the legends which relate to the history of the United States. It is a genuine American legend” (Cotten p. 6). She does not, however, explain her source. She then stands invisibly behind this website’s reference to “stories,” which turn out to be one story of very particular provenance. Her legend sutures together associations around whiteness, scuppernongs, indigenous people, and wine.

For me, this winery and its promotional materials are a perfect example of a purported interest in the past that depends on and propagates misinformation and uses one past to erase another. In the case of the Virginia Dare winery, a fiction about the past works to enshrine a smiling blond girl as the American original. The branding for the winery announces an interest in the past; it insists the late sixteenth century is connected to their current enterprise and necessary to understanding and valuing it. They dig the past, but they also bury it. The winery defines its brand through a sense of another place, roots in a fabricated history, and memorializing a vine whose grapes it does not use in its winemaking. It relies on history as a cover up. It also relies on literature as license. If you call something a story, tale, or legend, then you can say anything with impunity. “The Legend of the White Doe” as presented on the winery’s website, manages to rely on, repurpose, and erase: the history of wine in America; the long history of linking blood and wine and its complicity in racism; and the abbreviated history of Virginia Dare. Perhaps its worst erasure is of the story of Manteo, who gives his name to one of the wines. Called on the winery’sfact sheet “a legendary Indian,” Manteo was a Croatan chief who had been brought to England to meet Queen Elizabeth and was on his return baptized on Roanaoke, about a week before the infant Virginia Dare was.11 The bottle label depicts Manteo as both the background to and a kind of Virgin Mother to tiny Virginia;12 like her, he disappears from the historical record with the lost colony, only to be reanimated as part of these “legends.” The wine label thus misrecognizes and appropriates indigenous people’s history, and perpetuates a fantasy that white English colonists were the first, the true, the only real Americans.


[1] Robert D. Arner, “The Romance of Roanoke: Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony in American Literature,” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 5-45; Andrew Lawler,

[2] Linda Murphy, “Francis Ford Coppola Reinvents Virginia Dare Wines,” Sonoma Magazine, July 2016,

[3] Eliza Lansford Cushing coined the term in an 1837 article in The Ladies Companion entitled “Virginia Dare; or, The Lost Colony.” Her account seems to have inspired the fuller fictional elaborations of writers such as Cotten. See Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Anchor, 2018), pp. 276- 77.

[4] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 415-419; Alexia Jones Helsley, A History of North Carolina Wine From Scuppernong to Syrah (Charleston: History Press, 2010).

[5], accessed January 10, 2021. In recent months, the winery has changed its web address from Virginia Dare Winery to Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Too, but the content of the History & Mystery part of the website remains the same.

[6] Erica Hannickel, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 143-44; Wharton J. Green, Tokay Vineyard (Boston, 1884), 24.

[7] Frances E. Dolan, Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-Century Agriculture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 95.

[8], accessed January 10, 2021.

[9] Sallie Southall Cotten, “Forgotten Facts and Fancies of American History,” The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1909), p. x.

[10], accessed January 10, 2021

[11] On Manteo, see Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (Yale University Press, 2016), esp. pp. 35-36, 58-59.

[12] You can see this wine label at, accessed January 10, 2021.

SF Bay Area Enriches Early Modern Book History: Breanne Weber

This week in Contingent, Oecologies graduate representative Breanne Weber (PhD candidate, UC Davis) reflects on the scholarly benefits of local, embodied practice as she explores book arts in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Breanne’s experience inking and type-setting at the San Francisco Centre for the Book, together with visits to the American Bookbinders Museum and M&H Type Foundry, has added new dimension and perspective to her doctoral research on early-modern print and manuscript cultures in England.

“In the tactile process of making a book, we engage firsthand in the networks of people, plants, environments, and objects that must come together in order to produce it,” she writes. 

This palpable practice, in turn, helps illuminate “the moments where bookmaking appears in early English literature.”

Read on at Contingent: “Book History in the Bay Area” by Breanne Weber.

Notes from “Earth, Sea, Sky: An Environmental Humanities Research Network Exchange”

Laura Hutchingame, University of California Los Angeles

On 12 December 2020, an international group of scholars shared their research over Zoom, as part of the Earth, Sea, SkyOecologies working group. The scholars were Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield); Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut); Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool); and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA).

