Asian Studies Professor Selinger Helping to Widen the Scope of Medieval Studies

By Tom Porter

As a scholar of Japanese literature and culture, Vyjayanthi Selinger may not be the first person you would associate with medieval studies. But a new fellowship underlines her important role in expanding a subject traditionally associated with Europe.

JSelinger in classroom
Photo credit: Anna Aridome

Selinger is the 2024 recipient of the Bonnie Wheeler Fellowship, a fund established in 2011 to support the research of women medievalists with tenure with the aim of helping them on the road to full professorship.

“I am elated at having my work recognized in this way,” commented Selinger, who, in addition to a $25,000 fellowship, will also receive the support of a mentor as she completes the research for her second book, The Law in Letters: The Legal Imagination of Medieval Japanese Literature and Drama. She was also excited to get a call from Professor Wheeler herself. “In addition to being a noted literary scholar, she has mentored a whole generation of academics who have developed new approaches and new ways of thinking about the subject of medievalism.”
[FUN FACT: Bonnie Wheeler's great-great uncle was Casey Sills, the eighth president of Bowdoin College!]

Selinger said she was also excited by the mission of the fellowship. “While many prizes recognize an achievement, such as a particular book or study, this is more about encouraging future academic leadership potential, finding scholars who are doing interesting work and helping them become thought leaders and future mentors.”

In keeping with the fellowship’s commitment to new approaches, Selinger is the first recipient to come from a non-Europeanist background. Her Asian focus is part of a broader effort among scholars to expand the scope of medieval studies and promote a more global perspective.

This is an exciting time to be a medievalist, said Selinger. “More scholars are thinking about global medievalism, about the movement of people, objects, and ideas across borders during the Middle Ages. The fellowship,” she added, “acknowledges the global perspectives enriching these questions, as I, an Indian-born scholar of Japan, share insights born of reading and listening in multiple languages.” The more stories we know, explained Selinger, the wider our angle of knowledge and insight becomes. “I am looking forward to sharing medieval Japanese stories with Europe-focused colleagues, but also learning from them which medieval European dramas I can assign in my own classes.”

Selinger’s latest project (The Law in Letters) will be the first book to look at the relationship between medieval Japanese law and drama (especially the dramatic form known as “Noh”), shedding new light on life in the country at that time.

“Many scholars in Japan are surprised to hear about my project because they are not aware of any legal or carcerel play from that era,” she said. “That’s because some of these plays—written in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and dealing with subjects like imprisonment, justice, and conflict, which are common to all courtroom dramas—are extra-canonical. By the seventeenth century Japanese theater had become much more ceremonial in character, and these earlier plays were no longer performed. They fell out of the repertoire of medieval Japanese drama that scholars know about today.”

So how did Selinger discover these little-known dramatic gems? It was, she explained, through a combination of intuition and “stumbling.” Her first book looked at how literature dealt with the war that gave birth to government by Shoguns, military leaders who ruled in medieval Japan. “Once in power, the Shoguns realized they had to regulate violence through legal means; otherwise, they would get toppled. So, they set up a legal system to move conflict off the battlefield and into more ordered setting—and succeeded for three hundred years.”

If this was what the Shoguns were pursuing, reasoned Selinger, then it must be reflected in the literature of the day. “This new way of managing conflict seeped into the literary idiom one way or another, but not in the most obvious manner. It doesn't scream at you, which is why scholars haven't noticed it.” She found these plays buried away in collections without any scholarly commentary. Sometimes the plays were only referred to, the original script having disappeared.

"This is an exciting time to be a medievalist. More scholars are thinking about global medievalism, about the movement of people, objects, and ideas across borders during the Middle Ages."

Selinger has uncovered six of these dramatic works and plans to publish translations of them in her upcoming book. “The plays use legal and penal motifs to grapple with societal changes. One of them concerns a blind man being sued by his brother over their late parents’ estate, another resembles the King Solomon parable about two women arguing before a judge about a child, while a further play explores the agonies of a man stuck in legal limbo, not knowing how long his wait for justice will go on.”

The appointment of a distinguished mentor to guide her with the book project is an aspect of the fellowship that has Selinger particularly excited. “This mentorship should help me expand the work toward broader audiences and see it to a successful conclusion. So many studies have shown that mentorship is crucial to female advancement, because mentors provide career planning support,” she said. “A mentor who can appreciate the structural challenges women face in academia and help me navigate these challenges will also help me become the mentor and academic leader I would like to become.”