The Language of Love: Gates Cambridge Scholar to Study Troubadour Narratives

Submitted on Friday, 7/11/2014, at 4:09 PM

Already an accomplished speaker, researcher and teacher of languages, Terrence Cullen ’13 is one of only 40 U.S. scholars to receive a Gates Cambridge Scholarship this year.

Terrence Cullen '13

Terrence Cullen '13

The award will cover his full tuition to the University of Cambridge, where he plans to earn a master of philosophy degree in European literature and culture in the university’s Department of Modern & Medieval Languages. As an extension of the research he did for his senior thesis at Amherst, Cullen’s graduate studies will focus on the concept of love in 13th-century narratives written in the Occitan language.

Cullen came to Amherst College from Lexington, Mass., and was part of the college’s Schupf Scholars Program for exceptionally talented students. He majored in both French and English, as well as studying historical linguistics and a number of other languages. He tutored his peers in French; undertook an undergraduate research fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library; and, as a research assistant for the English Department, translated medieval Anglo-Norman poetry for inclusion in a forthcoming anthology. He spent a summer teaching English to schoolchildren on the island nation of Mauritius and a semester studying German and French language and literature at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland. He also found time to play the clarinet in the Amherst College Symphony Orchestra and race on the ski team. Cullen won Amherst’s Frederick King Turgeon Prize for distinguished work in French and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

“He is very intellectually intense, a truly gifted student, an excellent writer and a supremely independent thinker,” wrote Howell D. Chickering, Amherst’s G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature, Emeritus, in recommending Cullen for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Cullen took Chickering’s course on “Old English and Beowulf” and later worked with him on an independent study of Old English. The professor considers him “one of the best students I have had in 48 years of teaching.”

Another recommender, Professor of French Rosalina de la Carrera, praised Cullen’s “innate talent for teaching”—which became evident to her when he made a lively extemporaneous presentation to his fellow students in her class—as well as his mastery of French pronunciation and grammar: “The first time I heard him make a comment in class, I concluded that he was a native speaker, and was surprised later on to discover that I was wrong.” De la Carrera noted that, though he was only a second-year student, Cullen excelled in her advanced seminar on the Enlightenment philosopher Diderot—a course largely intended for third- and fourth-year French majors.

Similarly, Professor of French Paul Rockwell was surprised at Cullen’s outstanding performance in a course on Medieval French literature, taught in French, in his very first semester at Amherst. “[Cullen] had a sense of how to analyze literature in a way that I just hadn’t ever seen before in a first-semester freshman,” said Rockwell, who later did an independent study with Cullen on how to read Medieval French. Cullen went on to teach himself a lesser-known medieval language—Occitan, spoken in southern France and parts of Italy and Spain by, among others, the lyric poets known as troubadours—and Rockwell served as his advisor on his senior thesis about a 13th-century troubadour poem called the Flamenca. Cullen argued that the physically intimate, gender-egalitarian portrayal of erotic love in the Flamenca “supplants the earlier code of fin’ amors, which necessitated the perpetuation of unfulfilled desire.” The thesis project qualified him to graduate from Amherst summa cum laude.   

To earn his MPhil, Cullen intends to research several other troubadour narratives—called novas—to consider whether they, too, attempt to transform the idea of love. “Either maligned or ignored since the dawn of Romance philology, the Occitan narrative tradition has only recently begun to receive some of the critical attention it deserves,” he pointed out in his research proposal for the scholarship. “While this project would be a small step in bringing the understudied corpus of novas to greater light, it could eventually develop to include contemporary Occitan narratives outside of the novas tradition…. It was primarily through narrative means such as these that the lyrics of the troubadours spread throughout medieval Europe, and a comprehensive study of them as a genre would raise far-reaching questions on how they shaped the reception of Occitan poetry.”

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program was established in 2000 when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $210 million to the University of Cambridge (the largest single donation ever made to a university in the United Kingdom). The scholarships go to outstanding academics from outside the UK who wish to complete full-time postgraduate degree programs in any subjects available at the university. Some 4,000 applicants vie for only 90 scholarships each year, and 40 of this year’s winners are from the U.S. Cullen joins Noah Isserman ’07, Clare Howard ’10 and Tovah Ackerman ’09 on the list of Amherst graduates who have received the scholarship since 2008.

“I’m just delighted that he’s had this success with the Gates,” said Rockwell of his advisee. “My guess is, after a couple of years at Cambridge, Cambridge is going to want to keep him.”

And how does Cullen himself imagine his future? “I intend to pursue a career as a teacher of French,” he wrote, “and pass on my conviction in the power of language as a bridge between times, cultures, and people.”