Todd Borlik discussed Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a map printed in Venice in 1539,and proposed an ecocritical argument that  reads the Carta Marina as a vision of human monstrosity and insatiable hunger, which is ecologically self-destructive. Borlik pointed out that the commensurate size of ships and sea-beasts gives the impression of a reciprocal monstrosity; from the marine creatures’ point of view, the human ships would appear monstrous invaders. Borlik compared the Carta Marina to a map by Hendrick Hondius from 1636 in which bunches of fish hang from the cartouche, indicating that the oceans have been emptied, and that humans are the most significant predator on the seas.

Borlik showed, too, that the Carta Marina was part of a conflict about fishing rights in Scandinavia and that the monstrous elements in the map served to deter unauthorized fishing in Scandinavian waters. Further, Scotland is obscured on the map, despite the fact that Scotland enjoyed a claim to Scandinavian fisheries since the fifteenth century. Denmark had refused to acknowledge the treaty with Scotland, and Borlik suggested that the marriage of King James VI and I to Anne of Denmark might have been connected in part to politics surrounding Scandinavian fishing.

Debapriya Sarkar examined Lady Mary Wroth’s prose romance novel, Urania, published in 1621, to investigate how islands and shores function as a threshold, a liminal space, in the early modern imaginary. Islands and shores are prominent in early modern English literature and their presence in literature reflects the imperial ambitions of England. But the island is also the site of important oppositional forces. Sarkar focused on a particular moment that reveals a notable transfer of power.  In Wroth’s romance, the protagonist is an aristocratic woman who finds herself on an island, accompanied by her brother, Amphilanthus, who must throw her in the ocean in order to save her. Sarkar noted that as Urania enters the water, her emotional turmoil becomes transferred to the ocean. This, Sarkar argued, embodies  a maritime ecology connected to female subjectivity, which represents the dynamism of human emotion. 

Liam Lewis argued that representations of noise and sound are culturally managed, and that if we can become aware of how we manage these sounds, we can have positive effects on the wildlife in the ocean. Describing the history of the hydrophone in the twentieth century, which allowed underwater recording or listening, Lewis asked: how can we conceptualize sound before and after the hydrophone? In answer, Lewis focused on an illustration from the Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, a manuscript produced in 1047-1048, and Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film Le Monde du Silence, as representative cases. In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Brendan and his brothers sail in search of paradise, and at a crucial point in the journey, Brendan sings loudly to the point of waking the ocean creatures, who join him in singing. Le Monde du Silence, one of the first films to use ocean cinematography to depict the ocean as an underwater paradise, is not silent at all. But most of the sounds that accompany the cinematography are not produced from the hydrophone, but rather overlaid sound effects to mimic the sound of sunken ships, scuba tank bubbles, minor keys for eerie moments, or trumpets for triumphant moments of exploration. In other words,  the techniques used to depict underwater life actually obscure the real sounds of that life.

The last speaker, Bronwen Wilson, considered the compass, or wind rose, to introduce the spaces of elemental forces in between the abstract cartographic grid and the embodied viewer of Willem Jansz. Blaeu’s Nova Totius Americae. She discussed how compasses operated visually. For instance, users become repositioned in relation to depicted terrains.  Compasses can also be pictorial signs, such as in maps made after Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation. Wilson focused on two prospects, by Guillaume-Joseph Grelot and by Melchior Lorck, both with the artists seen at work. She showed how the abstract line associated with the compass can be multivalent. Grelot’s drawing reveals an artist imagining himself as a human compass—the artist’s quill is similar to the compass needle. Similarly, Lorck’s Prospect of Constantinople emphasizes horizontal movement, and while the flatness of the compass rose typically suggests views seen from above, Lorck prompts the viewer to lay the paper flat and to think about the vertical axis in order to reconcile these two poles of the image. 

This research share was generative for those who were able to attend and we hope to see you again for an upcoming research share on 19 January 2021 by faculty members involved with the UCHRI working group: “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures.”

Notes from “In the Wake”

Sarah-Nelle Jackson, University of British Columbia

On October 23rd, 2020, over two dozen attendees gathered virtually for the Oecologies Research Cluster’s inaugural panel of 2020–21, “In the Wake: Response and Recovery in the Premodern World.” Drawing connections between our present crisis and past catastrophes, panelists Urvashi Chakravarty (University of Toronto), Gabriel de Avilez Rocha (Brown University), Rebecca Totaro (Florida Atlantic University), and Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) explored medieval and early modern histories of solidarity and resistance amid natural, political, and pandemic upheavals.

