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I need to submit this tomorrow for a job app. I think there will be medievalists and early modernists on this search committee - it's a department apparently trying to develop something bigger with medieval lit, and they already have someone teaching OE and ME, so I do need to presume that my readers are at least familiar with these works. So I don't want to gloss over anything that might bring protest. But I don't want to presume anything in terms of vocabulary, either, and in fact I want this to be really clear to non-medievalists, so *anybody's* feedback is welcome here, even if it's "I don't know what x means in this context." I haven't allowed enough time for advisor feedback, of course :/ and I don't know what to put in my cover letter since I won't have a paragraph about my diss, I suppose, since they want an abstract. But anyway, one-page diss abstract follows:

My doctoral dissertation, entitled Daughter of God, Sister of Angels: Soul and Body Relations in  Medieval English Literature, reexamines the popular medieval genre of soul-and-body addresses, works which dramatize confrontations between the soul and its body, usually at death or on Judgment Day. Criticism has long characterized these works as didactic and their authors as willing to ignore orthodoxy in favor of vivid scare tactics, but my first chapter serves as a prelude situating  soul-and-body addresses within the same penitential tradition of compunction in which Augustine wrote the Confessions. A coda looks ahead to Paradise Lost, examining Milton's revisions of patristic and medieval philosophies of soul, body, and the nature of matter; I argue that Milton's philosophy of being ultimately places angels rather than humans at the center of the cosmos as the paradigm for rational embodied existence.

While the project touches on nearly a thousand years of literature in order to contextualize medieval soul-and-body works, it focuses primarily on these anonymous, obscure, and often-neglected soul-and-body addresses, which I argue are important early English contributions to penitential theology and the history of subjectivity and the body. Thus, my research challenges narratives of literary history that presume soul and body to be static, transhistorical concepts, the sole domain of the educated elite and largely unchanged between Augustine and Aquinas.By building on recent semantic studies illuminating the various shades of meaning in Old English terms for mind, spirit, soul, body, and cognitive faculties, I demonstrate that 'soul' and 'body' were dynamic concepts attracting ongoing interest and debate in the early vernacular. Soul-and-body addresses describe soul and body through metaphors of kinship; sometimes they are brothers, sometimes they are spouses, but only rarely are they shown in an inherently hierarchical relationship that presupposes the natural dominance or mastery of the soul. These patterns of metaphor challenge the critical tendency to characterize medieval people as mired in a dualist worldview in which the material body is the inferior or even denigrated counterpart of the immaterial soul. The body is central to early medieval penitential theology -- salvation is impossible without it -- and it is given much more agency and value in soul-and-body addresses than standard histories of medieval philosophy of being generally acknowledge.

Pursuing the metaphor of kinship through Old English poetry and homilies that continued to be copied and adapted well into the Middle English period, I find that angels are seen as having a special kinship with the human soul, and they are often the mediators between God and humanity – more so than was Christ in an Anglo-Saxon milieu. These poets and homilists are all part of a continuing scriptural and exegetical tradition in which angelic being elucidates human being; long before Milton's radical vision of an angelic paradigm, angels were essential to understanding the nature of rational embodied being in English culture, and the ontological questions they highlight have never been the sole domain of church fathers or scholastic philosophers. With the gradual development in Middle English of the concept of 'inwit' – or conscience in its modern, morally weighted sense – the strong, often familial link between humans and their guiding angels begins to fade and the concept of a moral compass within the human soul or self becomes more prominent. References to a tri- or multipart soul become more widespread and, as Middle English works such as The Pricke of Conscience and Sawles Warde demonstrate, vernacular literature increasingly concerns itself with hierarchizing the parts of the self. By tracking these shifting conceptions across the 1066 divide, the project recontextualizes more familiar Middle English vernacular religious works by illuminating their neglected Old English precursors and tracing the ways in which their dominant images and metaphors shift over time in response to cultural, sacramental, and philosophical change.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
Overall, as someone who does medieval things, but not Lit and not Europe: I think that you need to put more in the first paragraph about why your dissertation is cool, groundbreaking, and a contribution to the field. I think that, inherently, these documents are about selling yourself and your project and you need to get people's attention. I think that your stuff about how your dissertation's findings challenge the way that modern readers think about medieval people is really awesome and you should foreground that more -- as someone not in your field, that totally gets my attention.

Super minor:
-some spacing issues

Paragraph 1:
-I would give some account of what time period’s literature you’re looking at in the first paragraph – just some centuries – which would allow me to immediately contextualize what you’re talking about in terms of things I know.
-I like that you tell me immediately what a ‘soul-and-body address’ is.
-I would use stronger language to characterize your contribution – so, instead of “but my first chapter serves as a prelude situating” I would put “but my first chapter argues that SAB addresses fit within the same…”
-In the first paragraph, you tell us what the first chapter and the coda say, but what about an overview of what you’re arguing in the rest of the diss? I don't think that you need to do anything chapter by chapter, but, as a reader, I found it curious that you jumped from this is chapter one to this is what I talk about in the coda.

