The invention of goodness : literary ethics and tropological imagination in late-medieval England

McDermott, Ryan John, Department of English, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

How can the interpretation of literature turn into ethical action? The question was on the minds of many late-medieval writers, since a positive moral influence could justify the making and reading of profane literature. So they turned to a discourse that united ethics with hermeneutics and theology: namely, the tropological (ethical) interpretation of the Bible. According to tropological theory, interpretation is never complete without action, and that action can take the form of writing. Tropology, in other words, is never simply an analysis of one text, but an invention of another—fruitful activity, acted out in new production of literature, even of profane literature.

Surprisingly, modern scholars, when attempting to trace the emergence of vernacular literature, have sought it everywhere but in tropology. They have turned to classical rhetoric to think about medieval inventio, and to moral theology and philosophy and cultural studies for models of medieval ethics. Here, I argue that tropological concerns did much to inspire the invention of literature.

The dissertation works out from William Langland's Piers Plowman to theological and exegetical flashpoints in the fourteenth century, which contextualize the Patience-Poet's exegetical felicities. My project also, inevitably, intervenes in current debates in phenomenology and moral philosophy about the conditions of ethical action, where the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Marion have inspired the "new ethics" in literary studies.

Reading the Pentecost episode of Piers Plowman phenomenologically, chapter 1 argues that unlike Rita Copeland's Chaucer, who translates classical antiquity in order to supersede it, Piers Plowman eschews competition, seeking to conserve its biblical and liturgical models, yet nevertheless inventing previously unforeseeable phenomena. Chapter 2 introduces a diverse range of tropological theory and practice from the Bible to Bonaventure, with sustained attention to tropological invention in fourteenth-century English homiletics. Chapter 3 argues that Will and Langland write to make their lives and save their souls, rendering Piers Plowman more an event than a text. Chapter 4 situates Patience with respect to fourteenth-century exegetes' turn to the literal sense of scripture in order to argue that the Patience-Poet delights in literal description in order to share with Jonah in the same history of salvation.

Because all of the senses of scripture—literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical—interanimate each other, tropological makers practice a literary ethics that circulates between sacred and secular scriptures, between past and present, individual and community, subject and object, history and eschatology.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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