Remembering Derek Pearsall

Derek Pearsall (1931-2021) was Trustee of the New Chaucer Society 1982-6 and President 1988-90. We include here four appreciations of Derek from members of the Society.

I first met Derek Pearsall when, as a clueless, eighteen-year-old math major, I walked into his office hours to try to talk my way into his Canterbury Tales class. I had wanted to take the course the previous year, but had had to drop it to take Linear Algebra. Now, my required Russian class stood in the way:  a scheduling conflict meant I could only attend half of the Chaucer classes. “Could I,” I asked, “miss your class on Tuesdays but attend your office hours on Thursdays to talk with you about the class? I will get notes from a classmate, read your book, and write a paper for you every week to cover what I’ve missed.” (I somehow thought this last detail would sweeten the deal.) Derek looked at me, startled and curious. But instead of laughing me out of his office, or gently sending me on my way, he invited me into the course, and into the field, and my life was never the same again. 

I have often wondered why Derek agreed to my extraordinary request. As a Black student and an immigrant, raised by a mother who left school at sixteen, I did not know the rules of an Ivy League university. All I knew was that I really wanted to study the Canterbury Tales.  I often wonder if Derek understood, and said yes, because he himself was an academic outsider. Sure, at that point, he was already Derek Pearsall (with a capital D and capital P), but he had taken a far from typical path to get there. The son of a shopfitter and a homemaker, he was the first in his family to go to university. He was admitted to the University of Birmingham to do a degree in Geology, but found it a poor fit; and when he was outside the Registrar’s Office one day in search of a new program of study, he ran into an English professor who invited him to begin what became a lifelong love of literary study. Derek famously liked to joke about the fact that he did not have a Ph.D. Compulsory military service (he taught military history to new RAF recruits) and starting a family with Rosemary, his beloved wife of 52 years, meant that he began his professional career as a schoolmaster in Cambridgeshire. He may have been Derek Pearsall, but he was never to the academic manor born.

Derek is best known as a brilliant, wickedly funny scholar who wrote provocative essays on just about every aspect of medieval literature, who prided himself on being the only person alive to have read everything Lydgate ever wrote (though others may since have joined him), and who made collaborative manuscript study part of the mainstream in our field. But to me and many of his students, Derek was an extraordinarily gifted teacher and mentor. I vividly remember a visit to his office hours—when Derek, frustrated with the weekly papers I had been submitting (one can only imagine their tragicomic state), said, “Susan, I would like you to stop quoting me and tell me what you think.” At the time, I was chagrined and terrified; looking back, I recognize the incredible power of that moment, and the way in which the challenge—and the gift—it offered lay at the core of who Derek was as a mentor. He did not encourage his students to parrot his views, and he definitely did not want us to be clones of him. That for him would have been boring, and Derek did not like to be bored. Rather he encouraged us to pursue our own questions and ideas, no matter how farfetched. Derek liked it when we argued with him, and loved it when we could change his mind—whether about Aristotle’s Ethics or Spenser’s politics, about the Wife of Bath’s glosses or the Prioress’s “tears,” about the ideal festivities for the annual Christmas reveals (while Derek preferred traditional carols, he was willing to give karaoke and medieval Jeopardy!—“what is Winchester Abbey Road?”— a try) or about just how much delight a professor should take in striking his student’s croquet ball into the road at the end of the year party. Derek was fiercely loyal, personally and professionally (croquet notwithstanding); he had the highest expectations for each of us, but he provided both the unyielding support and the incisive yet generous critique necessary to achieve those expectations. I knew what he meant when he wrote “Good scholarly stuff!” in the margins of my first dissertation chapter.

