Theses Doctoral

Fictions of Discernment in Late Medieval England

Park, Yea Jung

“Fictions of Discernment in Late Medieval England” argues that secular modes of social vigilance and pastoral practices of the discernment of spirits (discretio spirituum) come together to form a broader epistemic culture of interpersonal watchfulness, one that takes bodily demeanor as its main material of analysis. My work reconfigures current critical conversations around the late medieval “interior turn” by reading the period’s complex meditations on interiority as literary artifacts of social interplay rather than as correlates of introspective practices.

Middle English texts as varied as penitential manuals, contemplative treatises, and works of epic and chivalric romance abound with imaginative scenarios in which contenaunce, chere, and other forms of outward comportment are scrutinized for what they reveal about the person. These ubiquitous scenarios, what I call “discernment fictions,” test out methods of extracting knowledge about the human interior from bodily demeanor, envisioned as a fertile but uniquely challenging object of intellectual inquiry.

These skills of discernment are incorporated into self-reflective practices through a refractive process, as one comes to understand that one’s own body is also an interpretive object available to others. It is in quotidian accounts of intersubjective scrutiny that some of the medieval period’s most dynamic experimental thinking on the problem of other minds takes place. I suggest that the explosive production of Middle English narrative literature in the late fourteenth century is powered by these depictions of interpersonal diagnosis, and by the epistemological interests from which they spring.

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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
August 17, 2022