By Centre College News
This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2018 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 28th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
As a JCY Scholar, English and history double major Elizabeth “Ellie” Williams ’18 (Fort Thomas, Kentucky) has spent her senior year studying the works of Geoffrey Chaucer against the background of medieval legal thought and practice.
In her project titled “Rape and Suicide in Medieval Literature and Law: The Case of Chaucer,” Williams focused on two of Chaucer’s works: “The Franklin’s Tale,” from the Canterbury Tales, and The Legend of Good Women, a long poem separate from Canterbury that takes the form of a dream vision. In both pieces, the act of suicide is represented as a response to rape.
“I spent weeks studying 14th century English law on rape and suicide, and this framed my reading of Chaucer’s works,” Williams said. “While I mainly focused on a medieval context, I also remained alert to significant parallels and contrasts with women’s experiences today.”
Throughout the course of her project, she worked with her faculty mentor, Charles J. Luellen Professor of English Mark Rasmussen.
“Professor Rasmussen gave me a lot of freedom with the research process,” she said. “I started by researching the medieval legal discourse surrounding rape. I then turned to medieval legal and cultural discourses surrounding suicide.
“I complemented my own analysis with literary criticism,” she continued. “Additionally, I compared Chaucer’s text with his sources from classical antiquity. Professor Rasmussen was always warm and supportive of my impulses and takeaways.”
Rasmussen said that Williams has always been a strong and highly motivated student, but to witness her intellectual growth over the last year during this project has been one of the delights of his academic career.
“The JCY Scholars program is hands-down one of the best things we do at Centre,” he said. “Pursuing projects of their own design for two academic terms gives students a chance to test their wings as independent thinkers. As Ellie’s mentor, I listened and offered comments, but the project’s direction was entirely her own.”
He added that for Williams, this project is not only an academic engagement but one that has personal significance as well.
“As a Bonner Scholar, she has spent countless hours volunteering at the local rape crisis center, and I know that the intersection between her academic work as a JCY Scholar and her community involvement has been deeply meaningful to her,” he said.
Williams said that the most rewarding part of her Bonner experience was her time working as a medical and legal advocate for the Ampersand Sexual Violence Resource Center, formerly known as the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center.
Beginning in September 2017, she has served the center by responding to hospital calls and advocating for survivors of sexual assault. She was able to use her research on the history of rape and its terminology during her service, as well as use her experiences with survivors for her research.
After Centre, Williams said she will continue working with survivors and toward ending sexual assault, eventually attending law school to further this work.