Derek had an incredible knack for recognizing what made students light up, what captured our imaginations, and what paths we might most enjoy, even when we had no idea ourselves. For more than a few of us, Derek is to blame for lifelong obsessions that began with one of his seemingly off-the-cuff suggestions, usually having to do with manuscripts and early printed books (“why don’t you go and have a look at the manuscript marginalia?,” “perhaps you should look into a fellow named Wynken de Worde”). It is a kind of mentoring magic that Derek could practice because he knew about—and was interested in—everything. Derek had an extraordinary gift for showing each of us the roles we could play in the field—for showing each of us how, and that, we belonged. Years after I graduated, he worked this particular mentoring magic on one of my own students at a lunch before a talk he was giving. When she came into my office to tell me that Derek Pearsall had been excitedly chatting with her about what she had found in the margins of one of the Newberry’s Gower manuscripts, she was practically glowing with a newfound sense of her own place in the profession. I suspect that more than a few of us marveled at—and benefitted from—Derek’s particular conversational genius, the way he could, in a matter of mere minutes, suss out who a person was and what mattered to them, and the way he always seemed genuinely interested in, and never threatened by, the new perspective they offered. Scholarship for Derek, it always seemed to me, was a spirited conversation rather a tactical skirmish.

I am so deeply grateful, and indebted, to Derek Pearsall—for saying yes that day, for welcoming me into the field and never doubting that I had a place in it, and for teaching me how to be a scholar and a teacher and a mentor. I would not be here without him. And when I teach the Canterbury Tales, his voice will always be in my head.                          

Susie Phillips

Derek Pearsall had many gifts; the three I will address here were his innate cheerfulness and positivity, which gave him the capacity always to see the best in people, his great grasp of language, and his love of reading, which were inextricably linked. I was 32 when I met Derek who seemed to me, on first impression, to be an aged English gentleman (in his 50s!) with hairy sideburns who was broadly smiling. Language was one key to his charm. Derek would describe an English rainstorm as “misting”; a cold day was “fresh”; every day was beautiful with natural wonders to admire. When we got to know each other, he appreciated my use of zeugma and parentheticals, and what he described as the rapid fire of my conversation. I imagine he was just as appreciative of and complimentary to all his acquaintance. We discussed medieval literature but also modern fiction and shared our experience of novels we liked – he was a great lover of comic novels (Wodehouse) but also read serious ones (L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, John Williams’s Stoner, Arnold Bennett), some of which I found wildly depressing if beautifully written. He had an extensive memory of Shakespeare, quotations from and allusions to whose writing informed his own. His memory was excellent but also supported by a habit he had had since childhood of jotting down memorable phrases in a little notebook, including jokes; he once told me he had epitomized each volume of the Moncrieff Proust translation for his own pleasure (and so he could remember it). His love of reading also informed his scholarship on Chaucer; he was a keen reader and interpreter of the poet and fully appreciated Chaucer’s humor and nuance and subtleties which he discussed not only in his Canterbury Tales (1985) but in numerous articles. As an external reader for the Journal of the Early Book Society, Derek was both diligent and incisive, again seeing the best in submissions and supplying detailed reader’s reports as to how essays might be strengthened, corrected, or otherwise improved. An occasional joke found its way into a report here and there, but mainly he took this duty very seriously. In his later years, Derek tended  to come into conference sessions a bit late; one could hear the characteristic clearing of his throat in the back of the room, and with that, those who knew him would relax because no matter how weak or poor a paper or how nervous a speaker was, we knew Derek’s remarks after the talk would draw out the speaker, put him or her at ease, and the discussion following would be lively. He knew how to listen. He also made a point of getting to know the youngest, newest, and most ill-at-ease at conferences, making them feel like they were just in the right place. He was a kindly man, a prolific writer, delightful company, and a mentor and a guide for so many in our profession, his students and their students, colleagues, even passing acquaintances. He is much missed.   

Martha W. Driver

I first encountered Derek Pearsall in the Fall (autumn) of 1973, my first term at York. It was the custom then for teachers to give lectures that might lure newbies into their academic areas. By far the most popular offering at that time was the D.H. Lawrence Special Paper, and I owe Derek for saving me from that. He did this by voicing Chaucer, releasing a poetry both familiar and strange (still my chief orientation to all things medieval). In his Chaucer seminar, Derek listened intently to what you had to say and then played it back, in nuce, leaving you with the fig-leaf realization that you had said no more nor less than this. Which was a huge compliment, and a technique refined during his years as a schoolteacher. When it came to writing my Chaucer long essay, braided with the Italian I was learning with A.C. Charity and Nick Havely, Derek suggested that I share a draft with a long-haired grad student in an Afghan coat, David Lawton, who improved things immeasurably. Elizabeth Salter dazzled me in seminar and intimidated me at my first-ever cocktail party; I avoided conversation by filling my mouth with peanuts. York was precociously alive both to its own glorious medieval fabric and to international dimensions (both Derek and Elizabeth travelled early to the US). Chaucer Studies was mapped, Derek said then, between the Scylla of D.W. Robertson and the Charybdis of E.T. Donaldson. Derek especially loved Donaldson, who helped release the wit and sparkle of his own native prose. Which is deeply English. Derek loved to travel, “did abroad” gamely, and relished his time at Harvard. But just as his Harvard colleague, Seamus Heaney, would inevitably be drawn back to the landscapes of County Derry, often (so Derek said) while sitting through a Department meeting, so DAP was more at home tramping up Pen-y-ghent, Yorkshire, than antiquing in New England.

