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Alchemy and Exemplary Narrative in Middle English Poetry

RUNSTEDLER, CURTIS,THOMAS (2018) Alchemy and Exemplary Narrative in Middle English Poetry. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This thesis examines the role of alchemy in Middle English poetry from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, particularly how these poems present themselves as exemplary narratives to raise moral points about human behaviour, fallibility, and alchemical experimentation. The introduction suggests the compatibility between the emergence of the vernacular exemplum and the development of alchemical practice and literature in late medieval England. I follow J. Allan Mitchell’s ‘ethics of exemplarity’ for reading the alchemical poems in this study, extending his reading of Middle English poetry to understand the exemplary and ethical values of alchemy in poetry, which in turn helps the reader to understand the good of alchemical examples in medieval literature. Reading these alchemical poems as exemplary reassesses the role of alchemy in medieval literature and provides new ways of thinking about the exemplum as a literary framework or device in Middle English poems containing alchemy.

The first chapter of this dissertation examines the history of alchemy in the classical world, particularly its connection to metallurgical techniques and early theoretical developments, through to its transmission into the Arabic world before reaching late medieval Europe. The second chapter continues this history, focussing on the development of alchemy in medieval England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I examine the importance and impact of several key alchemical figures or poets who write about alchemy including Roger Bacon, William Langland, Thomas Norton, and George Ripley, as well as discussing the legal and societal responses to alchemical practice in England. These chapters contextualise the role of alchemy in fourteenth and fifteenth-century Middle English poetry, and explore the growing interest in writing vernacular alchemical poetry.

The third chapter concentrates on John Gower’s use of alchemy in the Confessio amantis, in which it is presented as a model for ideal yet unattainable labour. Following R.F. Yeager’s reading of Gower’s ‘new exemplum’ in the Confessio amantis¸ I suggest that Gower’s alchemical section follows this new, emerging style of vernacular exemplary writing and can also be read on its own as an exemplary narrative, which recognises alchemical failure as a post-lapsarian decline and a sign of human shortcomings.

In the fourth chapter, I examine Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, linking it to Gower’s use of the ‘new exemplum’ in the previous chapter to show how alchemy can be used within an exemplary framework to make points about moral blindness and human fallibility. The Canon’s Yeoman’s unreliability and dubious nature as a narrator suggest Chaucer’s subversion of the exemplary format, yet he still uses alchemy and exemplary narrative for moral purposes.

The fifth chapter of this dissertation examines an alchemical version of John Lydgate’s The Churl and the Bird found in Harley MS 2407. Following Joel Fredell’s reading of the poem and Mitchell’s exemplary reading of Lydgate’s poem, I discuss the anonymous author’s use of alchemy as subject matter within the poem, particularly its presentation as an exemplum and how these added alchemical stanzas affect its exemplary reading.

The sixth and final chapter focusses upon two fifteenth-century Middle English alchemical dialogues: one between Morienus and Merlin, and the other between Albertus Magnus and the Queen of Elves. Through the dialogue form, the characters in these poems collaborate in their alchemical pursuits, forming the moral examples that are consistent throughout the works studied in this dissertation. These identify the ‘right path’ to moral well-being and healthy living as well as successful alchemical practice and experimentation.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:alchemy, Middle English poetry, England, medieval, exempla, fourteenth century, fifteenth century
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2018
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:11 May 2018 14:26

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