The 2014 Sibley Fellowship Winner

By Malcolm B. Morse

Elizabeth Leet, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and an English lecturer at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, is Phi Beta Kappa’s newest Sibley Fellow. Her research involves an interesting mix of Trans-Atlantic travel, the study of antiquated equestrians, and a 16th century veterinary manual. She explores feminist theory through the lens of medieval literature focusing specifically on a non-violent style of horsemanship particular to female riders. The women represented in this literature, she argues, prove to be quite adept equestrians and, in some cases, warriors dispelling that very misconception about the traditional role of women in the Medieval Era being the damsels who need saving by the knight in shining armor. 

The moment when Leet takes interest in medieval literature occurs long before she received news of being the Sibley Fellowship recipient or when she decided to schedule a flight for September 2 to Paris, France. It began during her early years of graduate study in Professor Amy Ogden’s Survey of Medieval Literature course at the University of Virginia. In Ogden’s class she examined medieval texts and realized that the popular representation of medieval women in contemporary times misaligns with what she found in her studies. The notion of the valiant knight defending the name of his king or protecting the honor of his lady permeates the minds, young and old, of people worldwide when asked to muster up images of the Medieval Period. With no other representation to foil the famed damsel in distress, Leet argues that people have a very limited understanding of womanhood in the Medieval Ages, especially when this female archetype is seldom described in literature from the same time period. 

In the course of her research, Leet comes across a veterinary manual, Livre de la Marechaussee, where she finds evidence of a non-violent approach to horsemanship. Interestingly enough, the introduction is a riding instruction manual written by Jordanus Rufus, a particularly knowledgeable medieval broncobuster. The relationship between a female rider and her horse Leet describes as symbiotic, suggesting a deeper synchronicity between the two than that of her male counterparts. This notion goes against what many people may think, while they may find it credible, in part, because women have traditionally been viewed as more docile. It might make sense that they are more inclined to understanding nature’s bountiful supply of flora and fauna. However, Leet argues that women riders are often portrayed in the literature as equals to the men in horsemanship often through a much less aggressive and dominating approach to interspecies communication. These women enjoyed a level of agency through mastery of a “manly skill” that allowed them greater gender flexibility, social capital, and credibility than most. This phenomenon may have some grounding in Rufus’ manual where he suggests the rider use touch-based cues that are rooted in gentleness where the rider adapts to the horse and not the other way around. Leet speaks of the female rider having a conversation with her horse spawning from their two-way relationship, hence her characterization of this interspecies bond as symbiotic. 

The next chapter for Leet and her studies takes her to Paris where she will use the Sibley Fellowship award toward her ongoing research of feminist theory. She thanks The Phi Beta Kappa Society for selecting her as this year’s Sibley Fellow and adamantly supports its mission to preserve and develop the liberal arts. When asked about her thoughts on the importance of liberal arts, she said, “Liberal arts ought to be exciting from the beginning. [Professor] Ogden encouraged me to ask difficult questions and to be critical. No book has been completely explained. No work is untouchable. It’s critical that people keep bringing new things to the conversation to get people excited.”

Leet spends most of her time working towards completing her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Passionate about animal rights, Leet follows a strict vegetarian lifestyle where she does not consume animal products, but she does enjoy exploring the chocolate and natural wine shops of Paris. Leet also likes to travel and to discover new places, enjoying the solace found in “quiet moments walking by yourself,” she explains.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society awards the Sibley Fellowship annually to women between the ages of 25 to 35 desiring to conduct original research in either Greek or French. The focus shifts alternately from year-to-year between the two languages and the stipend amounts to $20,000. The Sibley Fellowship is neither exclusive to members of Phi Beta Kappa nor U.S. citizens. More information regarding the award can be found here. Leet’s award was announced by the Society in June 2014.

Photo at top: Elizabeth Leet at Parc Lou Casteau in Nice, France.

Malcolm B. Morse is a recent graduate of Morehouse College in English and political science. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa his junior year. Morehouse College is home to the Delta of Georgia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.