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Emily Houlik-Ritchey explores medieval language and literature

Photo courtesy Rice University

By Nithya Ramcharan     3/21/23 10:25pm

Wacky, crazy and terrifying. These words might evoke pictures of daredevils or precarious adventures but for Emily Houlik-Ritchey, an associate English professor at Rice, they point to something entirely different: medieval literature.

Houlik-Ritchey said she was primarily drawn to medieval literature because of the language in which it was written: Middle English, an archaic form of English commonly used in the 11th to 15th centuries by the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, both 14th-century English poets. 

“I fell in love with the way the language sounded, all the crazy [and] cool features of it and the way it has shifted over time,” Houlik-Ritchey said. “Sometimes the same words don’t mean exactly the same thing as they used to and all those nuances and details captured my heart. I have rarely found a book [written in Middle English] that I didn’t like.”

After graduating from Sewanee with an English major and Spanish minor, Houlik-Ritchey worked at a bookstore for a few years before realizing that she missed studying literature. 

“I didn’t like selling books,” Houlik-Ritchey said. “I actually wanted to talk about them and study them and teach them.”

Houlik-Ritchey’s research in medieval studies also incorporates studies of gender, sexuality, postcolonialism and race relations.  Her dissertation is a comparative study of Castilian and English romances. Her first book, “Imagining Iberia in English and Castilian Medieval Romance,” which was published in 2023, focuses on three stories written in both languages set in medieval Iberia. 

“The way these two very different languages and cultural traditions tell the same stories set in this place and the different ways they imagine what medieval Iberia is through these stories is a really interesting comparative picture,” Houlik-Ritchey said.

Aside from publishing her first book, she said she is proud of the teaching she has done and enjoys the collaborative nature of the courses she has taught at Rice. Recently, she worked with a group of graduate students on a course on race in the medieval period, where the students in the class used an archiving digital platform Omeka to curate an exhibit on race in the Middle Ages. Teaching to Houlik-Ritchey has simultaneously been one of the biggest challenges and benefits of her job. 

“It’s the most dynamic, exciting [and] unpredictable space, and that makes it really challenging but also makes it just that much more exciting,” Houlik-Ritchey said.

Beyond the classroom, it may come as no surprise that Houlik-Ritchey never stops reading.While her research deals with medieval works, her leisure reads are not limited to the realm of Middle English. She enjoys reading science fiction and mystery novels, and her current favorite authors include Alan Bradley, N.K Jemisin and Tony Hillerman. But while modern reading seems worlds removed from medieval literature, some similarities still persist. 

One of these similarities came up in an ENGL 200 classroom four years ago,where Houlik-Ritchey’s students found distinct parallels between Chaucer’s literature and one of the most popular teen romance series of the decade: “Twilight.” 

“We were talking about the interesting and disturbing way she is attracted to this man who is very violent, who hurts her," Houlik-Ritchey said. “I remember this so vividly — we had this really intense, vivid, animated, fabulous discussion of how disturbingly well [‘Twilight’] presents the man who's trying to kill you as the sexiest man in the world. And we were analogizing it to ‘The Wife of Bath.’”

When asked what motivates her ten years after receiving her doctorate, Houlik-Ritchey expressed appreciation for the literature she reads for her research. 

“I love writing, I love revision … it’s complicated and hard and it’s wonderful to get it right after you work,” Houlik-Ritchey said. “Because the literature is so rich, it’s also really rich for teaching. And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of talking about these stories with students either.”

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