France names Cornell Professor Alice Colby-Hall a Knight of Arts and Letters

Professor Alice Colby-Hall of Cornell University's Department of Romance Studies, who has taught French language and literature here for 35 years, has been named a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the French Minister of Culture.

One of France's highest honors, the award is given both to French citizens and to foreigners. Colby-Hall is being honored for the remarkable contribution she has made, through her career, to the spread of French culture and to the protection of France's historical and literary heritage. (Last year the honor was given to another French scholar at Cornell, Steven L. Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of History.)

Though the most prestigious, this is not the only honor Colby-Hall has received from France. In 1984 she was elected to the Académie de Vaucluse in Avignon, and in 1985 she was awarded the Médaille des Amis d'Orange.

Colby-Hall received her B.A. and M.A. from Colby and Middlebury Colleges, respectively, and her Ph.D. from Columbia University. She is a specialist in medieval France and has written dozens of scholarly reviews and articles in this area in both French and English. She also is the author of the 1965 book The Portrait in Twelfth-Century French Literature: An Example of the Stylistic Originality of Chrétien de Troyes and currently is working on a book in French on the lost William Cycle epics of the lower Rhine valley.

At Cornell, Colby-Hall's courses have covered a variety of topics, including medieval French phonology, Old Picard, courtly romance and lyric, the Old French epic, medieval drama, the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romances and the poetry of the troubadours. She is retiring from Cornell as of June 30 but will continue to do some teaching as a professor emerita.

While inspiring her students, Colby-Hall has enjoyed many inspiring moments of her own through her research, which takes her on frequent trips to France.

"One of my greatest joys," she said, "was the discovery of the oldest known seal of the Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, which was founded by Saint William of Gellone -- better known as William of Orange, a medieval knight who gave his name to the epics of the William Cycle, in which he figures prominently. William is portrayed on the seal, which dates from 1245."

Colby-Hall said that when she received the letter on April 7 from the director of the National Archives of France announcing that she had been named a Chevalier, "I read it and kept reading it, because I couldn't believe it."

She added, "This honor intensifies my sense of obligation to complete the projects I have undertaken."

Philip E. Lewis, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of Romance studies, said, "Professor Colby-Hall has earned her election to the Order of Arts and Letters by devoting her scholarly career to diligent and astute research on archival materials that are vital to the constitution and perpetuation of the French national identity."

He added, "Our colleagues in France have already signaled their appreciation of the enduring value of Alice's scholarly labor of love on numerous occasions in the past. It is not surprising, but certainly is very gratifying, that as she enters into retirement from her position at Cornell -- and thus into still more intensive research and writing -- her achievements are marked by this extraordinary honor."

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