Holy Church, the simple soul and the literary articulation of an orthodox religious sensibility : the evidence of later Middle English texts
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Through an historical and literary-critical approach to the analysis of a range of extant vernacular writings from the fourteenth and first half of the fifteenth centuries, this thesis aims to characterise certain aspects of the existence, workings and complexities of an orthodox, literary mainstream religious sensibility in later mediaeval England. The arguments this thesis propounds stem from a basic premise that acknowledges the presence of an undoubted mediaeval Christian faith in England in the later Middle Ages and, particularly, in the Middle English works under discussion. The texts that will be used to provide illustrative examples of this sensibility range from anonymous lyrics and pastoralia such as Handlyng Synne, The Lay Folk's Catechism and The Lay Folk's Mass Book through to more contemplative works such as the Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God, texts written for female religious, the treatises of Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich and, finally, Nicholas Love's spiritual guide The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Textual evidence will be used to illustrate the shortcomings of a critical approach that tacitly denies the existence of a sincere mediaeval Christian faith and certain modern academic interpretations of mediaeval orthodox religious beliefs and practices will be challenged. A freshly nuanced approach to the consideration of Middle English devotional texts will be put forward in place of existing interpretations that either see the authors of such works enthusiastically endorsing an oppressive ecclesiastical regime through their writing, or conclude that a seeming adherence to orthodox beliefs is a mask for the articulation of radical, anti- establishment beliefs. Working with a definition of Holy Church that allows for it to be conterminously understood as an institution endowed with the received authority of its founder, Christ, and also as an organisation run by an all too fallible clerical hierarchy, critical discussion of texts will centre upon their articulation of an orthodox approach to spirituality that is, perhaps, surprising in its latitude. This thesis also aims to show how such binary categorisations as public and private, institutional and individual, do not offer a fair representation of the complex relationships that might be seen to have existed between a man/woman and Holy Church; how, while playing an elementary, foundational role in orthodox religious practices, the Church did not, even within its own self-prescribed boundaries, discourage the development of direct, personal and prayerful relationships with God and Christ.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosopy
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