Derek’s speed and precision of output, a product of first-take, longhand writing, struck the profession in the 1970s with shock and awe. While some scholars were considering preliminaries for, say, a Variorum Chaucer edition, Derek had started and finished his (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, 1984), and was on to the next thing. His Old English and Middle English Poetry (1977), combining sharp critical observation with groundedness in manuscripts, set a standard for literary history that has yet to be matched. His passing remark about “untextual readers,” meaning those who read unmoored from manuscript contexts, has compelled my reparative attending of medieval manuscript conferences down the years, often at York. His own first hearing of a Carolyn Dinshaw paper prompted his own remedial reflection, worked out (not entirely successfully) in a review of Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. From first to last, Derek was an exceptional listener, recognizing intellectual quality and keen to comprehend things he did not quite get.

I am sure that many of Derek’s former pupils, whose number is legion, have at least once attempted to thank Derek for all he had done. And perhaps, like me, they flubbed their lines. My chance came after he visited Minnesota, some decades ago. Hearing my attempt, and seeing me flounder, he said: “you thank me by what you do.” As ever, succinctly, Derek caught my meaning and said it best.   

David Wallace

Derek Pearsall at York, 11 July 2015 (photo David Wallace).

I knew Derek Pearsall for more than fifty years. I first got in touch with him when I was a graduate student and thought (mistakenly as it turned out) that I might write a thesis on Lydgate. He replied to my initial bumbling enquiries in a way that was both friendly and encouraging. We soon became friends and it was natural that I should seek his support when I was setting up the Index of Middle English prose, to which he gave great help. We were involved together in various subsequent academic undertakings.

I saw Derek regularly during his working life at conferences and other academic events. I have particularly fond memories of lunches at The Dolphin in Cambridge, for Harvard Colloquium meetings, and of dinners in Norman, Oklahoma at a restaurant owned by Paul Ruggiers, for Chaucer Variorum events. But I recall as keenly less academic occasions. Derek lived for nearly sixty years first near and then in York. I was from Yorkshire and my wife, Julia Boffey’s parents lived in the Dales, so we sometimes met for country walks after Derek retired from Harvard, in parts of North Yorkshire. These were initially together with Derek’s wife Rosemary, who died in 2004, and with Julia’s children, and were carefully organized around suitable sites for afternoon tea, a matter of recurrent concern to Derek.

The last occasion we met in the Dales was in September 2020 when we had a long lunch with Derek and his old friend, Sue Powell, in the Burgoyne Hotel in Reeth (an establishment of which he approved). We then drove to examine the nearby ruins of Marrick Abbey. Afterwards Derek drove me back to our cottage where we had tea and cake (Derek was very fond of cake) and we talked, mainly about his earlier years. He told me for the first time that after he completed his National Service in 1954 he had planned to go to Oxford to read for a DPhil. He had been interviewed by Tolkien and F. P. Wilson. But Rosemary had become pregnant with their first child, Michael, and he had found it necessary to take a job as a school teacher. It was not until 1959 that he got an academic job, as Assistant Lecturer at King’s College, London.

Julia and I saw him one last time in mid-September 2021. He was still living alone in his house in York, in Clifton Dale. But he was clearly very frail after his cancer treatment, but still entirely lucid. We admired the just published catalogue of the manuscripts of Gower’s Confessio and talked about his plans to move into sheltered accommodation in York. The end was unexpectedly sudden and he died on 14 October. It was a long life, rich in scholarly accomplishment, but also rich in love for his family and his friends.

A. S. G. Edwards