Paragraph 2:
-I feel like you could start your paragraph stronger in terms of playing up your own awesomeness – so, instead of ‘while the project touches on…” something like ‘My dissertation contextualizes SAB works within yearly a 1000 years of literature but I focus primarily on…”
-I would put the part about how you challenge the presumption that soul and body are static, etc in the first paragraph.
-The part about how the metaphor challenges our views of medieval people as mired in a dualist worldview is awesome and, again, I would put that earlier. Or hint at that earlier. Like, ‘my dissertation challenges prevailing views of medieval people as blah blah blah and shows…’

Paragraph 3:
-When you move into the bit about angels, I get a little lost. I was comfortable with the body and soul but you might need to lead your reader through the transition to angels more. I found that I wasn't sure how this part connected to the rest.

I hope this helps!
Nov. 2nd, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
Thanks so much!

See, the thing is, it's not revolutionary or cool or new or groundbreaking at all - at least not to people who actually know anything about the history of the soul. All I'm really doing is paying attention, and I'm paying attention to some seriously neglected literature that even medievalists don't read. The only reason this topic exists is because people largely ignore this literature. (Really, *any* careful reading of *any* medieval literature that treats this stuff will reveal to the modern reader that gross overarching characterizations along the lines of "medieval belief about [fill in the blank]" are, well, gross and overarching haha... the real problem is just that nobody reads this stuff.) But your point is taken, and I will move my smoke-and-mirrors bullshit earlier :-)

Re time frame, that's actually what Augustine and the coda business was supposed to be doing, that's why I used the "prelude to coda" language. I literally start with Augustine and stop with Milton, and everything in between is medieval soul-and-body works, and that is what I meant to be saying in that paragraph - so to acknowledge the breadth up front because it *can't* be pinned down to "southern Germany in teh last half of the 12th century" or whatever, along with also conveying that despite that breadth of reference, this was a work at its heart devoted to re-reading a certain genre of *medieval* literature (not doing an Augustinian reading of medieval theology, for instance, or whatever). Everything in between Augustine and Milton is this anonymous, undateable, untitled obscure soul-and-body stuff that I treat in four chapters to lay out some of the ontology and cosmology of. I treat a bit of Augustine quite briefly in the first chapter just to set the stage for what I'm going to proceed to do (so I could probably just remove the reference to Augustine entirely if that's adding to the "at sea"-ness re. time period), and then I go through a bunch of undateable homilies and poems in Old and Middle English, and then the last chapter is on MIlton (but I'm reading Milton in the same sort of terms that I'm reading these other works in, and I have never been satisfied with my ability to convey how *that* much literature is logically part of one project, so perhaps the first paragraph involves some misplaced overcompensation on my part - it's definitely an attempt to explain what in the heck I think I'm doing that's coherent with 1,000 years of literature). But the focus of this project is on __medieval british vernacular literature__ -- *all of it* -- that finishes with a full, meaty chapter on Milton's revisions of patristic/medieval thought even though he's not medieval :-) That's a thousand years of literature, though obviously I'm focusing on a certain genre within that really long time period, and more to the point, I'm tracing the history of a few closely interrelated ideas. Some metaphors, really -- but metaphors that are signalling conceptual categories, so they're more than "just" metaphors. This is really about a way of thinking of the soul-body relationship that is very unlike "what we're used to," and then I just follow it along for about 800 years to see what happens to it. What happens to it, what the chapters do, is this: "Pursuing the metaphor of kinship through Old English poetry and homilies that continued to be copied and adapted well into the Middle English period, I find that angels are seen as having a special kinship with the human soul, and they are often the mediators between God and humanity – more so than was Christ..." with a couple of observations about conscience and a hierarchized soul/self that gradually take over the territory once occupied by angels.

Nov. 2nd, 2012 04:48 am (UTC)
In short, it's not one of those projects that looks at work A in ch 1, work B in ch 2, NOR one of those projects that looks at decade A (or country A or genre A) in ch 1, decade B in ch 2, etc. In large part that's because I can't give a "start date" for my OE homilies and poems - nobody can. (Part of the trouble with putting actual dates in is that we can't date any of these OE works with any certainty, and the extant mss all certainly posdate the original composition by lengths of time that people get into actual, heated fights about. So when I tell people what I study, I tell them "Old English literature" and "Middle English literature," or just "medieval English literature" -- those *are* the time periods/eras, so in lit circles that would be understood as all the lit of the OE period and all the lit of the ME period. So while I can appreciate what you're saying about needing to be better anchored --and I'm glad you said that, because of the things that had occurred to me as potential problems, that was not one of them-- I'm not really sure what to say other than the "medieval English literature" of the title that would clear it up. Would it be clearer if I got rid of the coda and Augustine business and started with a statement something like the "tracing the ways in which their dominant images and metaphors shift over time" stuff? So, stating up front that I'm tracing these changes from Old English through Middle English (except I don't stop there - I do a full reading of the ontology of Paradise Lost, so I really am going from literature that may very well have been circulating in some form in the 700s, give or take 100 or so years on either side, to 1667, after an intro that takes us through the late 4th century in what is today Algeria lol... )