In his opening remarks, moderator and Oecologies co-director David Coley (Simon Fraser University) encouraged us to frame “In the Wake” not as an expression of anxiety and despair over our current, pandemic moment — at least, not entirely. Instead, Coley explained, the panel would look to the past for futures that might arise from our own response and recovery in the present: an optimistic spirit of medieval prudentia that recognizes our own moment as one forged in and out of responses and recoveries past.

“In the Wake” took its name from Christina Sharpe’s homonymous monograph, which develops the varied, temporally fraught significances of the word wake. Speaking first, Urvashi Chakravarty built upon Sharpe’s attention to Black life “in the wake” by considering racial discourses of futurity and apocalypse in William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Tracing languages of degeneracy, stains, and stamping in Lear, Urvashi showed how the play’s “apocalyptical possibility” emerges as inherently racialized. As a result, she concluded, we face the difficult and urgent task of imagining worlds beyond and besides reproductive white futurity. (This conclusion pointed to the photo with which Chakravarty began: an early 2020 Associated Press image of four young, white climate activists. AP had cropped from the picture a fifth activist, Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, erasing black activism and framing climate activism as a white project.)

From the prospect of refusing white futurity, Gabriel de Avilez Rocha turned our attention to an historical refusal of colonial futurity on the West African island of São Tomé. In 1537, a prodigious fire swept the main colonial town of the Portuguese-occupied island, destroying swathes of colonial goods and quarters and hamstringing the island’s trade in sugar and the enslaved (or enslaved peoples). Although the arson constituted a remarkable event in its own right, Rocha argued that we consider longer arcs of resistance and insurgency that predate and contextualize singular disasters. Outlining a long collaboration on the island between fugitive Africans and the dense forests beyond the colonial town, he showed that the fire was a culmination, but hardly the debut, of socio-natural insurgency on São Tomé against Portuguese colonialism.

From counter-hegemonic praxis, we moved with Rebecca Totaro to the widespread governmental and communal collaboration that bound Elizabethan England in the face of pandemic. When the bubonic plague arrived in England, documentary evidence suggests, the queen and her privy council issued national quarantine orders that isolated subjects in body but united them in spirit. Totaro took us through examples of guides for at-home Anglican worship, poetic meditations on friendship and community, and lists of trusted women within several communities who helped identify those who had died of plague. These materials offer instructive contrast to the conspiracies and xenophobia of the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic: a governance and neighbourliness rooted in mutual care can guide us through our present catastrophe and future ones.

Elaine Treharne turned from textual evidence to textual absence in catastrophe’s wake. What do literary and textual historians do, she asked, when a silence, a dearth of data, follows in the wake of catastrophe — and how does this differ from what we ought to do? Reading elision in surviving sources after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Elaine queried the difference between silent and silenced voices, quoting Patrick Wolfe to remind us that then, as now, “Settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory.” The absence of evidence does not necessarily signal compliance or ease, Treharne argued, pointing to the silence or silencing of the colonized English under Norman rule; of dissenters in Syria, Egypt, and Uyghur province in Xianjing; and in the systematic omission of Native Americans from COVID-19 public health data. Scholars, she concluded, must be mindful of our roles in creating and interpreting data. 

After an audience Q&A, Coley concluded the event by putting a question to the panel: “How do we bring these ideas into the now, the present moment of crisis, rebuilding, suppression, hope?” Together, the speakers emphasized the importance of defining ourselves against hegemonic categories, both academically (through interdisciplinary work, for example) and socio-politically (by not narrating the current pandemic into nationalized silos). 

The panelists offered exciting, important steps toward this kind of critically-engaged work. In the wake of their global, interdisciplinary papers, presented to a global, interdisciplinary audience, we at Oecologies dare to return to optimism: all those present on October 23 began the important, challenging work of response, recovery, and revitalization. Part of that success, I think, involves recognizing how very far we have yet to go.

Reading Notes from the Sea: an Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California Davis, English

On October 2, 2020, the Oecologies Reading Group gathered virtually via Zoom to discuss readings related to this year’s theme of “On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies.” It was also the inaugural “Sea” event for the Oe-adjacent Earth, Sea, Sky network, who are joined this year by faculty from a University of California Humanities Research Institute multicampus faculty working group. We’re thrilled to welcome these scholars and look forward to a series of virtual conversations across the year. 

