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NEH Awards

The roots of African history in the Americas, the complexities of Irish identity, the enduring power of a 14th-century Spanish classic — these are the stories behind the three programs affiliated with the University that have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Miller shares passion for African history

Joseph Miller
Photo by Tom Cogill
Joseph Miller

By Sarah Marchetti

African history captivated Joseph Miller in the 1960s, when many African nations were gaining their independence.

“There was so much hope in Africa, and I was intrigued by the challenge of doing history in a place where history is perceived not to exist,” Miller said.

Miller, former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and a history professor who teaches about early Africa, slavery and the slave trade, will share his passion for African history with 15 college instructors this summer in a seminar called “Roots 2003: African Dimensions of the History and Culture of the Americas.”

He received a $119,999 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to direct a six-week program designed to enrich the research and teaching of college professors.

Miller hopes to have 15 historians from diverse fields of study in the Americas, such as North American, Latin American and Caribbean history.

“The main goal of the seminar is bring a topic to the table, open it up and encourage people to collaborate on research,” he said.

He has been developing the idea for this seminar for years, and his term as president of the American Historical Association in 1998 confirmed his desire to design a course in African studies for college professors.

“I was one of the only Africanists in the association, so the course will be a rare opportunity to enrich what we historians already do by talking to people in different fields,” he said.

Miller has published widely in the field and edited numerous books, including The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History (1980) and the Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery (1999), which he co-edited. He also served as editor of the Journal of African History (1990-96).

Miller has invited several experts in related fields to speak to his class, and he plans to give his students plenty of time to take advantage of U.Va.’s vast library resources as they develop journal articles.

Gerli giving Spanish medieval poetry new life

By Charlottte Crystal

E. Michael Gerli
Photo by Jenny Gerow
E. Michael Gerli

E.Michael Gerli has been reading the same book for 30 years. “It’s a great book,” he said. “It’s inexhaustible.”

The book is the “Libro de Buen Amor,” a 14th-century Spanish classic by Juan Ruiz. Cejador y Franca, an eminent Spanish literary critic, called it “the most powerful book ever written in the Spanish language.”

Known in English as “The Book of Good Love,” the work is “an intensely dramatic kaleidoscope of songs, hymns, poetry, tales and fables,” according to Elisha Kane, one of Ruiz’s best-known translators.

Gerli, professor of Spanish at the University, recently received a $95,753 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to teach a five-week seminar on the book and its cultural context next summer to 15 college and university teachers. “I’m already getting inquiries,” he said.

What makes the book so fascinating?

“It’s more complicated than most people had perceived,” Gerli said. “Below the veneer of popular culture, it shows a detailed knowledge of canon law and a knowledge of vernacular literature. It’s an amalgam of different traditions that are examined, parodied and pushed to the limits of their interpretations. It can be understood in many ways — as a guide for sinners to teach them how to sin; as a guide for the righteous to teach them how to save themselves; and as a source of examples of poetry and rhymes before literature existed as such.”

The 1340s were a critical time in Iberian history, Gerli said. “Spain was on the frontier of Christian, Jewish and Muslim society. It was before the rupture among these communities. It was 150 years before the Inquisition, before the breakdown of the House of Burgundy in Spain and the advent of the French who brought anti-Semitism to Spain and made it governmental policy.”

Little is known for certain about the 14th-century Spanish poet. According to Kane, Ruiz lived most of his life in New Castile. He became archpriest of the village of Hita, near Guadalajara, and spent 13 years in prison.

Kane believed Ruiz to be the illegitimate child of a wandering beggar and a small-town prostitute. At a young age, Ruiz was taken into a monastery and taught to read and write. In the introduction to his 1933 translation of the book, Kane speculated that Ruiz later ran away, lived a full life on the open road and began to write poetry and stories. After returning to a religious calling, Ruiz somehow fell afoul of ecclesiastical authorities. In 1337, the Archibishop of Toledo threw him into prison, where Ruiz apparently wrote parts of “Libro de Buen Amor,” according to Kane.

Gerli said Kane had his own run-ins with the authorities. A scholar in Pennsylvania, Kane was accused of moral depravity in a court case involving the death of his wife. His translation of the book was introduced as evidence. Perhaps Kane was too sympathetic to Ruiz’s colorful nature, describing “his indecencies [as] merely the excrement of wit, evacuated somewhat copiously, to be sure, from a robust and hearty nature.”

