Here you’ll find provocations, reflections, and essays written by University of Chicago students in Benjamin Saltzman’s course: “Witnessing Medieval Evil: Literature, Art, and the Politics of Observation.” The first set of contributions were written in Spring 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The latest set of contributions are from Winter 2022, currently in progress. Feel free to leave your comments and engage in a conversation with us!


Seeing hell for oneself, watching the torture of a saint, looking at illustrations of war: these profoundly terrible experiences, narrated and drawn, shaped the way medieval readers took in the world around them, its violence, its suffering, its preponderance of evils. But how exactly does literature allow readers to witness and process such horrors? How is the observation of violence transformed by art? What is unique about the medieval experience of these artistic and literary forms of mediation? What can they teach us about our own contemporary cultural encounters with the sights and stories of atrocity? By exploring questions like these, this course will consider the didactic, religious, and epistemological functions of witnessing in a variety of early medieval texts, such as Prudentius’s Psychomachia (in which the Virtues engage in a gruesome battle against the Vices), the Apocalypse of Paul (in which Paul sees hell and lives to tell about it), early English law codes, the Life of St. Margaret, the Old English poems Genesis and Andreas. These medieval texts will be read alongside thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Susan Sontag, whose work on images of atrocity and forms of witnessing in the modern world will both inform our critical examination of the Middle Ages while opening up the possibility for rethinking literature and art in relation to contemporary experiences of violence.


Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. Old Testament Narratives. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. (Genesis A and B, and Daniel)

Bradley, S. A. J., ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Everyman, 1982. (Andreas)

Clayton, Mary, and Hugh Magennis, eds. and trans. The Old English Lives of St Margaret. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections. 277-300. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Derrida, Jacques. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

———. “Poetics and the Politics of Witnessing.” In Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, edited by Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. 65-96. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

Gardiner, Eileen, ed. and trans. Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante. New York: Italica, 2008.

Groebner, Valentin. Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages. Translated by Pamela Selwyn. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Edited and Translated by H. J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Ronell, Avital. “The Testamentary Whimper.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103, no. 2/3  (2004): 489-99.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.