A literary history of the ‘Soul and Body’ theme in medieval England

A literary history of the ‘Soul and Body’ theme in medieval England

By Claudio Cataldi

PhD Dissertation, University of Bristol, 2018

Abstract: This dissertation seeks to reconstruct the development of the literary ‘Soul and Body’ theme over time. This theme is preserved and developed in several medieval English texts, both in prose and verse, dating from the tenth to the fifteenth century. Central to this theme is an opposition between the eternal soul and the decaying body; this opposition was eleborated both in the form of a monologue in which the soul accuses a silent body and in the form of a debate in which the two sides dispute over the responsibility for sin and eternal damnation.

The first part of the Introduction offers a brief overview of the previous scholarship, highlighting the need for a more comprehensive treatment of the theme. The Introduction also outlines its origins, which have been traced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars to the earliest century of the Christian era in the Mediterranean area. My methodological model for the study of how traditional material was reworked is Ernst Robert Curtius, and his concept of the topos. To analyse in detail how the Soul and Body topos changed over time, I break the topos down into smaller motifs, which constitute its ‘building blocks’. Using this methodological approach, the first chapter proposes a classification of the various ‘Soul and Body’ texts of the Old English period into three groups, which are characterized by the occurrence of several shared motifs.

The crystallization of these motifs into a structured and recognized sub-genre in the early Middle English phase is the focus of Chapter 2. The third chapter discusses how this sub-genre became part of the wider genre of medieval debate poetry between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. Finally, the results of the investigation carried out in the present dissertation are summarized in a general conclusion.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Bristol

Top Image: Beginning of the Noctis sub silentio tempore brumali in British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 68v

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!