U of T Scarborough’s Kara Gaston Looks to the Margins of the Past to Break Down Contemporary Disciplinary Boundaries

Photo of Kara Gaston

By Dr. Ailén Cruz

Dr. Kara Gaston, associate professor and associate chair in the department of English at U of T Scarborough, researches the representation of astronomy in textual commentary during the Middle Ages.  Her current book project, entitled Word and World in the Later Middle Ages: The Astronomy of Commentaries on the Classics, explores the interdisciplinary relationship between literature and astronomy, and how this relationship helped to shape the astronomical imagination of the reader.

Gaston broadly defines commentary in the Middle Ages as an explanation attached to a text that can take on many forms. Commentary can appear in the margins of a work, explaining an obscure word or reference in texts considered authoritative, such as Virgil’s Aeneid and the Bible. These para-textual accompaniments could also serve for educational purposes or be used to teach grammar. Commentary could also go beyond the explicatory, bending the sources to suit one narrative or another: “There was a saying in the Middle Ages that the authorities had wax noses”, she explains, illustrating the ever-changing faces of texts, embodying one interpretation or another. Some commentaries, called free-standing commentary, became such learned and rich works that they took on a life of their own, circulating altogether separately from their original counterparts.

Gaston’s research focuses on how commentary in literary texts reflects the cosmos and affects the way it is interpreted. She shares the example of constellations in an Ancient Greek poem which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, which were sometimes represented as man-made, and were other times described as God’s creations. Although these different descriptions do not move the stars, depending on the stories told they can be perceived differently. Through these different interpretations, what was once a cluster of far-away orbs transforms into a hero or a fearsome beast. By rendering celestial bodies into characters within a larger human narrative, commentary makes the cosmos knowable and allows humans to more easily track the movement of the stars and know their locations more specifically.

Another point of interest fueling Gaston’s research is the way in which disciplinary boundaries, in this case the philosophical, astronomical, and literary, are blurred in commentary of ancient texts. Boundaries during the Middle Ages, whether geographic or linguistic, looked vastly different from our contemporary ones. Gaston focuses on disciplinary boundaries and identifies the Middle Ages as particularly valuable for encouraging questioning on where one subject ends, and the next begins. She gives the example of Sacrobosco’s Sphere, the most popular and important astronomical textbook in the later Middle Ages, which extensively quotes poetry, and not as simply decorative, but also as a way of informing the reader’s understanding of the universe.

For 21st century audiences, Gaston’s research advocates the value of borrowing from Medieval scholars and readers, taking a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the world. She references Rita Copeland’s research which labels the 12th century as the era of the Big Picture, in which “…all of knowledge is connected and everything from pottery making to poetry, writing to music and astronomy can be contained in a single branching diagram of human knowledge”. Communicating her infectious fascination with understanding, she continues: “I think the Middle Ages could show us the kind of productive and exciting thinking that comes when we consider the disciplines together and get creative in the way we think about their relations to one another”.