In Search Of Clearer Water: An Exploration Of Water Imagery In Late Medieval Devotional Prose Addressed To Women
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In his encyclopaedic work On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa describes water as ‘able.’ Water is an element which has no determinate properties of its own but which takes up properties from its surroundings and, at the same time, enacts change on those surroundings. This thesis argues that the inherent flexibility or ‘ableness’ of water, which Trevisa and other encyclopaedic writers identify, is crucial to late-medieval understanding of the element and, in turn, informs its use in a variety of religious writings. The multivalent potential of water enables devotional writers to use references to the element to symbolise and articulate access to God whilst they simultaneously deploy it as a metaphorical limiting agent that can regulate this access. Although there has been some critical attention paid to certain kinds of water in late medieval devotional prose, this thesis contains the first holistic study of various manifestations of water. It considers the material and historical realities of water in the Middle Ages as well as representations of water in different literary genres and demonstrates the ‘ableness’ of water within them. These findings are then used to shed light on a specific genre: spiritual guides authored by men and addressed to women, from the late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth centuries. The thesis identifies a literary language of water in late medieval devotional prose – a complex and recurrent set of images that authors draw upon to explicate Christian doctrine and portray different aspects of religious life. These images provide the organisational structure of the thesis. Three significant tropes of water are considered in light of its ‘ableness’: the imagined and encouraged relationship between water and the body in spiritual guidance, the importance of laundering the soul in such works, and the relationship between blood and water in Passion meditations.
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