“The Good Death”: Confronting Mortality in the Middle Ages and the Present

Death is the one universal, natural phenomenon which no one wants to talk about.  In this paper, I will be exploring anxieties about death in the middle ages and today. I believe that medieval death anxieties (and coping mechanisms) can say something about our present-day death culture. I will be using a largely historical approach, in order to understand medieval death culture through a survey of coping mechanisms, popular narratives, and common fears. My hope for this project is to understand why – if we understand death as a natural phenomenon – does it scare so many people, and how have these fears changed or stayed the same over time? In order to answer this question, I will be looking at medieval attitudes towards death historically and culturally. I will be using The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms as a primary source for the cultural attitudes towards death, as well as critical essays which analyze other cultural artifacts like transi tombs, ars moriendi, the Three Living and the Three Dead, Danse Macabre, revenants, and the double macabre portraits. I will be engaging with Dominique Deluca’s essay Bonum est Mortis Meditari: Meanings and Functions of the Medieval Double Macabre Portrait for an insight into cultural attitudes towards cultural artifacts like the double macabre portrait, and the anxieties that drove their reactions. I will also be using Kathleen Cohen’s Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol, which offers an analysis of the transi tombs as the manifestation of medieval death anxiety. It is difficult to talk about a universal attitude towards death in the middle ages because most of the funerary records and wills are from nobles, not common people. From what it is possible to know, it is obvious that medieval people felt a deep anxiety related to the religious implications of death. Because of this, people were often encouraged to contemplate death and therefore the afterlife. Today, we’ve retained some of the same fears and added new ones, but we no longer encourage conversations or contemplations on our mortality. Using a survey of medieval death culture with the Disputation between the Body and the Worms as a cornerstone, I hope to argue that medieval and contemporary anxieties about death result from a human exceptionalism that stems from a denial of nature.

The Power of Nature on the Ordinary: How Nature Denotes Importance in Literature

The examination of nature in literature is a longstanding tradition of literary criticism; critics have often examined the effects of setting, the figure of Mother Nature as a personified force, the presence of animal sidekicks and guides in works both modern and ancient. However, in our examination of these forces we typically look at what nature does for the story, but we often forget to consider another hugely important function of nature in what it does for the reader. How does nature catch our attention? How does it signify what is and is not important for the reader to remember? Can nature elevate a character to the reader? Does nature have the power to alter a reader’s opinion or view of a text, person, or story as a whole? In this paper, I will seek to answer these questions as I delve into the notion that nature denotes positive importance in a text; I will argue that if a reader wants to find that which is extraordinary, that which is noteworthy, they should look to natural forces being their guide to this presence in a text. I will exemplify this in a close reading analysis of several passages and scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, and the Seven Fables of Robert Henryson. In addition to these texts, I will examine the works of various literary critics, in an effort to gain insight on various interpretations of certain symbols or scenes in the various texts. I will also frame the contextual situation of nature in the Medieval era by including research from medievalists specializing in the field of ecocriticism, such as Jeffrey Cohen’s article “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” as a way to convey not only what the modern reader thinks of the nature present in these texts, but how the medieval reader would have perceived them as well.

Paper Proposal– Symbols, Love, and Nature: When Three Become One

In this essay, I intend to speak to the issue of the romance-genre in media using naturally-occurring objects as symbols. In “Guigemar” and “Laüstic”, nature is used to denote a specified meaning in each story; Guigemar has a wound that only his lady-love can heal, the physical symbol becoming metaphorical. The nightingale is a symbol for the love the knight holds for his love in “Laüstic”– once it is killed, its status is elevated beyond simple representation into a physical reminder. Both stories show that the use of an object changes the object itself and the message conveyed by using it. An entity used solely as a symbol for symbolism’s sake is an impossible idea. Using an object to mean something it not of its original purpose changes the intent of the object forthwith. I will use past and present examples of media– literature, movies, and video-games– to illustrate such a point.

