Matter of Meekness: Reading Humility in Late Medieval England
“Matter of Meekness: Reading Humility in Late Medieval England” argues for the surprising importance of an oft-ignored virtue in English literature of the late fourteenth century: humility or meekness (the two are synonymic in Middle English). Readers in modernity have fundamentally misunderstood the importance and role of humility in late medieval literature, and in doing so, have missed an essential mode of understanding medieval conceptions of personhood and community in such late medieval texts as The Showings of Julian of Norwich, Pearl, and Piers Plowman. For medieval writers and thinkers, to be human was to be created and limited. The practiced acknowledgment of one’s creatureliness, limitations, and sinfulness constituted the virtue of humility. This dissertation explores the role and importance of this epistemological humility in late medieval English texts.
“Matter of Meekness” places these literary works in conversation with Augustinian and Thomist theological traditions as well as contemporary, popular penitential and devotional materials aimed towards lay and clerical audiences. References to humility abound in the late medieval period: it appears in lists, gradations, particular vocabularies, and in many instructional examples. Like the writers of these manuals, the writers of my study understood their works as vehicles for the transformation of their readers. By retrieving and re-examining robust medieval conceptions of humility, we can understand the way that works such as the anonymous Pearl, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, and the Showings of Julian of Norwich draw from and innovatively transform these traditional didactic discourses of moral and spiritual learning in late medieval England in order to not just urge submission to God, but to reform the contemporary church, theologically intervene in penitential traditions of sin and self-knowledge, or penetratingly and theologically explore the ways that memory and habits can be reformed into practices of virtue.
The introduction explores the differences between medieval conceptions of humility and modern definitions of humility, arguing that the way we read medieval texts and their depictions of humility and human limitation has been obscured by post-Enlightenment understandings of the virtue. The first chapter takes up the work of Julian of Norwich, showing how she draws on conventional medieval images of humility—Christ, Mary, motherhood, childhood, and servanthood—to probe the limits of institutionalized traditions of humility. I argue that Julian’s critically overlooked and innovative portrayal of the child reconsiders self-knowledge and human moral dependence. Chapter two argues that the anonymous, fourteenth-century alliterative poem, Pearl, is a meditation on the profound difficulty of learning within the contexts of grief and suffering. The poem’s form inculcates humble habits of reading wherein the reader participates in the main figure’s learning. In chapter three, I examine a series of allegorical figures who advocate for creating humility through punitive conditions of deprivation in Piers Plowman. Langland’s dialectical portrayal of learning in these scenes ultimately questions the ability of the fourteenth-century church to create the conditions for communal formation in the virtues. All three works interrogate, conceptualize, and affirm the paradoxical power of acknowledging weakness in learning.
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