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Renaissance scholar Carol Kaske dies at 83

Carol V. Kaske
Lindsay France/University Photography
Carol V. Kaske in 2010.

Professor Emerita of English Carol V. Kaske, who taught at Cornell for 40 years, died June 15 at Cayuga Medical Center. She was 83.

A respected and influential scholar, she specialized in English literature of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. She first taught at Cornell in 1963, was named a full professor in 1992 and retired in 2003.

Born Carol Margaret Vonckx on Feb. 5, 1933, in Elgin, Illinois, she was an accomplished violinist and pianist, and considered a career as a professional musician before her academic career in English literature. She received her bachelor’s degree from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1954, master’s from Smith College in 1955 and doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1964.

As a scholar, Kaske was noted for her work on “The Faerie Queene”by Edmund Spenser and “Le Morte D’arthur”by Sir Thomas Malory. In 2002, she offered a summer course on Malory for the Telluride Association at Cornell.

Her books include “Spenser and Biblical Poetics” (Cornell University Press, 2000), still considered a critical resource nearly two decades later; a 2006 edition of “The Faerie Queene, Book One” and a 1989 edition and translation of Marsilio Ficino’s “Three Books on Life” (with John R. Clark). Kaske also wrote and published numerous scholarly articles, encyclopedia entries and book reviews.

She delivered the 2010 Kathleen Williams Lecture for the Spenser at Kalamazoo Society at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, a conference where friends and former students held three special sessions celebrating her scholarship and teaching. The Spenser at Kalamazoo Society established a graduate student award in her name in 2012.

She was a member of the Renaissance Society of America, Modern Language Association of America and the International Association of University Professors of English.

In her retirement, Kaske was active in the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE) and the Cornell Retirees Association and in community service in the Ithaca area.

She was predeceased in 1989 by her husband of 31 years, Robert, a medievalist and the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English. Their annual parties for students of medieval studies and other friends at Cornell were legendary, as were their dogs, Rex and Wolf.

“She was a remarkably supportive mentor to me when I arrived as a junior faculty member, with a clarity and frankness of style that could conceal how subtle and learned she was in dealing with the writings of Ficino, Malory, and Spenser, whom she could quote at length,” said Andrew Galloway, professor and acting chair of English.

 “Her guidance of undergraduate students could be life-changing, as I know first-hand in more than one case. Although her work was centered in the Renaissance, she was a core participant in all medieval events and meetings, and significantly shaped and supported the Medieval Studies Program for many years after the death of her husband.”

Survivors include a son, Richard, and sister, Sylvia. A funeral service will be held Wednesday, June 22, at 10 a.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 210 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca, with a reception to follow. Memorial donations in her name may be sent to Cornell’s Olin Library or to St. John’s Episcopal Church. 

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Rebecca Valli