Sanders’ Adaption and Appropriation will help show what an adaption of a text and an object does to the subject. The subject is irrevocably changed through its meaning, its representation, and its misinterpretation. I will subsequently relate the idea of adaption to the use of an object for representation. As an example, in “Laüstic”, to adapt the nightingale from a literal singing animal into a symbol of love lost changes the bird’s purpose but also its reception. The nightingale is no longer just a bird, but something beyond itself, taking on both human traits and its natural traits. The modern examples will be a little more difficult to show, but one example I’ve found to be intriguing is the videogame “Dragon Age: Origins”. In it, a character named Alistair offers the protagonist a simple flower. Alistair comments that he saw it, and asked himself “how could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair?”. The rose became more than a flower given as a gift, growing into a representation of human emotion and hope. With other evidence, I hope to show that objects take on more than their original meaning when used as symbols to represent romantic interests.

Paper Proposal: Symbolic Color in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Laurel McCormick


Symbolic Color in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The colors green and gold in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are assigned to The Green Knight and Sir Gawain as a physical representation of their inner qualities. These colors are also representative of the wildness of nature and inner morality. The Green Knight has many things that link him to the free natural world; his greenness, his green horse, the holly branch, the axe and the Green Chapel. These objects reflect his wildness of character. The Green Knight is continually outspoken, and somewhat unrefined. Nature, magic and unpredictability are closely intertwined when describing the character of the Green Knight. Sir Gawain on the other hand, is closely associated with the color gold. He is repeatedly mentioned adorning himself with gold trinkets and his armor is even tinged with the color. Gold typically represents purity and wealth. This association is maintained throughout Gawain’s journey. Gawain is even described as having a heart of gold. Sir Gawain embodies the courtly and spiritual morality that every hero should possess because he remains true to his mission throughout the story. His strengths are tested by the Green Knight by using his wild ways to try and uncover a flaw in the hero. The two opposing characters can also be seen in each other. Sir Gawain wears a green girdle at the end of the story and the reader sees an upset to his normally calm character. The Green Knight’s armor is laced with gold and Lord Bertilak behaves with the utmost knightly hospitability when Sir Gawain is staying with him.

Paper Proposal: “Medieval Materiality: The Nature of Anglo-Saxon Metal Works and Poetry”

For my paper I will be using Anglo-Saxon poetry—specifically “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and others from the Exeter Book if needed—and Anglo-Saxon art objects in order to discuss what I see as a beautifully rich and complex culture that is often misunderstood. The main issue I hope to address with this discussion is that of materialism; too often people assume that because Anglo-Saxon traditions involve gift-giving and material possessions, this means that their culture as a whole is materialistic. However, in my opinion this misunderstanding itself is indicative of a problem with our own culture, and not theirs. One example of many is our reporting on Anglo-Saxon issues; I plan to use a newspaper article by a medievalist that addresses the dismal reporting of the Staffordshire Hoard that demonstrates this disconnect perfectly. In reporting on the find, the media focused entirely on its material value—referring to it almost exclusively as its weight in gold or silver—and neglected to communicate anything at all about the significance of the find for Anglo-Saxon history. All of this is to say that our own obsession with material wealth contributes to a flawed understanding of the Anglo-Saxons. So, in my paper I will first illustrate the issues that cause this misunderstanding. From there I will use literature and art to discuss how Anglo-Saxon culture is far from materialistic, but meaningful. I think that the best way to do this is to demonstrate the symbolism of their art and poetry, and to further demonstrate how these symbols are most often intrinsically linked to nature—after all, what could be more elemental, more opposite of material, than the natural world?

Paper Proposal: “Forgiving a Knight’s Mistakes”

