Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Sponsler, Claire

First Committee Member

Wilcox, Jon

Second Committee Member

Lavezzo, Kathy

Third Committee Member

Pascoe, Judith

Fourth Committee Member

Bork, Robert


While excellent scholarly work exists on medieval space, especially in cultural geography, no book-length study of the conceptual implications of medieval vertical space exists. Attention has been lavished on the surface of the medieval world, while the heights go unseen and the depths go unplumbed. Using theories of space by scholars such as Henri Lefebvre and Jacques Le Goff, this project explores this lacuna through close reading of three late medieval English texts. The emphasis within Christian theology on a vertically-oriented model of virtue and the afterlife (ascending to Heaven, falling to Hell) was likely the initial reason for the prominence of verticality in the Middle Ages; the work of religious writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Walter Hilton set the stage for an explosion of the vertical imagination, as a blossoming of the incredible variety of what could be called "vertical thought." These ideas foreshadowed and accompanied similar developments in the secular arena, soon becoming an integral part of medieval life. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, closely interrelated--and strongly vertical--frameworks arose to structure complex concepts such as moral virtue, social class and kinship relations. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw several major developments in what can be called "vertical thought." The evolution of Augustinian ideas of religion and morality led to a nuanced vertical hierarchy of virtues and vices, while the rise of the middle class helped define the explicit division of class into vertical tiers. A shift in conceptions of kinship, from a synchronous network to a diachronic tree of ancestry, affected perceptions of gender and family. Finally, the growth of parliamentary and urban political capital in late medieval England, especially in response to the reign of child-king Henry VI, led to a battle of wills between the powerful men of London and their king.

These concerns with verticality were not limited to the realms of religious belief or temporal power, but manifested themselves in medieval literature and iconography as well. Highness and lowness feature in the plots, characters, and settings of many texts, and tropes of height and depth and rising and falling make frequent appearances textually and visually. Depictions of Heaven and Hell, for example, frequently make use of height and depth, and instances such as the Virgin Mary's ascension to Heaven or Lucifer's fall from Heaven to Hell involve explicitly vertical movement which parallels the perceived virtue of said figures. The Jesse tree, a genealogy of Christ, is usually illustrated as a tree emerging from a recumbent man's body, and reflects a newly vertical visualization of familial ties, while the concept of degree or scale, often represented as a ladder or stairs, is explicitly used as a framework for both moral virtue and socioeconomic status. Through discussion of three specific medieval tropes in literature and art-- the tree of Jesse in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, the Dead Sea in Cleanness, and the giant of Lydgate's Triumphal Entry of Henry VI--this project attempts to demonstrate the importance of verticality in late medieval English literature from 1300-1500 and show how these tropes responded to and influenced changes in the way medieval, and modern, audiences perceived social class, kinship, politics, and religion.


Chaucer, Cleanness, Lydgate, Middle English literature, verticality


v, 173 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 166-173).


Copyright 2012 Joseph Paul Rodriguez