Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Sponsler, Claire

First Committee Member

Wilcox, Jonathan

Second Committee Member

Lavezzo, Kathy

Third Committee Member

Hooks, Adam

Fourth Committee Member

Ehrstine, Glenn


Scholars have recently begun to reconsider the importance of emotions, suggesting that they are cultural constructions integral to human identity and social life. Most of these studies, however, have ignored the medieval period, focusing instead on the "civilizing process"--that is, the supposed development of social etiquette and self-restraint--that is assumed to have begun in the early modern period. This dissertation demonstrates that emotion was in fact a complex identity discourse well before the Renaissance and was fundamental to the construction of pre-modern social categories like gender. Exploring four masculine communities--clergymen, knights, university students, and merchants--I show that each community was shaped and constrained by a particular emotional ethos. Middle English poets were keenly aware of these constraints and their work often challenged the culture's emotional regimes.

I focus on literary texts from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries because they were created during a time of heightened emphasis on the role of the emotions in shaping selves and communities. In the years after the Black Death, England witnessed significant demographic shifts and economic volatility that resulted in dramatic transformations in the nation's social landscape. Peasant rebellion, labor shortages, migrant clergy, and an influx of foreign merchants radically altered the structure of English society during these years. As a result, the institutions and ideologies that defined English masculine identity began changing in ways not seen before. Poets not surprisingly turned to the lexicon of emotion to negotiate these disruptions; in so doing, they offered English men new ways of understanding themselves in the face of rapid cultural change. The chapters examine a range of Middle English poems--the Alliterative Morte Arthure, St. Erkenwald, Chaucer's Reeve's Tale, and Lydgate's Bycorne and Chychevache--that illuminate particular emotions (anger, compassion, grief, and sorrow) and their significance to codes of masculinity. I argue that these four texts radically revised the forms and meanings of masculine emotional identity and community.

This dissertation demonstrates that Middle English poets recognized the transformative potential inherent in the lexicon of emotion and used it to reshape their audiences' understanding of critical cultural problems. The years from the 1350s to the 1450s were important not only in the emerging tradition of poetry in English, but also for the development of the language and psychology of emotion. As poets tried to come to terms with great social changes, they molded and manipulated the discourse of emotion to interrogate what it meant to be a man in late medieval England. Affective Communities reveals the importance of emotions as markers of gender and community and shows literature's role in responding to and imagining social change.


Affect, Chaucer, Emotion, Lydgate, Masculinity, Sound


v, 203 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 194-203).


Copyright 2011 Travis William Johnson