Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Notes for a PHD proposal

So, in between busily scribbling bits of thesis, I somehow have to find brain space to think about next year and PHD possibilities. Here's my current thoughts.

Gentle words: choosing the non-violent approach.


In the final book of Malory's Morte Darthur, a desperate and bereaved Gawain tries to provoke Lancelot into battle with accusations of adultery, falsehood and betrayal. In failing to defend himself, Lancelot risks validating the accusations and attracting the additional charge of cowardice - and yet he, the best of Arthur's knights, deliberately chooses not to take up arms against his friend and his liege lord, even if this choice undermines his very being as a knight. I propose to explore literary and cultural perceptions of the choice of non-violence in the changing world of England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Considering the centrality of violence and force to both the chivalric ethos and to an effective justice system, I will also examine the effect such a choice might have on the formation of masculine identity and power. By studying literature such as political tracts, anonymous romances and saints' lives in addition to the more consciously constructed literature of writers such as Chaucer, Froissart, Malory and the Gawain-poet, I mean to examine the way in which the latter engaged with and rewrote cultural assumptions and constructs evident in the former.

Points to consider:

- The language of the formal university or theological disputatio was dominated by terms drawn from combat and physical dispute. Karras details the culture of masculine formation in late medieval universities and the transferral of aggressive response patterns from the physical military setting to the verbal university debate[1]. How was the non-violent choice depicted in this less literal setting? Did the virtual absence of women from the scene and the ban on marriage (where applicable) change the dynamic by depriving men of one possible way to prove their masculinity?

- Given the lower visibility of women in literature and the greater passivity of the female role in society and the home, can we determine to what extent these precepts were applied in the construction of feminine identity?

- Legends of saints' lives often celebrate the choice of non-resistance, the decision to suffer martyrdom unresisting for one's faith. This is one instance in which the author almost invariably commends the character unequivocably for the decision, though other characters in the narrative may mock or chide the saint for it. But is non-violence in the name of God an act of challenge and combat in itself? To what extent is the peaceful option as endorsed by religion used as an extenuating circumstance or justification for choosing to avoid violence in other situations?

- A fourteenth century political tract on good kingship would have it that "mercy with oute justise is no verrey mercy, but rathir it may be seid folye and symplesse. And also justise with oute mercy is crueltie and felonye, and thefore it is convenient that these II vertues be ever ensembled"[2]. This emphasis on judicious balance is paralleled by literary moments such as Theseus' careful retention of the power of both justice and mercy in The Knight's Tale and Froissart's depiction of a suspiciously similar Edward III during the siege of Calais. How do writers in the thirteenth and fourteenth century express concern with the upsetting of the scales of mercy and justice, or use their writing to explore and impose a more acceptable ideal?

That's all that springs to mind for now. It's a first draft, of course, and will probably be rewritten substantially. Of course, it would help if I knew what a PhD proposal is meant to look like... but finding out would involve research, which means time!

[1] Karras, Ruth Mazo. From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in late medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2002. 67-108.
[2] "The III Consideracions Right Necesserye to the good governaunce of a prince". Ed. Genet, Jean-Philippe. Four English Political Tracts of the Later Middle Ages. Camden Society, 4th Series (1977), 18. 200.


Lady D. said...

That sounds fascinating as an area of study - a really good idea for a PhD? Is it easy to get funding for higher degrees in Autralia by the way? I couldn't get it here for a creative writing PhD - although if I had done one in medieval history it might have been a different story (academics here are still biased against anythingg 'artistic'), especially when English language and literature students share the same pot!

Ceirseach said...

I figure it ought to be fascinating if I'm going to spend four years on it. :) I don't know about easy, but I should be able to manage it - if I were staying in Australia. The catch is that I want to move to Canada for my PhD, but if I can't get funding I won't.