Over twenty-five Oe scholars and affiliates from around the globe engaged with readings selected by the reading group facilitators, Vin Nardizzi (UBC, English), Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut, Maritime Studies), and Tom White (Oxford, English). The readings were 1) Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and 2)  Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, as an optional third selection, 3) Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Joining us was one of the authors, historian of science Helen Rozwadowski, who engaged us productively in questions about her research on the sea.

Following brief introductions to the three essays, we divided into three breakout rooms to facilitate small group conversation. Each room developed its own oceanic ecological thread but with notable cross-currents. Vin’s group generated a set of words—cephalopod, flood, foam, plankton, fog, technology, bottom—that opened up conversations about relationships between depth and surface and the jurisdictional lines that delimit them. The etymology of “fathom-line” and its utility led to discussion of what it might mean to think about “ocean as method.” Similarly, in Debapriya’s breakout room, participants explored how we might define and know the sea. Questions of scale, especially as pertaining to a vertical or horizontal axis, prompted thinking about the relationship of limits to a “free,” “incomprehensible,” and “timeless” history of the ocean sea. The fluidity and mutability of the ocean also emerged as a theme in Tom’s group, where members drew on Rozwadowski’s long pre-human history of the ocean to frame changing and comparatively recent political fortunes and overlapping sovereignties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Technologies developed for containing, mapping, and navigating the ocean, including the crucial chronometer, amplified our understanding of the relationship of colonial centers to the peripheries and margins, even on the “vast” and “free” sea.  This relationship was revealed, too, in the long legal influence of Grotius, and related Dutch and other colonial land reclamation schemes, an influence on infrastructure and oceanic shipping routes that in the early twentieth-century resulted in a spectacular challenge to Canada’s practice of excluding immigrants from India. When the Japanese vessel Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, Canada carrying several hundred Indians, most of the migrants were denied entry into the country and repatriated to Kolkata.

The reading group also began to compile a working bibliography of scholarship that came up in conversation. If you have thoughts or suggestions, I welcome you to send them to Laura Hutchingame ( ), one of our wonderful graduate research assistants, who is creating an Endnote database for the working group this year. 

Our next reading group will convene in February 2021 and will shift our disciplinary focus to art history. It will be led by Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Art History) and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Art History).  If you’re interested to join us, please keep an eye out for further details on the Oecologies Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

Oecologies CFP: “Climates of Consciousness” (IMC Leeds 2021)

Call for Papers for Session Proposals
at the International Medieval Congress (IMC 2021)
Sponsored by the Oecologies Research Cluster
05–08 July 2021
University of Leeds

These sessions seek to explore how space and form — ecologies of consciousness — inform, challenge, and perpetuate reading, writing, consideration, and understanding in the medieval and early modern eras. Focusing on the “climates” of perceptions, philosophies, and cosmologies of the premodern world, they query and explore how immediate and perceived environments created and generated texts and concepts from the medieval and early modern eras that are reliant on aspects of form, both imagined and real. How do the ecological proclivities of premodern cultures and understandings inform our exploration of the past, present, and future?

Suggested topics, on any geographic area, may include, but are not limited to:

  • landscape and place studies
  • textual forms
  • environmental humanities
  • systems of thought
  • world building, “built” worlds, and their environment
  • relationships between “climates” of thought, literatures, and philosophies
  • ecological intersections in cultural outputs or paradigms

Submissions from a variety of disciplines, including but not limited to literatures, textual studies, cultural and social histories, and visual cultures, are encouraged. We welcome global, regional, and local approaches to the Middle Ages, and we encourage proposals by BIPOC scholars, international scholars, and scholars at all stages of their careers.

Please submit a 250-word proposal for a 15- to 20-minute paper. Proposals should include an abstract and accompanying one-page CV including email, current affiliation, and position. Please submit proposals as PDF or Word files by 25 September 2020 by email to both:

  • — David Coley, Simon Fraser University, Co-Director, Oecologies Research Cluster, and
  • — Kenna Olsen, Mount Royal University, Advisory Council Member, Oecologies Research Cluster

For more on the Oecologies Research Cluster, please see

The Year in Review, 2019-2020

Dear friends of Oecologies:

As my last task as Outgoing Director, I want to report on the group’s happenings and to get you excited about what we’re planning for the upcoming academic year. The year-in-review is, in my experience, never an easy genre in which to write. And it is one I rarely enjoy reading. How do I strike the right tone? How do I fondly recall past gatherings and individual successes without humble-bragging? How do we attract new friends of Oecologies? Perhaps more to the point for this year, what is there to say in an annual roundup of 2019-20 that is not trite, over-sentimental, and akin to a sound-byte?

