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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Families, fictions, and seeing through things : re-reading Langland, Chaucer, and the Pearl-Poet Phillips, Noelle


This dissertation explores the generation of meaning in medieval texts and suggests ways in which we can regenerate that meaning by deploying medieval hermeneutic models. Unlike previous scholarship in this particular area, much of which focuses upon how scholasticism and the classical inheritance influenced medieval reading practices, this project brings together two relatively new theoretical models in order to re-evaluate our understanding of some well-trodden ground: the work of William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Pearl-Poet. These two models are genealogy and thing theory – two perspectives which seem very different but which both resonate with medieval forms of understanding. This dual theoretical paradigm complicates our assumptions about how linear models functioned in the Middle Ages and highlights how the absence of meaning can be just as significant as its presence. The “thing,” both as concrete object and divine unknown, is an integral part of genealogy, in that the linear genealogical model is constantly on the edge of dissolution as its hidden histories threaten to disrupt its stability. In each of the four “case studies” in this dissertation I apply these models to my readings of different forms of textuality: literary tradition, the physical manuscript, and literary analysis. Langland’s poem Piers Plowman is a central component in each case study, largely because it refuses conclusions and resolutions. Its apparent transgression of genre, its unexpected turns, and its ability to be aligned with opposing ideologies make it a puzzle to the modern reader. It is, in many ways, an indefinable “thing.” Much of this project looks for such moments of “thingness” in order to explore alternate models of signification, and therefore Piers Plowman is ideal as the common thread connecting the different parts of my argument. Applying thing theory and the genealogical paradigm to the various works in this dissertation facilitates an exploration of issues such as authorship, community, individuality, and alterity and the role they play in medieval textuality. Increasing our awareness of how medieval reading practices diverge from modern ones surely enhances our understanding of how literature shaped medieval English culture – a culture which, in turn, shaped our own.

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