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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Wound That Makes Whole - Bleeding and Intersubjectivity in Middle English Romance

  • Author(s): Levinson-Emley, Rachel Louise
  • Advisor(s): Fradenburg Joy, L.O. Aranye
  • et al.

This dissertation, “The Wound that Makes Whole: Bleeding and Intersubjectivity in Middle English Romance,” analyzes bleeding as a metaphor for expression, physical healing, spiritual purgation, and nourishment in Middle English (ca. 1350 – 1500) romances, in concert with contemporaneous medical texts concerning bloodletting, nursing, and menstruation. I argue that the forms of bleeding detailed in the romances ultimately enable the texts’ characters to develop a more robust intersubjectivity, as the vulnerability inherent in bleeding both allows and necessitates the formation of identities based on bodily boundaries and their transgressability. My approach to bleeding as a “metaphor” draws on Lakoff and Johnson’s conception of metaphor as fundamentally embodied, and on recent research on physiological responsiveness demonstrating the power words have to change bodies. My project is, at the same time, fundamentally historicist, arguing for the genealogical importance of medieval medicine to current reconsiderations of organic sensitivity to putatively cultural phenomena. Hence my work also affiliates with that of scholars like Louise Bishop, who has shown that the power of language to alter bodily processes was a central notion in medieval materialism. My project approaches the intersections between medical texts and romances to argue that it is often the words used in medical manuscripts – technical, specialized physical terminology – that have the most power to change bodies in medieval literature. That is, the language of medical care has profound effects on the creation of identity and community in medieval romance.

The theoretical framework of my projectisbased fundamentally in the growing fields of medical humanities and narrative medicine. I turn to scholars such as Louise Bishop, Elaine Scarry, Rita Charon, Arthur W. Frank, and Jonathan Shay to consider the complexities of the wounded body, and how that body communicates with and relates to others. Other theoretical works I turn to are primarily psychoanalytical and neurological theories of the relation between body and mind (in particular Giovanna Colombetti), as well as neighbor theory (especially Derrida and Žižek). Each of these bodies of critical thought helps me parse the ways in which bleeding, vulnerability, care, sacrifice, and identity and community formation interact in medieval romantic texts. My dissertation distinguishes itself most notably from previous scholarship on blood in the Middle Ages by utilizing the primary interdisciplinary framework of contemporary medieval medical texts, as well as the philosophy of the medical humanities, to analyze the romances.

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