Or am I misunderstanding your point?
Nov. 2nd, 2012 04:53 am (UTC)
Re angels, I just have an awful lot of shit in this dissertation. I simply don't know how to explain the link in an abstract. Basically I start out with showing that OE concepts of soul and body were like so (that takes 80 pages), and one of the big recurring things is this kinship metaphor, that soul and body are in a relationship characterized by kinship, not master/slave or anything like that. Angels are also described in these kinship terms, in relation to the soul itself in places, and in relation to humanity itself in others (which is not especially remarkable since human beings were created to fill a void left by the fallen angels), and they play a central role in humanity's understanding of itself for a really, really, really long time. Gradually, the metaphorical and conceptual categories and characterizations change - the soul becomes immortal and immaterial and rational, the other half of the physical body. The role of angels in relation to the human soul or self also changes as rational conscience emerges as a concept and takes center stage, in fact taking over a lot of the job that angels did in a lot of OE poetry (to put it WAY broadly and probably not too clearly, but I am def. claiming that conscience in the sense of "God's umpire" as it's used in Paradise Lost, as this divine spark of indwelling ethical wisdom that was part of the human self or soul, does NOT exist in OE). Milton happens to have written a poem that sort of crystallizes what's at stake with some of these changes. But I do NOT mean to imply cause and effect or an unbroken uninterrupted line of "influence" - Milton was not trying to explain Old and Middle English kinship metaphors! and all I'm really doing is claiming that we can read these conceptual shifts in the literatures of their eras, which is really a pretty "duh" claim - but PL happens to "put a bow" on some of these shifts and issues I'm tracing, happens to engage a lot of them and help me illustrate where these ideas "end up"... or at least the discussion of PL also serves to bring all this dusty old obscure stuff nobody has heard of "up" to a point that is "common ground" for pretty much any reader. It brings the discussion up to a point we're back into the "light" of well-studied, well-documented, thoroughly discussed stuff. Early medieval religious literature is treated like it's prehistoric, and I'm just trying to fill in some blanks of some actual ideas that people had, in England, between Augustine and Aquinas, really. They had ideas and wrote them down, though if you read standard histories of medieval philosophy of being, you could easily get the impression that nobody had any new ideas between the 4th century in Hippo and the 13th in Paris - at least nobody in England who wrote them down in English :-)
Nov. 2nd, 2012 05:09 am (UTC)
Then again, the problem could be that this sprawling project doesn't hang together too well, and the reason I can't really explain how the angel stuff ties in to the soul-body stuff in a clear sentence or two is because there's way too much going on. But it's pretty much too late to do anything about that.

I suppose I could leave the angels out. It's just that they are at the center of the fifth chapter, which became my first article and which is my writing sample, and most of my third chapter is about what angels are up to in OE literature and exegesis, so it seemed important to mention them, as they take up about 2/5ths of my dissertation. But when I try to explain why *briefly,* I end up with what I posted, and that is not doing the job too well, apparently :/
Nov. 2nd, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
I think it's probably too late for my comments at this point -- I'm sorry if I caused you stress by not answering in a timely fashion!

I think that, most likely, for literature people, pegging it as 'medieval English literature' is fine -- I suspect that my own questions come from the fact that I work on the Middle East where definitions of 'medieval' can be more contentious.
Nov. 2nd, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
I'm of the fake it until you make it camp. Even if you don't feel groundbreaking or revolutionary, talk up your project like it is.

As for the timeframe stuff, I think it might just be the historian in me. Or it might be the Middle East specialist in me that's used to having to provide contextualizing dates with everything. I want dates of some kind!

I definitely got that the project was looking at rereading a genre of medieval literature. I just wanted you to define 'medieval' with some centuries -- that might be a product of me not being a Europeanist, so there's more debate about what constitutes the medieval period in the Middle East. You're probably fine with Augustine-Milton as a stand in for dates.

I think that, perhaps, I would just spell out the fact that all the stuff between Augustine and Milton is anonymous, undtateable, untitled -- explain why it's important despite that fact.
Nov. 2nd, 2012 03:12 am (UTC)
Is this an abstract or part of a cover letter? I agree with Rabs, but if it's for a letter it's too long.
Nov. 2nd, 2012 03:16 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's why I said "one-page diss abstract follows" before the cut :-)
Nov. 2nd, 2012 03:19 am (UTC)
Bah. It's like I'm in a profession that rewards close reading or something.
Nov. 2nd, 2012 12:01 pm (UTC)
I agree with rabsworm. Re: revolutionary/cool/groundbreaking, I was told (however uncomfortable it makes me) that we should hardcore bullshit the significance of our projects, even if we know that they really *aren't* that revolutionary. So yeah---move the smoke and mirrors up. :)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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