In memoriam: Dr Kimberley-Joy Knight (1984–2021)

‘a stream of tears flowed from her eyes through devotion, so that the traces of tears appeared on [her] cheeks from habitual weeping. Nevertheless [these tears] did not empty her head but, rather, they refreshed [her] mind with a certain fullness, they sweetened the spirit with a sweet anointing, they wondrously invigorated her body and gladdened the whole city of God with the impetus of a river’ [lacrimarum rivulus ab oculis fluebat per devotionem, ita ut lacrimarum vestigia in genis ex consuetudine flendi apparererent, que tamen caput non evacuabant, sed quadam plenitudine mentem refovebant, spiritum suavi unctione dulcorabant, corpus etiam mirabiliter recreabant et tanto fluminis impetu totam dei civitatem letificabant]

Translation by Kimberley-Joy Knight of Jacques de Vitry’s first explanation of Marie d’Oignies’ tears, PhD thesis, Blessed are those who weep: Gratia Lacrymarum in Thirteenth-century Hagiographies (University of St Andrews, 2014), p. 103. 

 

The passing away, on Friday 16 July 2021, of Dr Kimberley-Joy Knight deprives us of a gifted scholar whose contribution to the religious history of medieval Scandinavia, history of emotions, material culture, and the cult of saints signalled her as a rising star within academia.

Kimberley’s capacity to roam widely across sources (with a proficiency in seven languages), periods, and methods gave breadth and depth to her scholarly work and originality to her insights into medieval history and literature. The qualities that distinguished her as such a promising scholar also made her an engaging and perceptive colleague to talk with. John Hudson, with whom Kimberley closely collaborated for more than a decade, remembers her “vast range of interests…and the peculiarly diverse range of sources of which she was aware. And there was the ability to connect – between sources, between topics, between ideas, between past and present. Above all there was the unpredictability, the originality – one never knew what she might come up with, but always knew that it would be immensely stimulating and demand extended thought.” Deeply saddened by her loss, her medievalist friends and colleagues wish to retrace here the steps of her academic career and pay a last tribute to her memory.

As an undergraduate student of medieval history at the University of St Andrews, Kimberley was the recipient of an Erasmus scholarship and spent her third year at the University of Oslo (2004–5). There her interest in Scandinavian history arose, which was to be so important to her career. This time also provided her with some of her dearest friends, whilst she learned Norwegian but also Old Norse and runic alphabets, skills that would shape her work into cultural and literary exchange.

Kimberley’s scholarly vocation emerged during a field trip to Italy in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree, exploring the traces left by medieval saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. This trip was decisive: texts and objects around which the cult of saints was built would go on to inform her scholarly work. Kimberley was in particular fascinated by the description of the weeping of a saint which she encountered in a manuscript. This became the topic she pursued during her MLitt and then her PhD at St Andrews, exploring the Gift of Tears in Mendicant spirituality with Prof. Frances Andrews who would become her long-term mentor and friend. In 2014 she received her doctorate for a thesis that significantly contributed to our understanding of the ritualisation surrounding sainthood and the importance of emotions and their enactment in medieval societies.

Such a track-record made it almost natural that Kimberley was selected to join the newly-founded ARC Centre for the History of Emotions as a postdoctoral researcher in 2014, with a project evocatively titled “Love in a cold climate: the relationship between love, desire, sexuality and marriage in medieval Norway and Iceland”. Hélène Sirantoine remembers how Kimberley’s growing reputation preceded her arrival in the Sydney node of the Centre, as Piroska Nagy, a leading emotion historian from Quebec visiting Australia to work with the CHE, told colleagues how keen she was to meet the newest scholar who had just arrived that same week.

