Research Stream

The Birds and the Bees: Reading Middle English Arousal in the Natural World

Although arousal may feel natural, modern neurological theories suggest it is a practice informed by cultural conventions of desire. This project studies the history of the aroused body within Middle English descriptions of 'natural love' in order to challenge a normative understanding of nature, love and desire.

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This project situates the affective appeal and rhetorical power of love and desire as literary themes in the Middle Ages within a broader cultural understanding of the natural world. This understanding endorses the related cognitive and bodily experiences to be ethically legitimate and 'natural' expressions of human subjectivity. With reference to modern and medieval theories of critical interpretation, aesthetic response and the role of literary expression in shaping culturally normative embodied human experiences, this project investigates the history of physiological responses to reading and pleasure. Comparison of the symptoms of desire that are modelled within a selection of Middle English texts, particularly the works of Chaucer and the devotional writing of Richard Rolle, causes further reassessment of the critical distinctions between different vernacular genres and the kinds of feelings, spiritual and secular, that are associated with them. By giving methodological primacy to individual, interpretive and affective moments of reading, this work also explores emotional interactions with the medieval past as a temporal, linguistic and cultural concept. Essentially, through studying desire as a culturally dependent affective response, this project asks what it means to read the medieval past as erotic.

Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France. ‘Nun Harvesting Phalluses from a Phallus Tree and a Monk and Nun Embracing’. Public Domain.