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Madness and Gender in Late-Medieval English Literature

Jose, Laura

Doctoral thesis, Department of English Studies, Durham University (2010)


This thesis discusses presentations of madness in medieval literature, and the ways in which these presentations are affected by (and effect) ideas of gender. It includes a discussion of madness as it is commonly presented in classical literature and medical texts, as well as an examination of demonic possession (which shares many of the same characteristics of madness) in medieval exempla. These chapters are followed by a detailed look at the uses of madness in Malory‟s Morte Darthur, Gower‟s Confessio Amantis, and in two autobiographical accounts of madness, the Book of Margery Kempe and Hoccleve‟s Series.

The experience of madness can both subvert and reinforce gender roles. Madness is commonly seen as an invasion of the self, which, in a culture which commonly identifies masculinity with bodily intactness, can prove problematic for male sufferers. Equally, madness, in prompting violent, ungoverned behaviour, can undermine traditional definitions of femininity. These rules can, however, be reversed. Malory‟s Morte Darthur presents a version of masculinity which is actually enhanced by madness; equally divergent is Margery Kempe‟s largely positive account of madness as a catalyst for personal transformation. While there is a certain consistency in the literary treatment of madness – motifs and images are repeated across genres – the way in which these images are used can alter radically. There is no single model of madness in medieval literature: rather, it is always fluid. Madness, like gender, remains open to interpretation.

Click here to read this article from Durham University

(via Medievalists)