Unknowing the Middle Ages: How Middle English Poetics Rewrote Literary History
By Christopher Eric Taylor
PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2014
Abstract: The concept of the unknown captivated medieval theologians, mystics, lovers, and travelers for centuries, and yet literary scholars too readily reduce this topos to a romance trope. “Unknowing the Middle Ages” reconsiders the grounds of late-medieval literary discourse by showing how canonical Middle English literary texts eschew the historical knowledges that informed them and, instead, affirm impossibility as a productive site for a literary poetics. My dissertation identifies what I call a “poetics of unknowing” as an important component of a budding late-medieval literary discourse that offers a way to discuss not only what can be known, but also that which exceeds exegetical, geographic, historical, and sensory comprehension.
“Unknowing the Middle Ages” makes its argument through four chapters, each of which focuses on a narrative tradition extending at least five hundred years. Each chapter follows a figure—Herod the Great, Prester John, the Pearl, and Criseyde— from the texts that established their axiological significance to their appearances in Middle English texts, which attempt to unknow these figures. In their Middle English narratives these figures negotiate between an inherited religious ethics and an intellectual context compelled increasingly by that which eludes comprehension.
In each case, material concerns regarding the unknowable infiltrate the formal composition of the text itself, and resonate at the level of a literary ethics. The “poetics of unknowing” that inhabit these texts reveal an epistemology less encumbered by the practical demands of clarity to which other modes of medieval writing are beholden, and also—perhaps of interest to scholars of modern literature and contemporary theory—refute the critical tendency to view the epistemological valorization of the unknown as a distinctly modern phenomenon.