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Literature, Logic and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century

BAKER, DAVID,PHILIP (2013) Literature, Logic and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



This thesis assesses the extent to which fourteenth-century Middle English poets were interested in, and influenced by, traditions of thinking about logic and mathematics. It attempts to demonstrate the imaginative appeal of the logical problems called sophismata, which postulate absurd situations while making use of a stable but evolving, and distinctly recognisable, pool of examples. Logic and mathematics were linked. The ‘puzzle-based’ approach of late-medieval logic stemmed in part from earlier arithmetical puzzle collections. The fourteenth-century application of the ‘sophismatic’ method to problems concerned with what might now be called ‘Physics’ or ‘Mechanics’ sustained the symbiotic relationship of the two disciplines. An awareness of the importance of this tradition is perhaps indicated by the prominence of logical and mathematical tropes and scenarios in the works of three authors in particular: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the Gawain-poet. It is argued that, in the poetry of all three, what may loosely be called ‘sophismatic tropes’ are used to present concerns that the poets share with the logical and mathematical thought of their time. Certain themes recur, including the following: problematic promises; problematic reference to non-existent things; problems associated with divisibility, limits and the idea of a continuum; and, most importantly, problems focused on the contingency, or otherwise, of the future. The debate over future contingency was one of the fiercest scholastic controversies of the fourteenth century, with profound implications for both logical and theological thought. It is suggested here that the scholastic debate about future contingency has a visible impact on Chauntecleer’s prophetic dream in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Troilus’s apparent determinism in Troilus and Criseyde, Gower’s presentation of causation in the Confessio Amantis, and the Gawain-poet’s treatment of covenants. The conclusion reached is that fourteenth-century logical and mathematical texts had a significantly wider cultural effect than is generally recognised.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2013
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:19 Jul 2013 08:43

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