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William Matthews Memorial Lecture

Venue: External

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In 1981, Birkbeck received a bequest from the estate of the late Professor William Matthews for an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature. The lectures alternate between these subjects, with the previous lecture speakers and titles available to view from here: 

This years lecture will be given by Professor Kellie Robertson, Professor of English, University of Maryland on the topic 'Yesterday’s Weather: Climate Change and the Arc of History' 

Lecture Summary:

'Yesterday’s Weather: Climate Change and the Arc of History'

Most discussions about climate science throw us into a contingent and potentially cataclysmic future. We look ahead to how different the world will be in a decade or a century, given the inevitable effects of a warming environment. This talk turns this habit of perception on its head; instead, it looks back to medieval and early modern accounts of climate crisis, arguing that such narratives are equally important for envisioning the environmental consequences of our current attitudes toward climate. Where do the stories we tell about weather come from? How do they continue to influence us? Returning to these premodern stories is just as urgent as modeling our meteorological future, because today’s patterns of perception were set in place long before the moment when humans started influencing the environment on a global scale, long before the advent of the era that geologists have dubbed the Anthropocene, a period beginning with the Industrial Revolution and in which human activity has become the dominant driver of change in the earth’s ecosystems. Listening to these earlier stories about the vagaries of weather will help us not only to understand better how we view natural disasters and climate change today but also, more importantly, to envision more equitable and capacious environmental futures.

This is an hour lecture, followed by a drinks reception.

Professor Kellie Robertson, University of Maryland

Professor Kellie Robertson writes about medieval literature and culture; her research and teaching are premised on the idea that a return to this earlier intellectual history can help us to better understand our own modern desires and philosophical commitments. Her most recent book, Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) examines late medieval poetry in the context of its physics, arguing that both domains struggled over how to represent nature in the wake of Aristotelian science. Her current book project, Yesterday's Weather: Narrative and Premodern Climate Change, looks at how medieval and early modern societies depict the shock of the natural disaster. She is also the author of The Laborer’s Two Bodies: Labor and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500, a book that explores textual and material responses to the first national labor laws, and editor (with Michael Uebel) of a collection of essays entitled The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England. At the University of Maryland, she currently serves as the Director of Graduate Studies for the English Department.

Please note that while this event is free, booking is required. This event is taking place at Birkbeck's Malet Street Campus.

It is requested that event attendees wear face coverings, unless exempt from doing so. 

If you have any further questions, please get in touch by emailing

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