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Motion in Late Medieval English Literature: Impulse, Randomization, and Acceleration


This dissertation examines motion as a literary trope in several late medieval English texts. The types of movement examined here fall into three categories: physical motion recurring in narrative, mobility of textual form that produces the phenomenon of motion in the reader or listener, and the variety of movements external to the narrative but related to the text. Each chapter is organized around an individual author or genre, and Chapter One explores two of Geoffrey Chaucer's early dream vision poems: The House of Fame and The Parliament of the Fowls. Attention to Chaucer's engagement with motion as a concept of natural philosophy and as a desirable state of being reveals connections between his writing and the physics of William of Ockham, and suggests the centrality of fragmentary and complex movement to Chaucer's own poetics.

Chapter Two turns to William Langland's Piers Plowman, analyzing its mobile, convoluted, and jarring form, the compulsive nature of its narrative motion, and the poem's involvement in extra-narrative movements--including those that were subversive and revolutionary. Chapter Three examines movement as it appears in several fourteenth-century metrical romances, primarily surrounding the tropes of the quest and the forest. Finally, Chapter Four analyzes movement in Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Morte Darthur with a focus on simple narrations of travel, the aesthetics of the motion of battle and journeying, the way this text looks back to earlier romances in relation to this subject, and how it uses motion outside of the primary narrative frame to expand the vision of a randomized, always-moving Arthurian world.

The organizing contention running through these chapters is that each text studied here employs motion as a central preoccupation, that the complexity and importance given to the trope in these works relates to the philosophical and scientific context of fourteenth-century England, and that these representations and embodiments of motion tend to have similar features: complexity, fragmentation, randomization, and a form that produces the phenomena of acceleration and jarring transitions. Finally, movement is presented as an impulse: a primary state of existence independent of any defined direction or destination.

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