Running such risks, this is what I will say: Oecologies has transformed itself over the course of the last year. The changes hearten me greatly; they have not always been easy to make happen; and they are a work-in-progress, so please join us as we steer Oecologies in the next decade. In the meantime, let me show you what’s new with us.

In solidarity with BLM and BIPOC academics whose scholarship, historically, isn’t cited or acknowledged, we reimagined our bimonthly reading group. Under the care and guidance of Mo Pareles, we now read this work, with the hope that we will engage it in our ecocritical projects in medieval and early modern studies. Our first reading group for the year will take place, virtually, on 2 October 2020 at 10:00 AM PST. It contributes to the “Earth, Sea, Sky” project that flies under the Oecologies banner. Our readings will concern the sea and early modern maritime cultures; they will include writings by Renisa Mawani (Sociology, UBC), Helen M. Rozwadowski (History, University of Connecticut), and Surabhi Ranganathan (International Law, King’s College). If you interested in this event, please email me for further details. We expect such reading-group programming to continue through 2021, so stay tuned for a full schedule.

In response to the global pandemic, Oecologies will host a virtual event, “In the Wake,” which will be held on Zoom on 23 October 2020 from 1:00-2:30 PM PST. This moderated conversation is the brainchild of my Oecologies colleagues, David Coley (Simon Fraser University), the prize-winning author of a recent book on plague in medieval literature, and Derrick Higginbotham (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa). It will feature Urvashi Chakravarty (English, Toronto), Gabriel Rocha (History, Brown), Rebecca Totaro (English, Florida Gulf Coast University), and Elaine Treharne (English, Stanford). Here is the event’s formal description:

Speakers will take as their stepping-off point our contemporary social and cultural moment, one in which the sudden cataclysm of a global pandemic seems to be catalyzing a series of social, cultural, political, and economic changes that would have been difficult to imagine a year ago. This paradigm—of response, recovery, and perhaps re-creation in the wake of pandemic—resonates with similar moments of social change in the medieval and early modern world, where change, progressive and/or reactionary, has followed plague, war, natural disaster, and human-made political catastrophe. The virtual symposium will consider what our study of such moments in the past might reveal about our present and, conversely, what our current moment of turmoil might suggest about similar crises in the past? 

Details about this event will be advertised on social media soon by Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC PhD), our new influencer.

In mentioning my colleagues David Coley and Derrick Higginbotham, I allude to a change in governance that Oecologies has just formalized. David and Derrick are now the group’s co-directors: David will serve for one more year, and Derrick for two. As of this writing, in other words, I am no longer co-supervising the operations of the group I co-founded in 2012 with Tiffany Jo Werth and colleagues at UBC and SFU. Cue the sentiments. 

First, excitement. I can think of no two better folk to be running Oecologies than David and Derrick. Smart, progressive and forward-thinking, responsible: all come to mind when I think of words to describe them. And they won’t be fine-tuning a new vision for Oecologies alone. Joining them as members of the Oecologies Advisory Council are Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Courtney Barajas (Whitworth), Sharon O’Dair (Alabama), Noah Guynn (UC Davis), Leila Kate Norako (University of Washington), and Kenna Olsen (Mt. Royal University), as well as graduate representatives Breanne Weber (UC Davis PhD), Scott Russell (SFU PhD) and Kirsten Schuhmacher (UC Davis PhD). I am eager for the programming, including blog posts, reading groups, and further virtual events, that this team will put together as the pandemic continues to modify how scholars share their research and socialize. To get a sense of what could happen, check out the range of events recorded in “2019-2020 Season” on our website.

