Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
My dissertation reevaluates medieval concepts of body and identity by analyzing literary depictions of metamorphosis in romance. Focusing on examples such as the hag-turned-damsel in the Wife of Bath's Tale, the lump-turned-boy in The King of Tars and the demon-saint of Sir Gowther, I take as my starting point the fact that while those texts pivot on instances of physical transformation, they refrain from representing such change. This pattern of undescribed physical metamorphosis has broad implications for recent work on evolving notions of change and identity beginning in the high Middle Ages. While Caroline Walker Bynum has read the medieval outpouring of tales about werewolves and hybrids as imaginative responses to social upheavals, I consider why such medieval writings ironically focused on shape-shifters but avoided metamorphosis itself. I argue that we can understand why Chaucer and other writers resisted imagining bodies in the process of transforming by examining the history of ideas regarding metamorphosis in the medieval west. While the foremost classical writer on transformation, Ovid, reveled in depictions of metamorphosis, by the late Middle Ages a new religious discourse on change enjoyed prominence, the doctrine of transubstantiation. In its effort to separate substance and accidents, Eucharistic theory strove to detach identity from physical change and exhibited a certain level of repugnance over images of physical transformation. I argue that medieval secular writings address that anxiety over bread-turned-God in moments such as the close of the Wife of Bath's Tale. In a scene that recalls the place of veiling in Eucharistic ritual, the hag uses the bed curtain first to cloak then reveal her newly young and beautiful physique. Ultimately, the corpus of medieval literature on change--a body of work that engages both Ovidian and Eucharistic writings--suggests that identity intertwines with physical metamorphosis in a productive, if problematically unstable, manner.
animal, metamorphosis, race, transubstantiation
vi, 196 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 190-196).
Copyright 2012 Stephanie Latitia Norris