By Madeleine Mulford
A stereotype about the Middle Ages is that medieval people were obsessed with hell: manuscript images are full of demons torturing naked souls, and visions, like Dante’s Inferno from the Divine Comedy, remain enduringly popular to this day. Why were medieval people so fixated on hell?
Stephen Hopkins, an assistant professor of English at the University of Central Florida, argues that it’s because hell was a laboratory of the imagination, a space where people could imagine the limits of salvation and could rewrite the rules of who belonged and who did not.
Based on his research, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected Hopkins to receive a year-long, $60,000 fellowship to finish his book, The Infernal Laboratory: Vernacular Theology and Hell in the Medieval North Sea.
The NEH awarded $28.1 million in grants for 204 humanities projects across the nation, the organization announced last month. The fellowship program supports advanced research in the humanities, and the recipients produce articles, books, digital materials or other scholarly resources.
According to the NEH website, the agency received an average of 1,100 applications per year for the past five rounds of competition. Hopkins is one of only 70 NEH fellowship recipients this year.
“I am honored to receive this fellowship from the NEH, and excited to be among a cohort of so many other captivating, ground-breaking and important humanities projects funded this year,” Hopkins says.
The Infernal Laboratory: Vernacular Theology and Hell in the Medieval North Sea, his current project funded by the NEH grant, investigates unusual local experiments with the concept of hell in vernacular texts over the course of the Middle Ages. This malleable idea of hell emerged naturally from translations and experimentation with biblical and apocryphal literature in early Medieval England, Iceland, Wales and Ireland.
“My book project begins with a crucial question: how did medieval writers develop their remarkably vivid conception of hell?” Hopkins says. “Not from the Bible; the New Testament has surprisingly little to say about hell. Yet by the 14th century, hell had become a codified, stratified and complex space, able to be mapped out with precision in Dante’s Divine Comedy. My book tells the story of how hell was used in the Middle Ages as an experimental space in which vernacular writers determined locally meaningful formulations of cultural and theological belonging.”
utterly gobsmacked & stoked to share the news that I've been awarded an NEH Fellowship to write my book, The Infernal Laboratory, on vernacular theology, apocrypha, & hell across the medieval North Sea @NEHgov . It's humbling & a privilege to be among so many amazing projects! https://t.co/S7MpyoPtfq
— Stephen Hopkins (@phil_lol_ogist) January 10, 2023
Before joining UCF in 2019, Hopkins received a bachelor’s in anthropology and linguistics from Miami University in Ohio and completed a master’s and doctorate in English literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. At UCF, Hopkins teaches courses ranging from linguistics, early medieval literature and mythology. As a medievalist, his work focuses on early English literature in its North Sea context.
Though he loves teaching, Hopkins looks forward to the concentrated research and writing time the fellowship will grant him to finish his first manuscript of the book.
“This time away from the classroom will enable me to inhabit this project deeply, which is important given the ambition of the work, spanning half a dozen languages and a thousand years of literary history,” Hopkins says. “In addition to the invaluable deep time I will devote to reading, thinking and writing, this grant will allow me to visit archives to consult medieval manuscripts and early print books that will benefit my work immensely.”
Top Image: A 15th-century depiction of hell – British Library MS Additional 29433 fol. 89