Saints in Sight: Representations of Holiness in Late Medieval English Literature

Sutherland, Elizabeth, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia

My project explores the aesthetic challenges of representing holiness, an intrinsically ineffable phenomenon. I examine the late medieval English literature of sainthood. Textual representations of sainthood employ various tropes and topoi designed to render the saint opaque or indeterminate, preserving her inscrutable essence. These poetic attempts to “unsay” sainthood intersect with a contemporary discourse: apophatic (or negative) theology. Apophatic discourse leads readers into an experience of unknowing by negating, and so transcending, affirmative statements. I unearth and analyze the “apophatic poetics” of late Middle English representations of sainthood, looking at a thirteenth-century saint’s life (“The Life of Saint Margaret” from the South English Legendary), a fourteenth-century travelogue (The Book of John Mandeville), and a fourteenth-century dream vision (Pearl). Each text presents a deeply ambivalent portrait of sanctity, emphasizing the elusiveness of saintly figures. If sainthood resists definition, then, theoretically if not institutionally, it cannot be policed. The essentially mysterious nature of holiness creates a space of possibility. Who can delimit the category of saint? At its best, the medieval literature of sainthood participates in a major impulse of the vernacular: the desire for universal salvation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
medieval literature, hagiography, saints, saint, sainthood, literature of sainthood, sanctity, holiness, sanctification, phenomenology, phenomenality of saint, Jean-Luc Marion, Patricia Cox Miller, The Book of John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Pearl, Saint Margaret, The South English Legendary, lives of the saints, saint vitae, All Saints, All Souls, apophasis, apophatic theology, negative theology, via negativa, Pseudo-Dionysius, apophatic bodies, apophatic poetics, hagiographical reduction, travel, travelogue, travel literature, travel writing, monsters, monstrosity, representations of sainthood, The Invisibility of the Saint, the literature of sainthood, cataphasis, cataphatic
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