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In Memoriam: Phillip John Pulsiano, 1955-2000


A Remembrance by Carl T. Berkhout, University of Arizona, and Patrick W. Conner, West Virginia University

Phillip Pulsiano, a distinguished, respected colleague and a warm personal friend to Anglo-Saxonists around the world, died in peace on 23 August 2000, two weeks before his forty-fifth birthday, after a long, valiant fight against cancer. He is survived by his wife Kirsten Wolf, his daughter Anne, his mother Lorraine, and his brothers Michael and Joseph. He has been laid to rest in Madison, Wisconsin, where Kirsten will soon reside as a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

A native New Yorker, Phill stayed close to home for most of his higher education and for his early years in the profession, though his strides into the international world of learning were to be swift and sure. He received his bachelor's degree, with majors in French and English, from the College of Saint Rose in Albany in 1977; from there, after a summer of study at the University of Kent and a propitious introduction to medieval English manuscripts, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for his graduate study, completing it with distinction in 1982 under the direction of Donald K. Fry. His dissertation, a 600-page compendium of "Materials for an Edition of the Blickling Psalter," was to become the foundation of what for almost any other scholar would have to be a long life's all-absorbing work-a critical edition of the Old English glossed psalters. After two years of teaching at Stony Brook and Princeton, he joined the faculty of the Department of English at Villanova University, where he taught a wide range of courses on medieval and modern subjects, rose steadily to the rank of full professor, worked tirelessly on numerous committees and local projects, and for five years served as chair of his department. Just months before his death he received Villanova's Faculty Research Award. This award and a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities were the latest of many institutional recognitions of his ever-growing record of achievement.

Phill had become particularly interested in – indeed, fascinated by – the complexities of Anglo-Saxon textual culture, and it followed almost inevitably that he would be inspired to take on as his magnum opus such extraordinary palaeographic, textual-critical, and editorial challenges as those posed by the fourteen manuscripts of the psalters. The edition that he envisioned, to be published by the University of Toronto Press, would come to four substantial volumes, including full apparatus and commentary. He had made impressive progress on the edition through 1997, and then the illness, the increasingly serious operations, and the innumerable therapy sessions and treatments that should have slowed or altogether halted his progress on it accelerated his progress instead. By the summer of 2000 volume 1, Old English Glossed Psalters: Pss. 1-50, was in press at Toronto; volume 2 was almost ready for the press; and he had made substantial progress on volume 3.

Phill's investigations of the psalter manuscripts and of other manuscripts to which his research or his curiosity drew him yielded a remarkable harvest of scholarly publications, formal lectures and conference papers, and other contributions on subjects ranging from the Old English psalters and saints' lives to Old English poetic texts and the history of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. He often referred to these activities as his "fun stuff." This fun stuff included five books that he compiled or co-edited, some fifty periodical articles or notes, various encyclopedia entries, ten reviews of his colleagues' work, and at least three dozen lectures or papers read at major professional venues.

His scholarship reached well beyond Anglo-Saxon England and into Old Norse literature, Middle English and Chaucer, hagiography, medieval Latin, and bibliography, and he was active and productive in all these areas. His passion for learning and for sharing that learning was not a separate compartment of his life but infused everything he undertook and had few boundaries. It fueled his daily regimen of intensive work, and it was what drew him into so many ancillary activities in the service of his colleagues. Perhaps most notable was his labor on the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile project, for he understood its durable value to scholars even in the present and future eras of digitized information and images. He wrote all of the introductions and descriptions for two of its volumes and served as the general editor of the series. From 1983 to 1990 he edited the Proceedings of the PMR Conference, the papers from Villanova's prestigious annual conference on Augustinian and related studies. From 1990 until his death he compiled the annual "Research in Progress" report for the Old English Newsletter, displaying in its incremental thoroughness the profound interest that he took in the work of his colleagues. Most recently he had assumed the duties of general editor for a new series from Ashgate Press, Studies in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts and Culture. His service was to extend even further, however, and for the past decade much of his increasingly precious time was dedicated to his work with the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. He was elected Second Vice-President at the society's biennial meeting at Stony Brook in 1991, serving in that office through 1997 and publishing erudite reports on the meetings in Oxford (1993), Stanford (1995), and Palermo (1997) in Anglo-Saxon England. At the Palermo meeting he was elected Executive Director of ISAS. An exemplary steward of the society, he increased its membership and its fiscal resources and, in preparation for the Helsinki 2001 meeting, was developing plans to build further support for Anglo-Saxon studies in the international arena.

Although Phill is gone, he has left us not only with much to remember and to admire but with even more contributions to come. In addition to his work now in press or forthcoming soon, a dozen or more of his other projects were far enough along to enable their completion by some of his colleagues. Among them are studies of the Old English passion of St. Christopher, Abraham Wheelock's grammar, Benjamin Thorpe and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Chaucer's Wife of Bath, and, with Kirsten, the Middle English life of St. Dorothy. His edition of the psalters will be completed by his colleague and former student Joseph McGowan, with whom he had collaborated on several earlier publications. Joe will also complete Phill's annotated handlist of manuscripts containing Old English glosses and will continue the edition of the three prose texts in the Beowulf manuscript that he and Phill had begun. Phill's co-editor Elaine Treharne will soon bring to press the collection entitled The Blackwell Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture.

Phill's scholarly work was his recreation of choice; the harder or more challenging it was, the more it would refresh and invigorate him. A day on the beach or in the wild was for him a day spent in Duke Humfrey or in the Parker Library on some strand or thicket in a worn Anglo-Saxon manuscript almost impossible to read. He did, however, know how to relax in ways that other people do – cooking, oil-painting, even occasional gardening or puttering about his home (which until he married his fellow scholar with better domestic tastes had been little more than a surround of books, files, and exhausted computers). Lasting images of Phill's lanky form hunched over a keyboard or over some manuscript in the British Library must compete with visions of him relaxing at day's end in a London pub over a pint, a pipe, and a game of darts (which invariably he would win), although he once grumbled, while crossing Westminster Bridge after a day of reading in Lambeth Palace Library, "What did Wordsworth know? There's not a damn thing to do in this town after five o'clock." Colleagues who personally knew Phill chiefly from social encounters at conferences and other occasions will ever remember a perky, witty, warmly grinning personality of infectious good cheer, but above all it was his gritty, galvanic, and sometimes fiercely obdurate temperament that made him especially productive and that sustained his spirit as his body failed him.

In January 1999, as an invited lecturer at the Università della Calabria for the conference Manoscritti, ecdotica e filologia elettronica, he spoke on "Manuscript Resources for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints." By this time his cancer had required major operations, and all at the conference who knew of his condition were visibly amazed at his energy and stamina. The conference met at several venues, Phill delivering his paper in the sala consiliare of the small Calabrian town of Rossano, outlining yet another new project, this one bringing together the most scholarly work in feminist and gender studies and resting on solid foundations of philology, manuscript studies, and hagiography. A local Italian boy, not more than sixteen, was sitting in the front row of the gallery, intent on Phill's every word and eagerly taking notes. The tableau evoked an image of that youth as a veteran scholar, recalling one day in a lecture of his own some bit of learning he had picked up in his own home town from this sharp, spirited Yank years earlier. That keen student limned a figure of Phill as much as the seasoned scholar on the dais did. Lecturer and learner, master and disciple. Serious purpose and youthful enthusiasm. That young lad was Phill.

OEN 33.4 (2000): 3-4.