Second, elegy. Rotating off the Oecologies council with me are dear friends and long-time collaborators Frances E. Dolan (UC Davis), Louisa Mackenzie (UW), and Mo Pareles (UBC), as well as graduate representatives and students extraordinaire Alexander Cosh (UBC PhD) and Karol Pasciano (UBC MA 2020!). I have immense gratitude for their heroic efforts in solidifying a foundation upon which Oecologies will continue to thrive and for having had to the opportunity to play, seriously and joyously, with them (and all the other Oecologists, especially Tiffany Jo Werth, Patricia Badir, and Robert Rouse) during the last several years. 

This year, more difficult than writing a year-in-review is perhaps figuring out how to sign-off on any communication. What to say? Stay well, be kind to yourselves, your colleagues, and your students, and I hope to “see” you soon.

Vin Nardizzi
University of British Columbia

Why Is It so Hard to Write When the World Is Ending? (A Blog Post about Paralysis)

David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University

Back in early March, while the world was watching a “regional viral threat” grow into a global pandemic, a few people started nudging me to “write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.” These nudges made some sense. My book Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England had been out for about a year, journal reviews had started cropping up, and suddenly the past I’d researched and theorized seemed a little less distant. It was also fast becoming clear that other medievalists were already writing various quick somethings about COVID-19 and the plague, rolling out think pieces and blog posts and Tweet-threads at an intimidating pace. Friends and colleagues who had been listening to me hold forth about the “Black Death” (a problematic moniker to be certain) for the better part of a decade reasoned that I, too, might have something to contribute. My Associate Dean encouraged me to pitch a piece to The Conversation (which promises “academic rigour” to go with its “journalistic flair”); my department’s communications guru asked me to make a video from quarantine discussing my book (I obliged on that one, albeit awkwardly); even my parents weighed in, hoping perhaps that their medievalist son might finally write something they’d want to read.

In general, I think I am a good colleague and son, and I am responsive to suggestions. I’m also not stupid. I know that you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot; I know that you should sell when you can, for you are not for all markets; and I know that when your chances fall in your lap like that, you’ve got to recognize them for what they really are. So I sat down and tried to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.

I won’t say I’ve gotten nowhere, but I’ve not gotten very far. Here, in chronological order, are some opening sentences that I have produced since March:

It is a strange sensation, as someone who studies and writes about the distant past, to find my work suddenly regarded as relevant.

Let’s start with this simple fact: COVID-19 is not the Black Death.

What comes after a global pandemic? What does the future look like when the present seems so bleak? Looking to the medieval past might be one way to consider such pressing questions. (NB: I’m so ashamed of these three sentences. Please let them never see the light of day.)

We are now three months into a global pandemic.

All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert. (NB: This one still has potential.)

None of these is “Call me Ishmael,” but that’s hardly a searing indictment. “Call me Ishmael” is already taken, and besides, with the exception of that garbage about looking to the medieval past they all seem like reasonable beginnings to a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, something my parents might want to read, something that might even engender a surprisingly hostile response or two from a fellow academic. But nothing has come of these somethings.

I have some thoughts about why.

To begin, I have increasingly come to recognize that despite its title, its pestilential subject matter, and the rat on its cover, my book about the plague really isn’t about the plague. There has, as it happens, been an exciting new wave of scholarship on the plague in recent years, the most important of which (in case anyone’s asking my opinion) is the work of Monica Green, which enriches our understanding of pandemic in profound ways. Death and the Pearl Maiden is actually less interested in the plague than in responses to the plague, in the question of how literature might speak a traumatic event that was simultaneously too terrible to invoke and too all-encompassing to ignore. 

The puzzle that scholars like Monica Green—let’s call them real plague scholars—are piecing together has to do with the lingering mysteries of the pandemic itself, the specific phylogenetic tree from which it emerged, the relationships among the medieval wave and other outbreaks, the precise circumstances that rendered it so virulent. The problem that Death and the Pearl Maiden seeks to address is instead the problem of silence. The book implicitly wonders about all those medieval chronicles that insert a casual note about the death of half of Europe between a lengthy account of the election of a new abbot and some extended whinging about the ornaments that have gone missing from the monastic chapel (I’m looking at you, Meaux Abbey Chronicle). It more explicitly wonders about a brilliant and socially engaged corpus of literature that relegates the signal cultural trauma of its age to a short parable about three drunks searching for death and some one liners in a story about horny chickens (I’m looking at you, Geoffrey Chaucer). The book also addresses our own contemporary expectations about what responses to a plague should look like. To that last point, we seem, especially following the blistering introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, to expect a medieval literary response that matched, in both tone and gravity, the grim event itself. Surely we would exhibit such dignity, such narrative grace, when confronted with our own pandemic. Wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we? Of course we would.