In her years with the CHE, Kimberley was extraordinarily active across many domains. She published on her doctoral research, gave stimulating papers in Australia, the UK, and in Norway, which John Hudson described as “always beautifully constructed and fascinating in their content. Her papers had that quality of the very best talks – once given, the conclusion seemed obvious, yet no one had seen it before.” Even her “minor project” —as she humbly described it— on the intersection of the history of law and emotions resulted in a large-scale conference in Sydney and the publication in 2017 of a special issue in the prominent Journal of Legal History on ‘The History of Law and Emotions’. Merridee Bailey remembers collaborating with Kimberley on both the conference and special issue and how enriching it was working with someone who was both a perceptive and discerning scholar, and also a good friend. Members of the CHE will remember very fondly her participation in collective activities. A memorable example is the shared stay on a houseboat in York for a conference, where a pregnant Kimberley successfully negotiated going up and down the slippery gangplank, enlivened all social activities and gave a wonderful paper.

Far from keeping her expertise on the intersection between emotions, material culture, literature and history for the sole benefit of the academic community, Kimberley also engaged with the public through radio interviews, including being a panellist on ABC’s popular literature show Bookshelf on several occasions, but most notably through her commitment to the project ‘Treasured Possessions’ for which she obtained a competitive ‘Liveable Communities’ grant from the NSW government (2016–17). The project involved reaching out to isolated seniors in regional NSW to explore the affective value they invested in personal objects from their past. She spoke about her encounters with these people and their objects, how poignant the experience was, how ultimately rewarding. She curated an exhibition based on the project which received much attention from the local radio and news broadcasts and for which she won a Wollongong City Council Award for Contribution to the Community. The project resulted in a beautiful and moving catalogue to accompany the exhibition, available here.

From 2015 Kimberley was an active member of The University of Sydney’s Andfœtinga samband (the Old Norse reading group) where her enthusiasm, kindness, and scholarly perspectives on saints’ lives added much to weekly sessions and fostered some wonderful conversations. Kimberley’s interests in material objects and emotions, which had begun early in her academic life, found expression here too. Robert Cutrer remembers that Kimberley “gave a phenomenal speech on one of her specialties, carved rune sticks in Bergen and their expressive language. Based on that lecture, and with her help, I actually reproduced those runic inscriptions on new wedding bands I made for my wife and myself.”

After finishing as a postdoctoral researcher in the CHE, Kimberley continued being an active and vibrant presence in academia both in Australia and overseas. She was successful in being awarded a prestigious and extremely competitive Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship in 2016, which she had to decline because of maternity. With Jón Viðar Sigurðsson at the University of Oslo, Kimberley organised a conference on Nidaross saints in 2016, the results of which were to appear as a co-edited volume. She was also a lecturer at The University of Sydney (2018-20) and at the Australian Catholic University (2019). During her last semester of teaching at Sydney University she received no less than ten student commendations, a testament to her ability to convey the breadth of her historical knowledge to others and her capacity to encourage young scholars. With her usual sense of collegiality, Kimberley also offered guest lectures. Hélène recalls the sparkle in student’s eyes as they took in Kimberley’s words on runic love messages and Viking emotions during a guest lecture she had offered for a new first-year course in pre-modern history.

Kimberley also worked with Megan Cassidy-Welch between 2018–2020. Megan remembers that Kimberley “ostensibly worked as my research assistant. I say ‘ostensibly’ because her contributions and collaboration with me was so much more than mere assistance. She was brimming with ideas about how to make this work richer and reach more people. Her breadth of knowledge and imagination were so impressive. I was so profoundly grateful that she applied for the job and that I had the opportunity to get to know her. Her brilliance, warmth and natural empathy made her a wonderful historian and treasured colleague.”

Indeed, what becomes clear when talking to Kimberley’s colleagues is not only the depth and breadth of her academic achievements, which were considerable for someone so young, but the sense of collegiality with which she envisaged her work as a medievalist. Kimberley thrived at sharing her knowledge and time, giving so much of herself to others. Her supervisor and friend Frances remembers not only Kimberley’s extraordinary determination to get things done but also her enormous generosity with those she worked with and the love she showed to everyone.

One of the greatest sadnesses is that academia will never benefit from the many contributions that Kimberley would undoubtedly have gone on to make in her career. None of the medievalists for whom she made academic life so much better, nor her students who she taught with such dedication, and most importantly her husband Ash and their daughter Heidi, will ever forget her.

An online memorial for people to share their memories of Kimberley can be found here.

Hélène Sirantoine and Merridee Bailey (14 September 2021)