This paper intends to show the difference of knightly behavior between the Hawk Knight in Yonec and Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both these texts relate to each other by the concept of knightly behavior and psychology, showing how these two completely different characters share similar morals and mindsets. Scholars such as Muriel Ingham and Lawrence Barkley both describe how animals played a major role in the meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight during the exchange scenes (Further Animal Parallels in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”).  The idea of how the Hawk Knight in Yonec is part hawk helps fuel the argument of animal presence for both of the knight in the story, and how it drives the narrative forward. Another common idea between the two text would be the sense of pride that both of these knights have, and their fall from their high point, literally and figuratively, depends on the story. Martin Puhvel brings up many interesting points in his research about the behavior of Sir Gawain and how he was arrogant as a knight. The same actions that caused Sir Gawain grief, can be directly related to the Hawk Knight in Yonec and how he met his demise because of it. I will argue the elements of knighthood and behavior of both the Hawk Knight and Sir Gawain. Taking into consideration that both of these characters are completely different as beings, and completely different “species” in general. While Sir Gawain is human and a knight, he becomes prideful and almost dies because of his arrogance. Yet, the Hawk Knight, a supernatural/ superhuman being, died a horrible death without being given a chance to redeem himself like Sir Gawain. I plan on closely reading texts written by Martin Puhvel, Victoria L. Weiss, Muriel Ingham, and Lawrence Barkely when looking into how these two characters interact with each other.

The Tain

Cuchulainn is a prominent figure in this section of the Tain. From birth he seems to exhibit supernatural abilities, remeniscent of Greek/Roman mythology. Does the story support a reading where he is cast as a hero or god? Maybe he fulfills a different role entirely. Give examples from the text to support or negate your stance.

April 13: The Tain

There are many places named after events or people. Think of “squirrel-neck” and “Síd Froich”. Why do you think nature is forced the take on a memory of a human event? How long do you suspect the name lasts?

Paper Proposal: “Body vs. Soul: The Medieval Identity”

This paper intends to analyze several examples of medieval body and soul debate poetry including the Debate of the Body and Soul and A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms in order to unveil medieval ideals regarding the identity conjunct with physicality. This paper actually stems from ideas noted in my final paper for the class “Posthumanism” wherein I analyzed Marie de France and other, more contemporary tales about werewolves and other human/animal hybrids and considered what these beings say about how much of our human identity is due to our physical form and nature. Of course, these debates are more closely related to death and religiosity and how the loss of the body affects the identity of the person as medieval peoples understand it. More generally, the paper will assess the ways in which the body is tied to the natural world while the soul or spirit goes beyond it and how that challenges the notion of a single identity. Often times in these debates, the body and soul argue and come to a consensus. However, the fact that both are conscious with a single identity complicates the idea that they can argue and come to a resolution. I intend to work most closely with Riyef’s “Dualism in Old English Literature” wherein he stresses the inherent dualism of the body and soul within medieval debate poetry and how that greatly changes the perspective of resolution often presented in such works. His consideration of this dualism will lend me support when claiming the affects of this on identity as a whole.

Paper Proposal: ‘Fighting the Long Defeat’: Humanity, Nature, and Time 

This aim of this paper is to explore the ways in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings reflects common views of nature found in the literature of the Middle Ages, and how these views, though often negative, contain the seeds of a positive and healthier relationship to nature and the environment, seeds which Tolkien himself made flourish. Scholars such as Clark, Wasserman, Martin, and Low have observed tendencies in medieval literature to see nature as hostile to humans, and culture and civilization as small, brief islands of comfort and stability in the midst of change and harsh extremes. This perspective is seen in the Anglo-Saxon elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” as well as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. Similarly, Tolkien depicts societies such as Lothlórien, Gondor, and Rohan as in decline and ultimately helpless before the march of time and change. Even the beauty and greatness that remain of these places in the novel’s present are only shadows of their former glory, and despite victory over Mordor at the end of Rings, there is a lingering sense that, like Camelot or Geatland after Beowulf’s death, these societies cannot and will not last. From this awareness of human impermanence, both medieval poetry and Tolkien depict nature as suffering alongside us, expressing emotion on humans’ behalf through natural descriptions. I will argue that elements of medieval literature that are nascent in these views have, in Tolkien’s writing, developed into hope, awe, growth, catharsis, and consolation in the face of nature’s inherent entropy. And finally, relying heavily on scholars like Niiler and Brawley, this paper will address the dualistic view inherent in medieval thought between nature and humanity, and explore how Tolkien, principally through Galadriel’s gift to Samwise of soil from Lothlórien, tacitly breaks down this dualism itself, suggesting that human culture and human attempts to reshape the world we live in — if done with respect, care, and admiration for nature — are no less a part of nature than the dams of beavers, the hives of bees, or the warrens of rabbits.