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Bedwritten: Middle English Medicine and the Ailing Author

  • Author(s): Silva, Chelsea Rae
  • Advisor(s): Denny-Brown, Andrea
  • et al.
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Abstract

This dissertation explores the intersection of medical care and authorial self-representation in Middle English literature, reading canonical literary works and medical texts alongside one another to reveal the shaping influence that healthcare practices and literary production exerted on each other. Informed by medical humanities methodologies, this dissertation argues that just as popular medical texts made use of literary techniques and conventions, so too did literary authors turn to medical discourses in their efforts to communicate experiences of illness or impairment. Approaching these two practices as inextricable makes possible an exploration of medieval authorship that accounts for the entangled nature of cultural care and medical cure.

An introductory chapter provides an overview of medical practice in late medieval England, paying particular attention to the relationships between practitioners and patients and to the texts that record popular experiences of healthcare, such as remedy collections and autobiographical accounts. Figuring the patient not simply as a collection of symptoms and diagnoses but as embedded in a particular cultural and historical network of relations, the next two chapters redefine “embodied writing” in order to account for both the body itself and for the processes of maintenance and repair that define life within it. Chapter One suggests that the devotional verse of the fifteenth-century priest John Audelay, produced while its author was blind, deaf, and bedridden, forwards a poetics marked by the incremental forms of medical care he received. Chapter Two demonstrates that Julian of Norwich’s account of her obstructed revelatory Shewings utilizes medical figurations of visual impairment to conceptualize alternative forms of connection to the divine.

In its second half, the dissertation reverses the paradigm that defines Chapters One and Two, exploring how medical writers drew on literary practices in their constructions of professional authority and personal experience. Genres like the almanac (Chapter Three) and the medical miscellany (Chapter Four) afforded unique spaces for literary experimentation and didactic connection. These chapters also move the dissertation into the fifteenth century in their consideration of how the transmission of medical knowledge shifted with the introduction of print.

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This item is under embargo until June 12, 2025.