Theses Doctoral

Communicating Across Time: Female Genealogies in the Medieval Literary Imagination

O'Loughlin, Emma Bridget

This dissertation, “Communicating Across Time: Female Genealogies in the Medieval Literary Imagination,” explores the range of genealogical forms, alternative to patrilineage, that British writers used to depict the transmission of women’s power across time in early-twelfth to late-fourteenth-century literature. By taking an expansive definition of genealogy and exploring romance and hagiography, it highlights a widespread and persistent interest in medieval literature in the ways female characters record their legacies and communicate these legacies to future generations. By examining genealogy in these literary terms, this study revises current understandings of a core aspect of medieval culture and expands current definitions of what constitutes medieval historiography.
Though patrilineal genealogy has been widely studied, we currently have little vocabulary to talk about female genealogies. Broadly stated, genealogy in this study describes the author’s description of a deliberate communication from the past that explains, curates or contests contemporary social-political landscapes, and to make claims to the future. Patrilineage, which became the main system of genealogy from the twelfth century, idealized the transmission of power – name, land holdings, and the legend of a common ancestor – from father to son. Even the notion that women possessed power and stories to communicate threatened a system that relied on mothers as passive genealogical vehicles.
Aristocratic women, as landholders, heirs, politicians and religious leaders, did of course have legacies to communicate. Because medieval women’s claims to land and power were more mobile and less standardized than men’s, this dissertation is less interested in what female protagonists communicate across time and more interested in how - the means and processes of communication. This study’s focus on alternative female genealogies also highlights new ways of understanding literary representations of medieval maternity. In the texts examined, motherhood is not limited to the domestic, bodily and momentary, but is a political and agential role that is actively managed by the woman herself, often in conjunction with other forms of written and verbal communication.
Literary texts reveal the various, and often unexpected, means medieval writers and readers imagined for women’s cross-temporal communications. Female characters frequently employ alternative genealogical ‘bodies’ to that of a male child, actively revising the topos of women as simply the bodily matter and means for a male line. The characters inscribe their claims to land, power and spirituality through footprints in rocks, blood-impressed doors, tenderly-handled books, a mother’s exact resemblance imprinted in her child’s face. The intimacy and deliberateness with which these women create and manage their cross-generational communications both draws on and destabilizes traditional ideals of motherhood and genealogy. The four chapters read across French, English and Latin texts, as many English readers would have done, with a focus on the genres of hagiography, romance and chronicle from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Baswell, Christopher C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 22, 2016