Claire Sponsler, 1954-2016

A leading American medievalist has died

September 8, 2016
Obituary: Claire Sponsler, 1954-2016

Claire Sponsler was born on 28 January 1954 in Easton, Pennsylvania, but, since her father worked for the Penn Central Railroad, had a nomadic childhood and eventually graduated from Madeira High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

She was a passionate reader from an early age – tackling Agatha Christie at six and Friedrich Nietzsche at seven – as well as a lover of animals, celebrated in the family for rescuing stray rabbits and lost cats.

After a first degree at the University of Cincinnati, where she majored in Classics and also worked in the Classics library, Professor Sponsler went on to Indiana University for a PhD in English and comparative literature. Her undergraduate experience left her with a lifetime commitment to the value of large public universities.

She initially worked at George Washington University in Washington DC as an assistant professor of English (1990-93) but spent most of her career at the University of Iowa, where she rose through the ranks from associate professor of English (1994-2003) to professor of English (from 2004) and eventually M. F. Carpenter professor of English (from 2015).    

In her thesis, Professor Sponsler produced an innovative analysis of the literary, legal and social status of medieval merchants. Most of her subsequent work also focused on the Middle Ages, although it ranged widely across book history, performance and cultural studies.

Her books included Drama and Resistance (1997), Ritual Imports: Performing Medieval Drama in America (2004) and The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater (2014), which received an award for the year’s best book from the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society.

At the time of her death, she was completing a cultural history of tragedy in the Middle Ages as well as a study of a manuscript known as the Beauchamp Pageant.

It was while they were both teaching at George Washington University that Professor Sponsler met her future husband, Jeff Porter – now associate professor of English at Iowa – who recalled how her “spanakopita and ability to quote the opening of the Odyssey in Greek made [his] knees weak”. They shared a love of literature and dogs and an enthusiasm for an obscure dice game said to have evolved from a Knights Templar ritual whose name must not be uttered.

Highly effective as chair of the English department at Iowa during a period of financial uncertainty (2009-13), Professor Sponsler was also deeply involved in the efforts of the Friends of Historic Preservation to protect Iowa City from the malign effects of indiscriminate growth.

She died after a cerebral aneurysm on 29 July and is survived by her husband.

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