Carissa Harris’s inspiration for studying medieval literature comes from her great-grandmother.
“She was the one who made me aware that it is important to know women’s history and to think about how the past ties into the present,” said Harris, a Temple University English professor.
Harris specializes in medieval literature with a focus on gender, sexuality and sexual violence. She created the capstone course Wine, Women, and Wicked Words: Medieval Alehouse Literature, which explores English and Scottish alewife poems, jolly drinking songs and cautionary tales about drunkenness from 1350-1550. She teaches students about how alehouse women, or women who brewed beer in this time period, were ostracized because of their gender.
Harris’s course inspired her books. Her first, “Obscene Pedagogies,” was released last December and explores how the obscenity in Middle English literature taught readers both positive and harmful lessons about sexuality and consent. She’s now writing “The Poetics of Rage,” which will feature a section dedicated to how anger was misconstrued to depict women as irrational and unreliable, and how similar issues arise in modern day social movements like Black feminism, Harris said.
“We are obviously not the same as Middle England because technology is different and we don’t use cabbage leaves for toilet paper anymore, but lots of our cultural ideas around drinking and sexuality are more similar than we realize,” Harris said. “It’s important to recognize that history.”
Ashleigh Cunningham, an English graduate student, is mentored by Harris. Cunningham said Harris’s work stands out because of her love for the topic.
“Her passionate work is gritty, and it brings attention to certain medieval topics that no one talks about,” Cunningham said. “She exposes the ignored violence and sexism in the medieval genre.”
In the class, Harris uses poetry to combat the stereotypes surrounding alehouse women in literature. Books often describe these women as “causing mayhem,” or engaging in other disorderly conduct, like getting drunk and flashing people, Harris said.
“These stereotypes include the idea that women are sex workers if they are involved with the brewing industry, and that’s not necessarily true,” she added.
Historical records show mayhem during this time period primarily involved men drinking too much, gambling and getting into knife fights, Harris said. Additionally, coroner’s records detailed the deaths of numerous men killed in drunken disputes.
“The concepts that we discuss show us that gender victimization existed in the past and how it still does now,” Harris said. “It’s a useful course because it ultimately shows how history and the literature inform each other.”
Students dive into the social aspects of alehouses and how they created a free space for women to talk about friendships and intimate relationships.
“These alehouses enabled women to get together and talk about their husbands and intimate lives while being able to drink excessively,” Harris said. “These spaces got pretty serious at times.”
The class also examines medieval jolly drinking songs. The songs are “fun, repetitive and easy to learn,” Harris said, comparing them to the 2009 hip-hop song “Shots” by LMFAO.
Kyle Baskin, a junior English major and Diamond Peer teacher for Harris, said he admires Harris’s ability to link the past to the present in her work.
“She is able to connect the then and now,” Baskin said. “Her studies open new doors for the medieval literature field.”
For Harris, her great-grandmother’s inability to receive an education is a prime example of how misogyny and racism disempower people both historically and currently. Born in the 1910s, Harris’s great-grandmother only received an eighth-grade education until she could pursue high school and college education later in life.
She always hoped Harris would achieve what she couldn’t, Harris added. Harris now brings her passion full circle by sharing her knowledge of medieval literature topics with her students.
“I like teaching it because I can bring in a lot of historical facts about alehouse literature,” Harris said. “It’s a very touchy topic, but learning about the history of English brewing allows you to understand the overall concept of medieval literature.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misquoted Carissa Harris. The article has been updated to accurately reflect her quotations.