Russell Peck, medievalist extraordinaire, passed away at his home on Feb. 20, 2023, at the age of 89. Professor Peck, known for his excellence as a teacher and scholar, held the John Hall Deane Professorship of English at the University of Rochester, where he began teaching in 1961. Recipient of numerous awards and honors, Dr. Peck won support from the Guggenheim Foundation and was awarded the Robert L. Kindrick-CARA Award for Outstanding Service to Medieval Studies by the Medieval Academy of America. Moreover, Dr. Peck won a substantial amount of funding over many years from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Peck was the founder and general editor of the Middle English Text Series (METS), an active member of the board of directors of TEAMS (Teaching Association of Medieval Studies). METS made an enormous impact on both scholarship and teaching by its commitment to making scholarly work in Middle English available to teachers and students at affordable prices. In recent years, the series became a pioneer in the field of digital humanities. He also helped establish the Rossell Hope Robbins Library at the University of Rochester.
To say that Prof. Peck was a prominent medievalist is to highlight the inadequacy of language to chronicle his achievements. His public obituary reminds us that he was “internationally known as an authority on Middle English literature, especially works by Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Peck edited the seminal three volume edition of John Gower's’ [Confessio Amatis….and] had broad academic interests and publications ranging from Arthurian romance, folklore, and fairy tales, to film, cognitive theory and pedagogy.”
Prof. Alan Lupack, University of Rochester colleague of many years, , pays this tribute to Russell’s centrality to both the medievalist and the University of Rochester communities:
It is still difficult to think of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, the Robbins Library, and the University of Rochester without Russell’s boundless energy and creative imagination. He was the driving force behind bringing the Robbins Library to the U. of Rochester, an achievement for which all medievalists should be grateful. His delight in Middle English literature—really all literature and art forms—was infectious. He was the most generous of colleagues—sharing his expertise and encouraging scholars and students. Despite all the time he devoted to teaching, editing, and writing, he always seemed to have time for personal touches, like making his own thank you cards, often with images taken from pre-Raphaelite painters. He is sorely missed by many of us who worked with him and learned from him something about what it means to be a scholar, a teacher, and a friend.
Prof. Peck regularly hired graduate assistants to foster METS’ work and to mentor them. Karen Saupe, then a graduate assistant (now a Professor Emerita at Calvin University), worked with Prof. Peck to produce the very first METS volumes. She offers her memories of that time:
I didn’t imagine how much that project would grow over the years. But given Russell’s energy and vision, I should not have been surprised. Working through decisions about format and style for the series—and trying to master an early version of WordPerfect—we envisioned affordable texts for students. In 1990, I was trying to persuade Russell that we could speed up the editorial process by using email instead of snail mail to correspond with editors. A few years later as the web evolved, we began putting texts online. Russell sometimes pushed and sometimes was pulled toward new technological advancements to make the series more accessible and useful over the years.
From the start, Russell was aggressive and persuasive in recruiting editors and suggesting titles, persistently encouraging as projects emerged and stalled, sometimes impatient when volumes didn’t move into publication as quickly as he hoped they would. His energy was contagious: over three decades, Russell enlisted an army of scholars to edit and produce a series that has broadened and enriched the study of Middle English literature and culture.
Russell was an energetic, inspiring master teacher and an enthusiastic lifelong student of life, and the Middle English Texts Series is a fitting legacy for him because its goal has, from the start, been to introduce students to the rich and diverse world of medieval literature and life.
Sara Poor (Princeton University) was similarly “glad to have the opportunity to work with him and get to know him on the [METS] editorial board, even if it was only at the end of his long and distinguished career. As did so many others, Sara regarded his “commitment to TEAMS and to METS impressive.”
Robert Edwards (Penn State) adds:
Russell Peck’s contributions to TEAMS and the Middle English Text series mirrored his distinguished career as a scholar, teacher, and colleague. Russell brought wide learning to his role as General Editor [of METS], to the enormous benefit of the volumes he encouraged, commissioned, and oversaw. He understood the need for texts directed to students for our teaching and our field to thrive. It is a fitting tribute to his care that these editions are now cited extensively in scholarship and research. Russell took on the weighty chore of writing and administering the NEH grants that supported so much valuable work. Equally important, he was a generous and welcoming colleague, alive to the excitement of new proposals, eager to welcome new contributors and collaborators, especially younger scholars. We miss him greatly and remain thankful for all he did in our behalf.
Professor Peck leaves a legacy of admiring and professionally active professional descendants and colleagues. His life and work had an incalculable influence on uncounted students, medievalists, and teachers. Moreover, he was a man who achieved what so few others have: he balanced effortlessly balanced the personal and professional as if there were more hours in the day available to him than to the rest of us.
Prof. Peck will be “remembered as a dedicated family man, an inventive storyteller, a punster, writer of limericks, a fiercely competitive Pinochle player, an art lover, a bird enthusiast, an avid gardener, and an irrepressible dancer who liked to spin his partners off their feet.”1