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The female body, animal imagery, and authoritarian discourse in the Ancrene Riwle
Marsh, Lenora Kay
Doctor of Philosophy, Texas Tech University (2011)
Abstract: Much recent scholarship has demonstrated that medieval spirituality is characterized by preoccupation with the body at both the literal and figurative levels. Religious literature of the Middle Ages, written for uneducated (lay) audiences, consistently illustrates clerical concern for control and discipline of the physical body in devotional and penitential activities which are considered essential for salvation of the soul. In addition, images of beast and bird bodies—which range from the relatively benign pelican to the wrathful wolf—are often used as rhetorical and mnemonic devices in medieval sermons and religious literature to inspire fear in uneducated audiences and encourage them to engage in appropriate Christian behavior.
Most medieval didactic literature—through traditional authoritarian discourse—establishes and reinforces the power of church officials over the lay audiences to which clerical sermons are directed, audiences which are often associated with bodily transgression and resistance to reform. The subject of this dissertation is the Ancrene Riwle. a well-known medieval didactic work which contains a full repertoire of human and bestial body images used rhetorically to reinforce clerical authority over a lay audience. However, this thirteenth-century Middle English guide was written by an anonymous male cleric to instruct an audience comprised, exclusively, of women religious (anchoresses) rather than of both men and women. Therefore, gender issues arise in study of the rhetoric and imagery of this work.
In the Ancrene Riwle. traditional authoritarian discourse often becomes more recognizable as antifeminist discourse which seems designed to limit a female anchorite’s access to both clerical authority and spiritual expression. The present study devotes more attention than has previously been given to the Riwle author’s stylistic use of both real and metaphoric human and animal body images when directing a female audience in spiritual life.