Spotlight on Staff: Dr Daniel Sawyer

Daniel Sawyer

Tell us about your research interests

I study poetry, medieval manuscripts, and how manuscripts and poetry affected each other.

My first book, aimed a specialists, used evidence from several hundred manuscripts to explore how people in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries read poetry.

My second book, How to Read Middle English Poetry, covers verse from 1150 or so to 1500, for student and general readers; it’s in press and will (fingers crossed!) come out next year.

I’m writing about manuscripts that haven’t survived, and about strange literary-historical oddities, such as the accidental composition of one—but only one—English sonnet in the fifteenth century. I also edit Middle English works. Out of my reading for pleasure in my spare time, I’ve stumbled into a line of short note-length publications on writers we might, somewhat loosely, call California poets, such as Jack Spicer and Thom Gunn.

Which book has had the biggest impact on you?

Perhaps the first book I ever read under my own steam, The Horse and His Boy. I can’t trace much about my life directly to the book’s content, but I suspect getting over the threshold into reading might matter even more than any later influences.

Or, as a more literal answer: the Simeon Manuscript is the second biggest, heaviest codex I’ve ever handled, and the first time I picked it up, I nearly fell over.

Describe your ideal day.

I get up early and stumble to my desk to write while my first mug of tea wakes me up. I break for breakfast when the mug empties. I get some more writing done before hopping onto the bus to the city centre, where I spend the late morning poring over an interesting manuscript in the Bodleian’s Weston Library. I see friends over lunch at college, and then teach a couple of tutorials in the afternoon; since this is an ideal day, let us say that I did the relevant marking the day before! Students’ questions in the tutorials spur me to check something relevant to my own research in the English Faculty library. I read something light on the bus home, where I check how the figs on my fig trees are ripening, pour myself a very small amount of something alcoholic—let’s say it is a Friday—and put my feet up.

I have mysteriously avoided checking my email all day: that can wait to Monday.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

Here isn’t bad! But, other than here, I studied in London as an undergraduate, and part of me has long wanted to return: despite its many problems, it’s a remarkable city. So, London—or a village buried in a valley in the Pelion.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A submariner. I haven’t yet learned how to swim.

Do you have pets?

No: I have my work cut out looking after just myself!

Were you popular as a teenager?

I wasn’t the life of the party! But I was lucky enough to find like-minded friends, something that can make a key difference in those troublesome years.

If you could have dinner with five famous people from history, who would they be?

A majority of the writers in my period are anonymous. I’d love to talk to five randomly-selected later Middle English writers whose names we don’t at present know. Perhaps that stretches ‘famous’ to breaking point, but then again Anonymous is one author everyone has heard of.

How would your friends describe you?

I hope: punctual, nerdy, concise.

What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?

Most: I love working with so many smart, interesting students and colleagues; to find out something new, confirm it, and share it with the field feels very special; it is a joy to spend time wandering in the Bodleian’s incredible holdings.

Least: watching the lack of funding and job opportunities destroy a lot of potential in our field.


Daniel Sawyer is currently Departmental Lecturer in English Literature and Manuscript Studies in the English Faculty, and an Associate Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College. In the past he has also worked as the Fitzjames Research Fellow in Medieval English Literature at Merton College, as a Junior Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, and as a Riley Fellow at the Huntington Library, Pasadena.