Second (and here I suspect I speak for others who are strapped into the roller coaster of this awful year), the parameters of this thing keep hurtling outwards at a ferocious clip. One of the lessons of the Black Death, of course, is that the changes it engendered shuddered across almost all of the social, economic, religious, and cultural systems of the medieval world, that the impact of the disease didn’t stop with its obscene body count. But to witness similar causal impacts develop in the terrifying time lapse of the present, to live and participate in an ongoing pandemic reality, is very different from studying it. In just the past few months, we have plunged from the terror of a new disease and a wild frenzy of hand washing into a series of worldwide protests against racialized violence and police brutality, into a reckoning with how systemic racism and structural inequalities drive the spread of the virus, into an unflinching recognition of how a pernicious economic system will sacrifice its own adherents on the impossible altar of continuous growth. Remember how we all scrambled to get a few disposable masks back in March? By May, those same masks had already become a shibboleth in the most ludicrous debate over personal freedom since the invention of the seat-belt. And over all of it, at least in North America, we have watched as a callow and narcissistic American president whipsawed the United States government from ignorance to xenophobia to paralysis to fear-mongering to magical thinking to chest-thumping ignorance; watched as that government encouraged our colleagues and students back into universities equipped with little more than branded face masks and hand sanitizer; watched as they sent our children into packed school hallways and punished them for speaking out about it; watched as they reminded us again and again just how expendable we all are, how expendable we have always been; watched as they leveraged the greatest public health crisis in a century into a voter suppression scheme that mimicked, in both scope and brazenness, similar strategies from the Jim Crow era. It has been a lot to take in.

It’s clear that the strike-slips at all these social and cultural fault lines—urgent and long building as they may be—are a logical result of the pressures of this pandemic. That, too, is a lesson that those of us who study the medieval plague ought to have learned. Despite what you might have read, the Black Death did not singlehandedly allow entree to “the fresh air of common sense” or lead survivors toward the “intellectual overthrow of the scholastic-medicine establishment in the Middle Ages.” (Seriously? You’re better than that, New Yorker.) It did, however, catalyze significant social changes in the medieval and early modern world, both for good and for ill. In some respects, then, we might recognize the rapid post-pandemic ascendency of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had already been building steadily for several years before the murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as a contemporary analogue to such catalytic shifts. More loosely (and this is, I know, a deeply flawed parallel), we might also see the ongoing protests in cities like Portland and Seattle—movements marked by righteous and justified anger and tinged with both productive and repressive violence—as latter-day avatars of the Rising of 1381, an explosive expression of long-standing social grievances sparked by one ill-conceived poll tax too many in an unsettled post-plague environment. (Does this make the reactionary responses of our capitalist ruling classes analogues of the 1351 Statute of Labourers? Way to be on the wrong side of history, guys!) 

In our hyperlinked, TL/DR, speed-of-thought world, such shocks come quickly, and their aftershocks follow fast behind. And—speaking for myself now—I am a slow writer. Sometimes I’m barely a writer at all. I pick through evidence and let it sit around in unruly piles, let it hang out with some primary texts, let it chat with a few draft paragraphs and some illegible notes. Every time I think I’m closing in on my quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, that something turns out to be already gone, rattled by the next earthquake, swallowed by the next conflagration, drowned in the next flood. In my not infrequent moments of self doubt, I fear that this pace makes me something of a brachiosaur. Some day I will be crushed under layers of sediment, my bones squeezed into oil and burned for a few seconds of heat. I am no blogger.

Brachiosaur or not, I am finding that the biggest impediment to writing during a pandemic is, at the end of the day, the pandemic itself, its smothering presence, its terrible threat to family and friends and self, the anxious sense of contingency that marches before it, the reality of the thing, the possibility of illness, of death. My older daughter is leaving for her first year at University (which will be offering a safe-ish mixture of online and in-person classes), and I am alternately thrilled and terrified for her. My father and my mother are old, and my stepparents are older. My closest friends have a medically fragile child and live in a highly affected area. The border between my new country and my old country—between my family and my family—has been closed for months, and it shows no immediate sign of re-opening. A quick something about COVID-19 and the plague? A blog post? Strike while the iron is hot? Seriously?