Gerli’s parents were born in the U.S. and moved to Latin America so his father could work for U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Born in Latin America, Gerli was schooled by Jesuits in San Juan, Costa Rica.

He planned to follow his father into the field of industrial pharmacy, but a chance course in medieval Spanish literature, taken to fulfill a humanities requirement at the University of California-Berkeley, altered his life’s path.

The professor teaching the course, Samuel Armistead, was “an amazing, charismatic teacher,” Gerli said. “Doors opened for me in that class, and I found a new way of looking at the world.”

Gerli followed Armistead to UCLA where he earned his doctorate in Hispanic language and literature. Gerli wrote his first article on the “Libro de Buen Amor” in 1979, and his most recent appeared last June in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies. “It probably won’t be my last,” he said.

Gerli came to U.Va. in 2000 after 28 years in teaching and administration at Georgetown University. He travels each summer to the 14th-century granite house on the island of Majorca that he and his wife spent 15 years restoring. From his home away from home, he can hop a short flight to reach libraries in Barcelona and Madrid.

“I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” he said.

International conference to explore global Ireland

Mary McAleeseStaff Report

President Mary McAleese of Ireland will be the keynote speaker for “Re-Imagining Ireland – Transformations of Identity in a Global Context,” a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ groundbreaking international conference and festival to be held May 7-10 at U.Va. and in Charlottesville.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Ireland’s Cultural Relations Committee, the gathering will feature more than 100 journalists, writers, politicians, artists, scholars, musicians and citizen activists from Ireland and around the United States.

The intent is to explore the relation between global economics and traditional culture, the challenges and opportunities posed by the worldwide migration of national populations and connections between religious and political identity and issues of war and peace.

Focusing attention on Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s changing profile in a global context, the program will have particular relevance for an American audience, speaking to their country’s role in the world of the future.

“’Re-Imagining Ireland’ has been planned as a kind of ‘time-out’ on neutral ground,” said project director Andrew Higgins Wyndham. “We want to take people out of place, routine and mind-set, to a new environment in America, where for four days they will exclusively focus on, analyze and appreciate Irish culture, both in itself and in relation to America and other parts of the world.”

The conference and festival schedule includes 31 thematically organized panel sessions and special activities. On the roster are two major concerts, a series of musical narratives, an award-winning play, a new Irish feature film and series of short films, readings by major Irish poets, and an exhibition of contemporary Irish art. The program will accommodate 450 participants and featured guests from Ireland and throughout the United States, with larger audiences, ranging up to 900, expected at special events. A documentary film and book will extend the life and reach of the program.

McAleese, the opening speaker, is the eighth President of the Republic of Ireland and the first to come from Northern Ireland. A barrister and former professor of law, in 1994 she became the first female Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University. McAleese also is an experienced broadcaster, having worked as a current affairs journalist and presenter in radio and television with Radio Telefís Éireann, Ireland’s national broadcaster.

Among the 102 other participants slated to appear at the conference are such award-winning writers and poets as Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Nuala O’Faolain, Colm Toibin, Ciaran Carson, Paula Meehan and Cathal O Searcaigh; renowned musicians, including Frankie Gavin, Seamus Egan, Mick Moloney, Andy Irvine, Joannie Madden, Martin Hayes, Tommy Sands, Bruce Molsky, and Len Graham and Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin; and such well-known activists and politicians as Margaret Mac Curtain, Michael D. Higgins and David Ervine. Participants will also include economists, prominent business and cultural leaders, clergy, Irish Travelers (sometimes referred to as “tinkers” or gypsies) and representatives of the news media.

“Re-Imagining Ireland” is funded by a $200,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a grant of 50,000 Euros from the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland. Additional major support has been provided by many other organizations.

Beyond the conference and festival, the “Re-Imagining Ireland” documentary film and book will reach an American and international audience of millions, introducing new perspectives on Ireland and global culture, challenging national stereotypes and assumptions about historical and contemporary change. The documentary will be co-produced by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner and RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, with distribution support from South Carolina ETV. The project book, a group of commissioned essays with photo illustrations, is under contract with the University of Virginia Press.

Complete program information on “Re-Imagining Ireland” is available at the project Web site, The conference is a public event, with free admission to all panels, but registration will be limited. The fee structure for the conference package, including meals and all arts events, will be posted shortly.

hose interested in attending can register on-line, beginning Jan. 10, 2003. To receive printed bulletins or registration materials when available, please e-mail: Tickets for individual events, including concerts, film screenings, “Foley” and other performances, will be available on-line and by mail, beginning March 1.


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