Hospitality and good governance : food and the embodied self in fifteenth century english writing

The relationship between the self and the text is a familiar topic within literary studies. However, few of the textual methods used to study this relationship were developed specifically with medieval versions of selfhood and textuality in mind. The dualistic models of self-experience upon which many forms of literary criticism are based limit our ability to explore both the role of language in medieval concepts of selfhood, as well as excluding embodied forms of experience from consideration. I wish to inquire into one specific aspect of embodied experience, the practice of eating, and the focus of that activity, food, within the textual field. Food exists in a particularly close relationship with the body; it is both essential for survival and heavily socially mediated. The topic of food, particularly food consumption, is found in a variety of fifteenth-century Middle English texts, suggesting that eating was endowed with considerable symbolic weight in late medieval England. To give serious consideration to the place of food within human society of any period or place is inherently challenging to conceptions of personhood that privilege the mind and intellect over a demeaned concept of the physical body as the site for emotion, irrationality, and involuntary or machine-like behaviours. Exploring the significance of food and eating in Middle English writing assists in breaking down dualistic models of selfhood, and thus permits a more open inquiry into medieval people’s beliefs about, and experiences of, their own persons, including their uses of texts. The first section of the thesis considers humoral discourse on food, and the forms of embodied self-experience and introspection suggested by Lydgate’s “Dietary”. This is followed by a discussion of Lydgate’s emulation or parody of Chaucer in the “Prologue” to the Siege of Thebes, where humoral discourse and food participate in an ideological contest over monastic bodies. The second section is concerned with issues of taste, and the coherence of communities around foods and food-related practices. Malory’s Tale of Gareth provides, through Gareth’s relationship with food, an idealised expression of both Gareth’s and the Arthurian elite’s entitlement to rule, which also proves significant for understanding the subsequent unravelling of the fellowship. The Book of Margery Kempe demonstrates considerable awareness of food’s capacity to express and maintain social, as well as spiritual communities; Margery’s presence at many tables provides a basis for the “everyday” aspects of her life as a spiritual authority. The letters of John Shillingford provide an unusually fresh account of a medieval individual’s self-presentation during social and legal interactions, some involving food, and offering valuable insight into the lived negotiation of conventional behaviour. Each of these readings maintains alertness to the limitations of the “disembodied” nature of contemporary reading practices, which are capable of projecting dualistic conceptions of selfhood onto these texts through their assumptions about the nature of language. Instead, productive alternatives are proposed for rethinking the connections between language, food, and selfhood at the close of the English Middle Ages.