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Wonder and Scepticism in the Long Twelfth Century

Wonder and Scepticism in the Long Twelfth Century

By Keagan Brewer

PhD Dissertation, University of Sydney, 2016

Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune, at the beginning of book 2 of the De Consolatione Philosophiae.

Introduction: This dissertation proposes that wonder is an initial emotional reaction to a novel phenomenon, and that scepticism, a form of cognition, necessarily follows when the phenomenon is sufficiently bizarre, or out of coherence with one’s prior experience. One may then mitigate one’s doubts by either checking facts or suspending disbelief for a variety of reasons: didacticism, apathy, entertainment value, or acknowledgement of an inability to determine truth or falsehood either at the individual, event-specific level or more broadly as a sort of epistemic defeatism.

Wonder therefore demands thought, and is merely an epistemological starting point. This process is embedded in the texts that record medieval responses to marvels, as shown throughout this dissertation. Following the suspension of disbelief or the checking of facts, medieval audiences had the option to communicate the story or not, and the tendency for medieval writers to only record those stories they believed were true (as will be shown) permits the hypothesis that there were a great many other marvels stories that existed in the oral domain that never made it to the written.

Although medievalists have long recognised the existence of evidentiary tropes in tales of marvels, miracles, and the supernatural, the present dissertation is original in a number of ways. First, it distinguishes wonder as the emotional starting point to a cognitive process that ultimately results in a judgment about truth or falsehood, a judgment which is termed here subjective learning (learning that the individual believes to be true, but is not necessarily objectively true). Second, it contributes to scholarship by taxonomising the sorts of evidence regarded well or poorly in the long twelfth century. Third, it argues that this sceptical epistemological process could create anxiety because it was fundamentally at odds with the idea of faith, thereby contributing to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Christian explanations of the world, of which medievalists are increasingly aware. Fourth, it adapts approaches from modern physical and social sciences, and historical emotionology, to inform its analysis of the Middle Ages.


Most of the texts under examination here have been known to scholars specialising in medieval marvels for some time, but this dissertation uses a unique analytical framework, and proffers a novel taxonomy for the epistemological process initiated by wonder, while also exploring its effects on key aspects of medieval mentalities.

Click here to read this dissertation from the University of Sydney

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