Published December 09, 2022 by Tom Porter

Medieval Literature Scholar Solberg Honored for “Outstanding Article”

“Bob and wheel” is a literary term applied to the use, in medieval verse, of two metrical schemes (the short “bob” and longer “wheel”) to punctuate the end of a longer stanza.

sir gawain poem
A manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, circa 1400

The form is most famously employed in the fourteenth-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, explained Associate Professor of English Emma Maggie Solberg, in her article “Imagining the Bob and Wheel,” published in the January 2022 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America (MLA).

The term “bob and wheel” was not coined until the nineteenth century, however, said Solberg, one of a number of literary terms retrospectively applied by later scholars to an era of poetry that is hard to classify. “Medieval poetic forms defy classification, and yet medievalists trade in postmedieval formalist taxonomies—sometimes without reflecting on their history,” she wrote. “This essay,” continued Solberg, “tracks the history of the interpretation of the bob and wheel across time, from the Middle Ages to the present day, and finds that it has been imagined as a tail, a game, and a cog in a machine.”

Solberg’s observations caught the attention of the scholars at the MLA, who chose her paper as one of the cowinners of the fifty-ninth annual William Riley Parker Prize for an outstanding article published in PMLA. “Emma Maggie Solberg’s ‘Imagining the Bob and Wheel’ represents the very best of sustained methodological attention to poetic form as it interweaves with cultural and literary histories,” wrote members of the association’s selection committee in their citation.

Emma Maggie Solberg

Solberg, who fell in love with medieval English poetry while studying at Oxford, said she was inspired to write the article back in 2016: “My honors student Katherine Churchill, to whom this article is dedicated and who is now a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, mentioned that she was having trouble finding any hard evidence backing up the notion that the poetic bob and wheel derives from the mechanical spinning wheel. I sat down to look into it and fell down this rabbit hole.”

The prize’s other cowinner is Shane Vogel, professor of English and African American studies at Yale University, for his article “Waiting for Godot and the Racial Theater of the Absurd.”

Earlier Bowdoin honors: Maggie Solberg is the second Bowdoin professor to honored by the MLA. In 1996 her colleague Anne Kibbie earned an honorable mention for her article "Monstrous Generation: The Birth of Capital in Defoe's Moll Flanders and Roxana" (October 1995).