Theses Doctoral

New Wine in Old Skins: Vernacular Typology in Medieval English Literature, 590-1390

Walton, Audrey Rochelle

My dissertation examines the significance of sacred poetry in English to the political and social identity of the English church, from England’s conversion at the end of the sixth century to the flourishing of England’s vernacular theology in the fourteenth. I show that the vernacular literary culture of Anglo-Saxon England was fostered in part by the distinction between the spirit and the letter of the Bible, which enabled speakers of Old English to regard their own literary cultures as potentially sacred and inspired. Turning to the later part of the medieval period, I examine the “spiritual sense,” or level of figural meaning, of sacred texts in Middle English. I demonstrate that the spiritual sense of Middle English religious poems is often designed to communicate an idealized history of English Christianity, as Middle English poems often use inventive typologies to represent the miracle of Anglo-Saxon England’s conversion as a source of sacred authority for the English language. This idealized religious history typically imagines the Church, not as a homogeneous community of Latin speakers, but as a diverse community characterized by heterogeneity and multilingualism.
My focus on the distinction between the spirit and the letter, and its significance to medieval multilingualism, enables me to showcase an aspect of the cultural identity of medieval Catholicism that has often gone overlooked. While scholars have long been interested in the cohesion of medieval Catholic literary cultures across Europe, they have often sought to elucidate this area of research by focusing narrowly on medieval authors’ shared possession of Latin texts. I demonstrate that, throughout the Middle Ages, English Christians explained the unity of their shared tradition not in terms of the sacred authority of Latin, but in terms of the sacred authority granted to the many vernaculars spoken within the Roman Catholic Church. In making this argument, I re-examine the historical development of sacred texts in English, seeking to transform this story from a straightforward progress narrative into a complex story of multilingual and transhistorical transmission and encounter.
This dissertation is organized chronologically. In my first chapter, “Gehyre se ðe Wille: The Old English 'Exodus' and the Reader as Exegete,” I show that the insular nation of Anglo-Saxon England employed the spiritual sense of Scripture to identify itself implicitly with other originally “pagan” nations, such as Egypt and Ethiopia. Within Anglo-Saxon studies, these African nations have often been treated as the fantastic realm of the Other; my dissertation shows that they also offered Anglo-Saxon England a site of historical identification. This transnational identification was made possible by figural reading, which enabled medieval readers to imagine the Roman Catholic Church as a dynamic world religion, and thus to conceive of a place for England within the Church.
In my second chapter, “‘For nu mine hyge hweorfeð’: ‘The Seafarer,’ Grammatica, and the Making of Anglo-Saxon Textual Culture,” I argue that “The Seafarer” reworks standard figural images drawn from the liturgical tradition in order to reimagine them as entirely English. By engaging its readers with the spiritual or figural sense of sea travel, and then reworking that sense in the language of the Old English liturgy, the text makes implicit claims for the sacredness of the vernacular literary tradition. Rather than relegating the vernacular to the expression of “barbaric” or “pagan” ideas, I show that “The Seafarer” invests English with a range of possibility equal to that of the Latinate tradition. Ultimately, I read the poem’s relationship to its Latin intertexts as an early example of vernacular theology, one that makes implicit claims for the potentially sacred authority of English literary traditions.
In my third chapter, “‘All forr ure allre nede’: The Ormulum, the Long Twelfth Century, and the Invention of the Vernacular,” I argue that the English language lost much of its imagined spiritual authority during the post-Conquest clerical reforms of the English church and became primarily a vehicle for literal meaning. Against this backdrop of reformist centralization and standardization, I examine the Ormulum, a metrical gospel paraphrase most famous among medievalists for its inexplicably standardized spelling. I argue that, in keeping with contemporary views about the limitations of the English language, Orm focused his efforts on perfecting the letter of English rather than its spirit.
In my fourth chapter, ‘‘To Hippe Aboute in Engelonde’: Langland’s Alternative Typology and The Conversion of Anglo-Saxon England,” I argue that the distinction between letter and spirit enabled readers of Middle English to read figural poems for idealized representations of English religious institutions. I examine the re-emergence of a fully developed spiritual or figural sense in the English texts of late medieval England. In particular, I turn to the historiography of William Langland, found in Passus XV of Piers Plowman, where the poet uses the enigmatic phrase “Peter, i.e. Christ” to introduce a long and disordered chronicle of English church history. The equation of Peter with Christ is a clear invocation of figural reading practices; Langland’s innovation, I argue, is to synthesize figural reading practices with specifically English history-writing. Thus, in Passus XV, Langland uses the spiritual sense of his text as an opportunity to put forward his own vision of the ideal English church and its place within world history: as a convert nation, England derives its place within world Catholicism from the authority of its miraculous conversion from paganism to Christianity.


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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
October 15, 2015