The Paradox of the Mystical Text in Medieval English Literature

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Studies in Medieval Literature No. 25
This study reveals how mysticism was the religious, and subsequently the artistic, basis of later symbolic and allegorical literary expressions in English medieval literature. By laying a mystical template over the writings of the period, interpretations of these texts are enhanced, often with surprising results. It starts with the paradox of the mystical text: the mystic’s attempt to convey mystical secrets and enigmas through immanent human language. Inevitably, the attempts to approximate the ineffable mystical experience in the mystical text led to conventionality and formalism, evidenced by the conventional dream vision genre. To demonstrate the extent of mysticism’s influence, the study examines Scriptural and Patristic influences; and then theological, historical, and artistic expressions, in pagan mysticism as reflected in Anglo-Saxon runes, riddles and charms, and later in Christian mysticism in the works of Bede, Aelfric, Caedmon, and Cynewulf. In Middle English, the study examines The Pearl, and Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, and Troilus and Criseyde, and finally examines Margery Kempe.


“… a wide-ranging and useful survey of ways medieval English writers develop mystical themes in their works…..Jenkins quotes liberally from the texts he treats, providing a solid basis for the points he makes…. A well-written book graced by good textual commentary that should serve as a useful survey of mystical ideas and writers influenced by them.” – Dr. Robert Boenig, Texas A & M University, co-editor of Studia Mystica

Table of Contents

Foreword; Preface

Introduction: The Paradox of the Mystical Text

I. Scriptural Mysticism: Christological, Johannine, Pauline

II. Latin Patristic Mysticism

Marcus Minucius Felix’s Octavius
Arnobius of Sicca’s Adversus Gentes
Julius Firmicus Maternus’ De Errore Profanarius Religionum
Hilary of Poitiers’ De Trinitate
Ambrose and Jerome
Augustine’s Confessionum
Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana Julianus Pomerius’ De Vita Contemplativa Prudentius’ Cathemerinon and Psychomachia Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae

III. Anglo-Saxon Mysticism: Pagan and Christian Adaptation

Pagan and Christian Adaptations; Pagan and Christian Parallels
Shamanism and Mystical Ascent
Anglo-Saxon Runes, Charms, and Riddles
Caedmon and Aelfric: Encounters with the Mystical Text
Early Forms of Empathic Mysticism
Anglo-Saxon Mystical Texts

IV. The Mystical Text: Caedmon and Cynewulf

Caedmon and the Mystical Text
Christ: A Mystical Triptych
Cynewulf’s The Fates of the Apostles; Juliana; and Elene

V. Middle English Mysticism: The Mystical Dream Vision in Pearl and The Book of the Duchess

VI. Mysticism and Apotheosis: Troilus and Crisyede and the Religion of Love

VII. Mysticism and Prophecy: The Labors of Margery Kempe

Bibliography; Index

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