Love and Drede: Religious Fear in Middle English

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Robinson, Arabella Mary Milbank 

Several earlier generations of historians described the later Middle Ages as an ‘age of fear’. This account was especially applied to accounts of the presumed mentality of the later medieval layperson, seen as at the mercy of the currents of plague, violence and dramatic social, economic and political change and, above all, a religiosity characterised as primitive or even pathological. This ‘great fear theory’ remains influential in public perception. However, recent scholarship has done much to restitute a more positive, affective, incarnational and even soteriologically optimistic late-medieval vernacular piety. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the positive and recuperative approach of this scholarship, it did not attend to the treatment of fear in devotional and literary texts of the period. This thesis responds to this gap in current scholarship, and the continued pull of this account of later-medieval piety, by building an account of fear’s place in the rich vernacular theology available in the Middle English of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It takes as its starting point accounts of the role of fear in religious experience, devotion and practice within vernacular and lay contexts, as opposed to texts written by and for clerical audiences. The account of drede in Middle English strikingly integrates humbler aspects of fear into the relationship to God. The theological and indeed material circumstances of the later fourteenth century may have intensified fear’s role: this thesis suggests that they also fostered an intensified engagement with the inherited tradition, generating fresh theological accounts of the place of fear. Chapter One begins with a triad of broadly pastoral texts which might be seen to disseminate a top-down agenda but which, this analysis discovers, articulate diverse ways in which the humble place of fear is elevated as part of a vernacular agenda. Here love and fear are always seen in a complex, varying dialectic or symbiosis. Chapter Two explores how this reaches a particular apex in the foundational and final place of fear in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, and is not incompatible even with her celebratedly ‘optimistic’ theology. Chapter Three turns to a more broadly accessed generic context, that of later medieval cycle drama, to engage in readings of Christ’s Gethsemane fear in the ‘Agony in the Garden’ episodes. The N-Town, Chester, Towneley and York plays articulate complex and variant theological ideas about Christ’s fearful affectivity as a site of imitation and participation for the medieval layperson. Chapter Four is a reading of Piers Plowman that argues a right fear is essential to Langland’s espousal of a poetics of crisis and a crucial element in the questing corrective he applies to self and society. It executes new readings of key episodes in the poem, including the Prologue, Pardon, Crucifixion and the final apocalyptic passus, in the light of its theology of fear.

Zeeman, Nicolette
fear, apocalypse, Julian of Norwich, William Langland, vernacular theology, medieval theology, medieval literature, Piers Plowman, Contemplations of the Love and Drede of God, mystery plays, cycle plays, theology, Jacob's Well, Speculum Vitae, medieval fear, medieval apocalypticism, Augustine, N-Town Plays, Chester Plays, York Plays, Towneley Plays
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC funded