Beyond the Lines
: Materiality and Non-linear Time in Medieval English Literature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis, mostly using a phenomenological approach, explores how objects in Medieval English Literature disrupt individual linear time. Prompted by Caroline van Eck’s account (2015) of Aby Warburg as a scholar who privileged ‘those artistic phenomena that are most disruptive of the basic elements of any historical discipline, the rationality of the viewer and historian, and the linear unfolding of time’, the project asks how far specific objects allow the characters and readers to engage with a ‘broad present’ (Gumbrecht 2014) through embodied perception in the face of death. I investigate the extent to which Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s contention (1945) that ‘to be in the present is to always have been and to be forever’ is enabled through the agency of objects and materiality. This agency is, however, always mediated by a bodily engagement with, and reaction to, a limited time. Chapter 1 analyses how hagiographies, particularly the anonymous Old English version of the Legend of the Seven Sleepers, the Legenda Aurea’s St Mary of Egypt, and St Erkenwald, skilfully use dead human bodies in a manner which disrupts the sense of linear time of the readers of the narratives. The analysis resorts to John McTaggart’s distinction (1908) between the temporal orders of A series and B series. Chapter 2, using Martin Heidegger’s concept of being-towards-death as developed in Being and Time (1927), addresses the ways in which the Dreamer in Pearl comes to terms with his own future death and the need, in the poem’s view, to accept linearity, which he constantly enacts, for example in what he expects to be question-answer sequences. Gilles Deleuze’s movement-image and time-image (1983; 1985) also inform this Chapter. Chapter 3 discusses Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. I posit that Criseyde is representative of Freudian melancholia (1917) on account of the disappearance of Calkas and that she embodies the revolt of the Lemnian women as presented in Book 5 of the Thebaid. I suggest, following Walter Benjamin’s On the Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1925), that she enacts a redemption of the past, extracting what for her is the truth content of the Lemnian women episode. Chapter 4 suggests that in Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Divine Love the Eucharist is read and presented to the readers with a Johannine emphasis (6:1–58), negotiating human bodies in a manner which in metaphysics is called four-dimensionalism, the view that objects have temporal parts. Merleau-Ponty contributes to some layers of the analysis, with his focus on the embodiment of perception and on the omnitemporality of the body. I then discuss, more briefly, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, with the same argument in mind. The Conclusion wraps up the argument about objects (dead bodies; a pearl; a book; the Eucharist, through the participatory living bodies of the worshippers) disrupting linearity. I also briefly use the ‘resurrection’ scene from Act V of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as a vantage point from which to reflect on the thesis.
Date of Award1 Feb 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSarah Salih (Supervisor) & Robert Mills (Supervisor)

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