Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Unfinished Quests from Chaucer to Spenser
by Spellmire, Adam, Ph.D., Tufts University, 2016, 285; 10118638
Abstract (Summary)

Late medieval English texts often represent unfinished quests for obscurely significant objects. These works create enchanted worlds where more always remains to be discovered and where questers search for an ur-text, an authoritative book that promises perfect knowledge. Rather than reaching this ur-text, however, questers confront rumor, monstrous babble, and the clamor of argument, which thwart their efforts to gather together sacred wholeness. Yet while threatening, noise also preserves the sacred by ensuring that it remains forever elsewhere, for recovering perfect knowledge would disenchant the world. Scholarship on medieval noise often focuses on class: medieval writers tend to describe threats to political authority as noisy. These unfinished quests, though, suggest that late medieval literature’s complex investment in noise extends further and involves the very search for the sacred, a search full of opaque language and unending desire. Noise, then, becomes the sound of narrative itself.

While romance foregrounds questing most clearly, these ideas appear in a variety of genres. Chapter 1 shows that in the House of Fame rumor both perpetuates and undermines knowledge, so sacred authority must remain beyond the poem’s frame. Chapter 2 juxtaposes the Parliament of Fowls and the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, in which lists replace missing quest-objects, the philosopher’s stone and certainty about love. Chapter 3 centers on Piers Plowman, which becomes encyclopedic as one attempt to “preve what is Dowel” leads to another, and Will never definitively learns how to save his soul, the knowledge he most wants. Chapter 4 turns to Julian of Norwich’s search for divine “mening” and her confrontation with an incoherent fiend, an anxious moment that aligns her with these less serene contemporaries. Chapter 5 argues that Thomas Malory’s elusive, noisy Questing Beast at once bolsters and undermines chivalry. The final chapter looks ahead to Book VI of The Faerie Queene, where the Blatant Beast, a sixteenth-century amalgam of the fame tradition and the Questing Beast, menaces Faery Land yet, as a figure for poetry, also contributes to its enchantment. In trying to locate and maintain the sacred, these unfinished quests evoke worlds intensely anxious about “auctoritee.”

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Fyler, John M.
Commitee: Dunn, Kevin, Haber, Judith, Simpson, James
School: Tufts University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 77/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Medieval literature, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey Cchaucer, Julian of Norwich, Quest, Thomas Malory, William Langland
Publication Number: 10118638
ISBN: 9781339799674
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