The Conflict between the body and the soul as a metaphor of the moral struggle in the Middle Ages

The Conflict between the body and the soul as a metaphor of the moral struggle in the Middle Ages, with special reference to Middle English literature

By John Allen Canuteson

PhD Dissertation, University of Florida, 1975

Abstract: This study is an examination of a popular way writers of the Middle Ages understood and presented the matter of moral choice. It is an analysis of the habit of medieval authors and preachers of reducing the moral struggle to a conflict between the body and the soul, the development of a series of traditional images of the conflict, and the presence of these images in an important nonreligious poem of the late Middle Ages. In the first chapter I show the epistemological and scriptural origins of the body-soul model for the moral struggle and the presence of the body-soul conflict in the writings of influential men of the Middle Ages. Because this conflict is a spiritual struggle represented analogically and therefore requires interpretation, also examine modern discussions about the presence of religious meanings in secular texts and determine that the best tests for meanings which extend beyond the narrative level are contextual probability and tradition.

The second chapter is a survey of the most popular images used by the Latin writers of the earlier twiddle Ages to represent the internal struggle between the body and the soul. These images are lightdark, fire, water, earth, burden, ascent, sailor-ship, husk-kernel, thorn, swine, horse-rider, inner-outer man; dwelling place with openings, vessel, ladder, knife, musical instrument, tomb, clothing, husband-wife and lover; judge, prison, slavery, kingdom, king-subject, rebellion, and war.

The third chapter demonstrates the continuity and pervasiveness of this traditional imagery in Middle English writings of the late Middle Ages. While new images of canine animals, a game of chess, and the foul fruits of the body appeared, and while the images of slavery, the judge, and the tomb receded, the images remained in use of lightdark, fire, earth, water, ascent, burden, sail lor-ship, chaff, thorn, swine, horse-rider, inner-outer man, castle, vessel, prison, kingdom, king-subject, lord-servant, rebellion, and war. The images of the body-soul conflict can be seen in the early thirteenth-century poem, the Debate Between the Body and the Soul , where images of light-dark, fire, earth, burden, water, thorn, husband-wife and adultery, judge, prison, master-servant, rebellion, and fighting add resonance to the central conflict of the poem.

In the fourth chapter I examine a late fourteenth-century poem, the stanzaic Morte Arthur, which is not overtly religious in subject matter and, unlike the Debate , would seem to have little need for the images of the body-soul struggle. What we discover, however, is that the poet is interested in two types of drama: the suspense of the action surrounding the fall of Arthur’s kingdom and the drama of man’s moral condition reflected in thai action. The poet draws our attention to the second kind of drama with images of light-dark, fire, earth, burden, water, ship, thorn, swine, horse-rider, castle, tomb, musical instrument, clothing, husband-wife-lover, judge, prison, kingdom, king-subject, lord-servant, rebellion, and war.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Florida

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