Date of Degree
Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval Studies
Embodiment, Devotion, Performance, Cognition, Affect, Religious Practice
This dissertation argues for a new reading of the relationship that texts have to performance, bodies have to agency, and that social construction has to literary criticism as these matters relate to the study of religious practice in late medieval England. The project first asks what it meant to participate in religious practice in two, early fifteenth-century Middle English prose texts, The Myroure of Oure Ladye and The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. The former work is a gloss of the Divine Service performed by the Brigittine sisters at Syon Abbey, and the latter consists of a translation made by Nicholas Love of the guided meditations known as the Meditationes Vitae Christi and a further piece called the "Treatise on the Sacrament," authored by Love. The project considers the lineaments of participation in religious performance further in connection with two, late fourteenth-century Middle English poems, The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland and the Confessio Amantis by John Gower. I argue that verbal constructions in the prose works and narrative constructions in the poems articulate patterns of densely reciprocal interaction and identify these with the activity of performing devotion.
In articulating what it means to participate in devotion, these reciprocal patterns set forth a different understanding of how agency works. In that understanding, Middle English texts conceive action as unfolding in devotional settings in such a way that the site of agency shifts within interactions that the devotional participants have with each other and with the equipment that is used to perform devotion. To elucidate the implications of conceiving a site of agency that shifts interactively, I discuss proposals from the philosophers of mind Andy Clark and Alva Nöe about the interrelation of embodiment, thought, perception, and action. Their work helps to clarify how agency functions within an interaction as partly interior, partly exterior, and distributed among locally embedded, interdepending relationships from which, I argue, participation in the activity of religious performance unfolds in the Middle English texts. The significance that the four Middle English works that I consider give to reciprocally oriented patterns in describing what participants do in different performances, settings, and literary contexts raises the prospect that those patterns reflect an understanding about late medieval English devotion that is not limited to just these four texts.
I engage with ideas in cognitive science to explore the critical role that embodiment plays in shaping how these reciprocally oriented patterns of interaction function in different performance settings. In connection with Love’s Mirror, I use work by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum to explore the contention of Love’s text that processes of feeling enable a practitioner to experience one religious practice—in this case, guided meditation—in terms of another, the Eucharist, and vice-versa. I argue that the emphasis that the Mirror places on this experiential cross-pollination between practices opens up Love’s work to readings that do not simply focus on its reiteration of doctrinal concerns. With respect to Love’s Mirror and the other texts that I read, the dissertation sets about to treat socially constructed emotion, along with the processes of embodied materiality and their cognitive entwinements, as parts of feeling. In addition, I consider the enlarged role for bodily activity that emerges when performances involve their participants in the sort of non-consciously guided activity that the theorist Daniel Kahneman calls fast thinking and credits with initiating the performance of many everyday actions. I work through the entwinement in the processes of feeling, embodiment, and cognition that taking on board Damasio and Kahneman brings to reading the performance of liturgical prayer at Syon Abbey and to reading the approach to religious practice described in the other Middle English writings that belong to this project.
Broadly speaking in the dissertation, current ideas concerning embodied minds and bodily intelligence provide a lens with which to understand the implications of the verbal and narrative patterns that late medieval texts use to articulate how performers are supposed to participate in devotion. In focusing on the closely interrelated activities of bodies, minds, and emotional intelligence that the Middle English texts figure forth, the conclusions that I reach about participating in the performance of a Divine Service, a guided meditation, the Eucharist, and about the participation of Langland’s and Gower’s protagonists in poetic portrayals of pilgrimage and confession, are distinct from those found in major works of criticism by Anne Bagnall Yardley, Jennifer Bryan, Rebecca Krug, Nicholas Watson, David Aers and Lynn Staley, Michelle Karnes, and John Allan Mitchell, whose scholarly contributions have shaped the discussion in ways to which the development of my ideas owes a great debt.
Holchak, Paul, "Intelligent Bodies and Embodied Minds: Reading Religious Performance in Middle English Writing from Syon Abbey, Nicholas Love, William Langland, and John Gower" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.