Tom Coyne | October 24, 2017
Michelle Karnes believes imagination is the key to understanding medieval meditations about the life of Christ.
When readers picture themselves holding Jesus as a baby or feeding him, it evokes powerful emotions, she said.
“There are good cognitive reasons why imagining yourself participating in Christ’s life helps you engage with the narrative,” she said. “It causes you to invest yourself in a more profound way.”
Karnes joins the faculty in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters this fall as an associate professor of English, after eight years at Stanford University and a year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Her research focuses on late medieval literature and philosophy.
“Karnes is a serious scholar who energetically pursues topics of broad reach,” said Jesse Lander, associate professor and chair of the Department of English. “Her research agenda speaks directly to present interests in cognitive science as well as concerns about the place of literature and the humanities in contemporary culture.”
Her first book, Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages, was published in 2011. It examines how medieval philosophers, in response to newly recovered works by Aristotle, formulated new theories describing how imagination contributed to ways of knowing.
“In it, Karnes displays formidable skill as an intellectual historian, providing clear accounts of difficult texts by Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, and Bonaventure,” Lander said. “But this learning is ultimately deployed in support of an argument about the cognitive work of literature.”
While at Harvard, Karnes has been working on a second book, Medieval Marvels and Fictions. She describes marvels as things that are hard to understand according to medieval authors, such as the evil eye, various types of magic, or a certain herb curing a medical condition.