Willful Submission: A Study of Obedience in the Middle Ages
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CitationChaudhuri, Aparna. 2019. Willful Submission: A Study of Obedience in the Middle Ages. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Abstract“Willful Submission” suggests that obedience is a crucial yet understudied theme of Middle English texts other than the works of political theory and monastic regulation usually identified as its loci. This dissertation also aims to reshape our understanding of obedience itself by tracing how this social form figures in a variety of attempts by medieval writers to define the position of the subject as one of ethical agency, not passive yielding to another’s control. My project reveals that an attitude usually associated with the annihilation of personal will, and the most conservative institutional discourses of church and state is actually at the center of sophisticated thought about the configurations of power within which human beings attain visibility as willing, acting, autonomous beings – “subjects” in the ethical as well as political sense of the word.
My introductory chapter, a word-study of “obedience” across different classical languages, builds the grammar from which the meanings of obedience are created and deployed by the texts later chapters study. Focusing on the etymological link of “obedience” with hearing – and rhetoric and persuasion – I explore associations between submission, volition, and affect. Chapter Two connects the thirteenth-century anchoritic guidance text, Ancrene Wisse, to John Cassian’s fifth-century Conferences. Both works de-emphasize the institutional form of monastic submission, but are vitally concerned with a higher obedience to God, through which they claim strength and scope for human eschatological agency. The third chapter, on Ovid’s Tristia and Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, argues that Ovid and Chaucer, whom critics have often linked by their evasions of authority, are united specifically by an interest in obedience: in defining authorial identity as a subject identity, and poetry as written within simultaneously enabling and constraining networks of power. The final chapter probes the connection of obedience with patient suffering in the context of late fourteenth-century Wycliffite reform. By comparing Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” a story of terrifyingly absolute obedience, and Pearl, a poem with an unsubmissive, impatient protagonist, I suggest that imperfect obedience is as culturally and theologically important and perhaps more poetically interesting than utter self-abnegation in late medieval England.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42013106
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