In Memoriam: Lee W. Patterson

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, July 12, for Lee W. Patterson, a noted scholar of medieval literature and the Frederick W. Hilles Professor Emeritus of English at Yale, who died at home on June 29 of complications from a brain tumor. He was 72.

The service will take place at 11 a.m. in Battell Chapel, corner of College and Elm streets.

Patterson, who earned his B.A. from Yale in 1962 and his Ph.D. from the University in 1968, focused his research and teaching on medieval literature of Europe, especially England and Chaucer, and on modernism, with a particular interest in James Joyce. His first book, “Negotiating the Past,” is credited with helping to revive interest in medieval studies, and his 1991 book, “Chaucer and the Subject of History,’ is widely hailed as the most important study of Chaucer in the 20th century. In addition to three other books on Chaucer, he also wrote numerous articles.

Patterson is also widely regarded for changing the way museum educators approach teaching in the art museum. He argued through example and theory that the central pedagogical task in the museum is the discovery of meaning, not the perpetuation of traditional chronological and stylistic art historical methodologies.

Born in Havre de Grace, Maryland, Patterson was educated at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Following in the footsteps of his father, George Patterson, and his two older brothers, he attended Yale. He began his career as a medievalist at the University of Toronto, and later taught at the Johns Hopkins University and Duke University before he joined the Yale faculty. From 1996 to 2000 he chaired the University’s Program in Medieval Studies. He was a mentor to generations of students of the Middle Ages, many of whom are now professors themselves.

Patterson continuously taught National Endowment for Humanities seminars for high school teachers and for many summers was a teacher at the Bread Loaf School of English. He delivered many lectures worldwide, including the Matthews Lectures at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the Kress Lecture at the Frick Collection, New York. This latter activity marked a late turn of his interest to art history.

For his contributions, Patterson received a 2006 Teaching Award from the Medieval Academy of America and the Christian Gauss Prize from Phi Beta Kappa for the best book in literary criticism (about Chaucer).

Earlier in his life, Patterson spearheaded and led an Ontario Tenants’ Association to protect the rights of tenants in high-rise apartment buildings in Toronto. He was also a local leader in the new Democratic Party, where he ran the successful election campaigns of the late James Renwick and John Gilbert.

Patterson is survived by five children and by eight grandchildren.