Theses Doctoral

Quoynt Soffraunce: Patience and Late Medieval English Literature

Roberts, Aled William

This dissertation examines three literary treatments of patience in late medieval English literature. I argue that patience appears in the literature of late medieval England in a new and surprising form. Langland’s Patience in the B-text of Piers Plowman is an impoverished minstrel that disrupts and antagonizes his interlocutors through gnomic riddles and comic vignettes. The homiletic poem Patience, through a narrator hyperactively keen to transform suffering into “play” or “jape,” unpicks the deficiencies of a theology that views patience as “ease” or even pleasure and illuminates the Book of Jonah as a unique scriptural witness to the difficulty and estrangement of living within the patientia Dei. The “morality play” Mankind stages its grappling with the difficulties of Jobean patience through the antics of foul-mouthed diabolical and hamartiological agents who perpetually trouble the patience of both the characters and the audience. By reading these poems and plays very closely amidst their scriptural and patristic intertexts I argue that the works studied in this dissertation constitute an intense literary interest in the theology of patience in late medieval England, both as a spiritual and as a hermeneutic ideal.

In Piers Plowman, Patience and Mankind, patience becomes a discomforting concatenation of mirth and despair. In Piers Plowman, Haukyn is brought to the belief that living “[s]o hard it is” by Patience’s comic vignettes. God’s “meschef” in Patience brings Jonah to cry, twice, that his life is “to longe.” Mankind loses his patience and sinks into acedia in Mankind via a theatrical “jape” by the professional minstrel Titivillus, a “jape” that the audience are repeatedly invited to be patient for. I argue that this unusual collocation of frivolity and sorrow can be understood partly in relation to the patristic focus on differentiating Christian patience from stoic fortitude and apatheia. This created a foundational concept of patience as participatory with the patientia Dei. The patience of God, as conceived in patristic treatises on patience, was a non-suffering (impassible) patience. The problem of conceptualizing the impassible patience of God produced, I argue, enduring formulations of God’s patience as a form of pleasure and, accordingly, of human patience as participatory with the pleasure of God.

Yet, the pleasures that Piers Plowman, Patience and Mankind associate with their treatments of patience are not rarefied spiritual joys. Rather, in each text studied here, patience is particularly associated with the low-brow entertainments of minstrelsy, “jape” and “game.” This produces a disorienting concatenation of low-comedy and grave suffering through which, I argue, these writers align their explorations of the theology of patience with their own literary practice. In Piers Plowman, through Patience’s strange minstrelsy, Langland is making an important statement of his own learned “meddling with makings.” In Patience, the poem speaks in multiple voices to produce a contradictory and dissonant account of God’s patience and how it might be understood. In Mankind, the play’s central episode of the breaking of Mankind’s patience turns to the social and economic realities of the theatrical production itself to explain a theology of patience that will attend to a Creation of invisible and visible parts.

Patience, often a wan-faced and inscrutable virtue, has a vibrant and unique life in the vernacular literature of late medieval England. The three texts studied here are a case study in the under-explored novelty of late medieval conceptions of patience that, I hope, might illuminate unexpected areas of late medieval devotional and literary practice.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Johnson, Eleanor B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 8, 2020