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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.

Chapter-by-Chapter Dissertation Synopsis

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. We then read the Castle of Perseverance and Harley Lyrics’ “Erþe toc of erþe” to alter our understanding of medieval man’s boundaries of identity: how positioning of self as microcosm and town as world exposes tensions between self-sufficient satiety and the hunger to incorporate more. We close by expanding into practices of thinking and writing digitally: the ways shared, structured note systems like Evernote, constant (digital) proximity to collaborators’ and predecessors’ thoughts, coauthorship tools like Google Drive, and collaborative databanks enable a hyper-medieval mode of communal scholarship.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis


“In the Beginning was the Word: How Medieval Text became Fantasy Art” with John Wyatt Greenlee

Although Tolkien’s maps are not visually medieval, they are nonetheless medievalisms.

The convention of beginning fantasy novels with a map – a habit observed by approximately a third of the genre, to the point of being lampooned by Diana Wynne Jones – stems primarily from J.R.R. Tolkien. The hand-drawn maps that preface The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings set a standard that has found echoes at the start of books by later authors such as C. S. Lewis, George R. R. Martin, Tamora Pierce, and more (even, reluctantly, N.K. Jemisin).  In many instances, the maps at the front of these fantasy works reflect Tolkien’s old-world aesthetic, employing pre-modern hillsigns and inscribing place names in gothic or runic lettering. Even where styles differs, however, such as in the case of the cogs-and-gears map lead-ins to the Game of Thrones TV series, the placement holds; Tolkien’s decision to introduce his readers to the world of his books with a map has proven monumentally influential.

But his choice was not sui generis. As an Oxford-trained scholar of medieval literature, Tolkien knew well the importance that medieval authors placed on establishing geographic place as a stage for their works’ actions. Medieval texts frequently include some kind of map – a fact that modern readers often miss because we usually only think about maps as images. The medieval definition of a map was substantially broader than ours, and it included textual, as well as visual reproductions of space; indeed, several, such as the first part of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, are explicitly titled mappamundi by their authors despite including no images at all. Importantly, for an entire genre of chronicles and narratives, these textual descriptions of the world most often occur at the start of the work. We see this in foundational works of historians such as the Venerable Bede, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntington, and Higden. We find it in the writings of Christine de Pizan and in the text of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Matthew Paris, in his histories of Britain, included both textual and visual maps as a part of his introduction. This convention of placement requires a map in order to ground the very histories and information the text relates; medieval memory practice held that without a spatial framework the information in the texts does not cohere and cannot necessarily be remembered. In drawing Middle Earth for his readers, Tolkien leaned heavily on this tradition that saw mapping as a prerequisite of world-building and storytelling.

This convention of a prefatory map has not survived into modern works of history or scholarship, and has never been commonplace in science fiction or most contemporary genres of literature. But a vestige of it has nonetheless crossed over into fantasy, through Tolkien: a reader might anticipate a map at the very beginning of the book onto which they may mentally place events as they read. Tolkien’s work frequently serves as an inflection point, where the academic study of the medieval crossed over into popular culture. With the maps at the front of works of fantasy, his influence has brought medieval memory and writing practice into the genre, where its origin is disguised by its non-medieval forms. These maps – regardless of their artistic or aesthetic choices – are a medievalism by virtue of their placement in the text and their role mediating between reader and textual memory.

“Selling Cecily: The Transmission of Precarity from Students to Projects”

Graduate students and other academic precariat create a disproportionate number of our digital projects. Those same groups have less access to institutional hosting or external support. We need to create a norm of backup plans and collaborative networks to move valuable tools away from their current extreme ephemerality.

“the lower frequencies: Amplifying and Archiving Voices in Academia”

On conversations about power within academia and the absence of student voices in discussions about student-faculty relationships and harassment. “We’re writing around the edges, reading your words, arguing in the quote-tweets, glossing the margins. Are you aware you’re speaking to us? Aware that we’re listening /in? Aware that we see ourselves at the bottom of this all?”

“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.

“Obliviousness/Discomfiture: What Speculum Means for Race, Sex, and Medievalists”