Insanity, Individuals and Society in Late-Medieval English Literature

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Examines representations of madness in a variety of late-medieval texts, showing how writers exploited the conventional understandings of madness for personal and political purposes. This interdisciplinary book begins by examining the literary conventions and medical treatments of madness in medieval Britain and challenges romantic and progressivist theories about the history of madness. The author emphasizes that madness was regarded not merely as a metaphor for spiritual turpitude, but also as a rationally explicable phenomenon and that different conceptions of madness are often mobilized within the same text.


“Throughout his book, Dr Harper displays a wide knowledge of secondary literature and a firm grasp of the implications of theoretical views on madness. His critique of the dangerous generalities of Foucault’s work on the subject, as well as of Penelope Doob’s narrowly patristic-centered approach is tightly argued and apposite…. Harper makes an exciting contribution to literary scholarship, as well as to the history of madness, in emphasizing the variety, what he terms the ‘individual voice’ of those writing about madness in the Middle Ages. He himself writes elegantly and persuasively, combining considerable critical acumen with a well-informed knowledge of the socio-historical background of his material.” – Dr. Kathryn A Lowe, University of Glasgow

“…Harper’s work is built upon sound foundations in medieval philosophical scholarship (I appreciate the frequent references to the work of Alexander Murray and John Burrow) and demonstrates a sensitivity to questions of literary readings. Texts are not separated from contexts, however, and the reality of personal derangement is never discounted. All this is evident, for instance, in the discriminating chapter on Margery Kempe. Overall, I find this a rich, balanced and thoughtful work; both medieval studies, and the field of the history of madness will benefit from its publication.” – Roy Porter, University College, London

Table of Contents

Table of contents:
Preface by Graham Caie
Introduction: Modern Perspectives on Madness in the Later Middle Ages
1. Madness in the Late Middle Ages: Conventions, Practices, and Attitudes
2. ‘Knightes that ar so wood’: The Meanings of Madness in Middle English Romance
3. ‘Reson en Bestialité’: Madness, Animality and Social Class in Book 1 of Gower’s Vox Clamantis
4. ‘Thou mayst nat werken after thyn owene heed’: Madness and Rationality in Chaucer’s Miller’s and Summoner’s tales
5. ‘By cowntynaunce it is not wist’: Thomas Hoccleve and the Subject of Madness
6. ‘So euyl to rewlyn’: Madness and Authority in The Book of Margery Kempe
Conclusions; Bibliographies; Index

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