Theses Doctoral

Remembering Things: Transformative Objects in Texts About Conflict, 1160-1390

Eliott Lockhart, Elizabeth

Relics and the Eucharist, powerful physical links between the divine and the human, sit at the heart of narratives about twelfth-century English religious conflicts. These conflicts centered around internal strife between Jews and Christians, prior to the Jews' expulsion from England in 1290, and external discord between English Christians and Ottoman Muslims in the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Relics and the Eucharist, though, do not tell the whole story, especially in literature about conflict such as saints' lives, crusade chronicles, and romances. In Christian cults, battles, and narratives, religious objects that are not relics function doubly: they are simultaneously "transformative objects," in bringing about miracles, and "remembering things," or memorative objects, in that they hold memory or identity within themselves for a community or group. As devotional materials in local English cults, relic-like objects provided models for interaction between humans and the divine. They existed in shrines as an expression of faith, as well as an expression of collective identity for a Christian community in confrontation with a newly othered Jewish one. In the Crusades, such sacred things took on similar roles in that they physically identified groups of English Christians while also defending that identity in battle. In contrast to earlier studies of medieval images in texts, and following on from more recent investigations of the unique status of Christian materials, my dissertation considers "sacred" objects that are not relics or the consecrated host but can act like them. These objects take the materiality of relics, and their openness to being narrativized, as a model. Memorative things, which hold identity, act as transformative objects in literature about conflict - that is, they transform themselves and their narratives in the telling and even have the ability to shape collective identities by means of texts. I argue that these objects are unique to literature about religious conflict, and that they created a condition of mutuality between written culture and the material world - a quality that sometimes proves dangerous. In generically diverse medieval works that tell or re-tell narratives of religious conflict, these relic-like memorative things are contextualized in ambiguous and unexpected ways. Such transformative objects include: handmade, dedicated wax cult objects, like a wax foot, that both heal and memorialize; crusaders' defiled icons and crosses that subsequently become weapons; a Muslim belt and healing balm, each with a Christian past; and Eucharist-like miraculous objects, placed in the mouth, that enable the dead to sing. Here, I examine the ways in which such Christian memorial objects begin as conduits for group identities in a conflict and transform in unanticipated ways through narratives. The first half of this project looks at twelfth-century texts that purport to record events in conflicts. These are Anglo-Latin miracle books of Saints William and Cuthbert, and Norman and Anglo-Latin Third Crusade chronicles. The second half considers fourteenth-century works of fantasy that re-imagine these conflicts, including the Charlemagne romance Sir Ferumbras and Geoffrey Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. My investigation of this surprising variety of devotional things - which, I argue, stretch far beyond the official categories of "relic" and "Eucharist" - will show that texts about religious conflict both define, and are defined by, the materials they represent.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Dailey, Patricia A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014