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Experience, Epistemology, and Women's Writing in the Late Middle Ages

  • Author(s): Fisher, Leona Catherine
  • Advisor(s): Ganim, John M
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the moment in the late Middle Ages when, for the first time in history, women began to gain access to literacy in comparatively large numbers. Because these women had little or no access to the long scholarly tradition in Latin upon which male authors were trained and relied for their authority, these female authors needed another way to authorize their writing, their experience. This dissertation is an exploration of the genesis of experience as an authoritative epistemology: how it came about and was articulated in writing as well as the legacy of this epistemology.

This study explores several examples of experience in writing from antiquity and the classical period before turning to the twelfth century where I argue we see the first signs of a formalized rhetoric of experience developing to suit the needs of twelfth century female writers who relied upon their experiences to justify and authorize their writing. Whereas a man like Hugh of St. Victor considers his life as worthy of autobiographical narration, he justifies this agenda by an appeal to authority. Hildegard and other female contemporaries such as Elisabeth of Schönau meditate on their experience and in that meditation find an independent authorization. This reliance on experience and the rhetorical conventions surrounding mystical experience became so entrenched that by the fourteenth century, writers like Margery Kempe were able to resist certain genre conventions to suit their own purposes.

Experience as an authorizing epistemology, though it may have developed in large part out of women's mystical writing, was not confined to it. We can see the influence of experience in the writing of Marie de France; by the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, men such as Dom Dinis of Portugual, and more famously, Geoffrey Chaucer, invoked the authority of experience in their own writing.

In the span of a few short centuries, experience and observation had come to be privileged above ancient and canonical sources. This radical epistemological shift continues to shape how we think about knowledge and what constitutes it and owes a clear debt to the women writers of late Middle Ages.

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