Why strike while the iron is hot? Why strike at all when this is what’s heating the iron? What kind of vulture are you to strike at this hot iron? What kind of monster are you to pick up your hammer and tongs? When your friends are suffering? When your colleagues are dying? How dare you step to the forge at a time like this? You’re better than that, David.

One of the central points around which I organized Death and the Pearl Maiden was the recognition, developed in contemporary trauma theory, that severe trauma “exceeds the resources of representational practice—and the ability of the memory to make sense of it.”1 In the case of the literature I looked at in my book, I considered the plague through precisely that challenge to representation, which is to say through its necessary absence. The plague emerged in the poems of the Pearl Manuscript, I speculated, not directly but rather where it appeared to be suppressed, in those places where it was conspicuously elided: in Pearl’s evasive punning and wordplay; in Cleanness’s displacement of violence onto biblical allusion; in Patience’s pregnant narrative embellishments; in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s subversion of Romance clichés. Such narrative gestures might not directly invoke the plague itself, I argued, but they could nonetheless reveal the pressure that it exerted on writers working in its shadow. Taken together, they allow us to glimpse the Black Death within the negative literary space that trauma creates, to see, for a moment, the outline of the plague in the quiet eddy of its slipstream.

In the hands of a writer like the nameless maker of Pearl, such pressure on representational praxis crystallized a series of compelling, harrowing, beautiful, and (in at least two cases) transcendent works, each sengeley in synglure within English literature. In the hands of an academic urged by friends and colleagues to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, such pressure has altogether less impressive results. Even in this blog post (which I fully intend to finish, Derrick and Vin; look, I’m almost there) I recognize in diminished form the jittery hallmarks of plague writing that I identified in the work of the Pearl poet: the recourse to narrative cliché and stock allusion; the sublimation of the terrible realities of pandemic disease into a narrative of personal anxiety and frustration; the pathological avoidance of writing itself; the embarrassment of admitting to struggling when the struggles of others are so much greater, so much more important, so much more painful. Such writerly paralyses are not, I think, just signs of mental exhaustion or fatigue. They are, rather, responses to the pandemic, indicia of this new horror that seems now to close in on us from all sides.

One more narrative cliché to dull the edge; one more stuttering matryoshka-doll allusion to prop up the effort; apologies to one or two more poets who wrote in the shadow of terrible events. I thought I was fatigued, but I was not fatigued. In short, I was—I am—afraid.



[1] D. Vance Smith, “Plague, Panic Space, and the Tragic Medieval Household,” South Atlantic Quarterly 98 (1999): 367-414, at 383-84. This idea precedes Smith’s work of course, but I love the way he encapsulates it in this phrase.

David Coley Wins 2020 Labarge Prize

We at Oe are thrilled to announce that our very own David Coley has won the 2020 Labarge Prize for his (very timely) book, Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England!

David’s book explores the understated but decisive influence of the Black Death on fourteenth-century literature, and especially the works of the Pearl Poet.

Awarded by the Canadian Society of Medievalists, the Labarge Prize recognizes the best book of the previous year by a Canadian medievalist.

You can read the announcement by CSM here. Congratulations, David! 

On the Sea: Reading Notes

Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

On 8 May 2020, Oecologies kicked off its year-long programming on “Sea.” Selected by Mo Pareles (UBC, English), our shared reading was Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s article “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” which appeared in GLQ in 2008. Over 20 international Oe scholars and affiliates from across the Humanities disciplines gathered virtually. We discussed how Tinsley’s article turns an absence in the archives – records of queer experience among enslaved persons – into an opportunity to query what an archive is and, in the process, to reimagine the form of the scholarly article. Our Zoom chat ranged from topics as diverse as queer philology (a central methodological component of Tinsley’s analysis), speculation as critical method, scholarly genealogies (for instance, the implicit whiteness of some foundational queer theory), and the practicalities of pedagogy, including syllabus writing. 

The reading group will reconvene in October 2020 to discuss texts in the blue humanities by Helen M. Rozwadowski, Renisa Mawani, and Surabhi Ranganathan. These readings promise to shift our focus from the Atlantic waters to those of the Indian and Pacific Oceans by spotlighting legal disputes during the early modern period about the “free sea.” If you’re interested to chat about these exciting texts with us, then keep an eye out for further details on Oecologies’s social media feeds.

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