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Works in Progress

British Library, Arundel 83, f.126v


The Coils of Aging: Positioning Older Adults in Post-Plague English Literature

Committee: Dr. Masha Raskolnikov, Dr. Andrew Galloway, Dr. Andrew Hicks

Dissertation Abstract

Age and the decaying world are on everyone’s mind. Scholars devote intense attention to the end of days as caused by the wrongs of man, manifested through traumatic political upheaval, temperamental leadership, contagious diseases spread by blood-sucking insects, climate change, and extreme weather. Conflict between the young and the old pushes the elderly to the margins of society. My dissertation looks at the precarious place of old age in the literature of this polarized culture: England in the latter half of the fourteenth century. By eschewing the biological essentialism of age studies and its common relegation to a subset of disability studies, I argue that later Middle English poetry and narratives presented a construct of old age that promised the future. Aging symbolism during this period envisioned motion towards eternal youth in the renewed world of the Heavenly Jerusalem, contrary to the evident and well-studied narratives of aging as decline. Readings of unmitigated decline impose ahistorical assumptions on the resolutions of Middle English texts. Futurity did not reflect the promise and potential of the young. Paradoxically, late fourteenth-century literature represented the old as closest to the future, creating a discomfort that then, just as now, manifested as the antagonistic rhetoric of a generational gap.

Abrupt and violent life-stage transitions represented in literature thus mark not finality but anticipatory preparation, in parallel with the violence expected in the final age of the world; the old have, if not full access to the coming eternity, at least access to more dim glimmers of it—following Gregory the Great’s metaphor of a coming sunrise—than the young do. Ultimately, late fourteenth-century literature is not merely concerned with a circular narrative we no longer read for, but also utilizes a host of now-foreign conventions about the possibilities and roles of aging. Age created paradoxes: it bound the bodies of its victims, as if with coiled ropes, while encouraging the same renewal as that experienced by snakes shedding their constrictive old skins; it could be mitigated and slowed with the same toxic elements of snake venom that old age itself purportedly produced, even as that toxicity was held to be antithetical to the young; it invited respectful attention and mocking snubs; its regressive senility could simultaneously signal preparatory growth. Reading with sensitivity to age culture (and to a longer and more circular life-course than we presume) reveals that late fourteenth-century authors strongly censured attempts at rejuvenation, understood aging as a community-policed process, and celebrated senex writers as conservators and pioneers of the future, rather than solely as representatives of the past.

Book Projects:

Insider Information: The Worlds of Medieval Identities with John Wyatt Greenlee

We move from Augustine and Orosius to Bede, Higden and medieval chronicle writers, exploring textual mappaemundi, the metaphor of reading-as-travel, and the underpinnings of location-based (and hence mnemonic) knowledge in chronicles. We then argue that literary texts that aimed to map the world enabled readers to index their memories onto, identify with and own the world. We follow this thread in a subsequent chapter, demonstrating that by verbally charting the world, Mandeville’s Travels served as a mental template wherein users could more easily store information. This challenges the assumptions behind foundational medieval memory work such as Mary Carruthers’, which reads exclusively elite texts that prohibit prefabricated mnemonic devices. As one’s memory was the basis for ethics, cognition, and selfhood, this section has ramifications for European identity and selfhood in the Global Middle Ages, transhumanist and ecocritical medieval work, and the manner in which colonialist figures were primed by Mandeville to own, appropriate, and utilize other peoples. Christine de Pizan exemplifies our hypothesized use of Mandeville and collapses the homo/mundus parallelisms by fashioning her memory, self-identity, and writing process into Mandeville’s mappamundi. In closing, we read the Harley Lyrics’ “Erþe toc of erþe,” John Gower, and the Ebstorf mappamundi to alter our understanding of medieval man’s self-positioning as microcosm, determining what it means to mnemonically consume (with metaphors of memory-as-eating), self-conceptualize as, and think through the world.


“Chaucer’s Reeve and Isidore’s Old Woman: Gendering with Macaronic Dirty Puns”

Rhetorical devices within Isidore’s Etymologiae position the role of an old woman, anus, as genderqueer (as opposed to his hyper-gendering of other female stages of age). Chaucer’s Reeve’s Prologue reflects this careful Isidorean structure of the ages and gender but also highlights a less apparent detail: Isidore’s substitution of ānus (m), ring or anus, for anus (f), old woman, queering his Reeve via an extended metaphor about the feminized “open-ers” fruit. 

“Word Counting the West Midlands: Failure Points of Data Mining Middle English”

Interim data cited by Michael Widner at “Text-Mining the Middle Ages” and at the 2016 MLA.

Middle English presents particular challenges to the optimistic digital humanist data-miner: an absence of standardized spelling, varied editorial practices in transcribing manuscripts (including issues introduced by yoghs and abbreviations), scribal emendations, and constrained data sets. My work has found limits to standardizing available corpora, false positives on topic clustering using MALLET, and two successful approaches being tested further.

“Old Dragons and Old Warriors: The Advantage of Age in Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poetry”

I examine the dragon’s old age in Beowulf to shed new light on the duguðe/geoguðe binary.