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The muthes wit: Reading, Speaking, and Eating in Ancrene
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)
Since Caroline Walker Bynum published Holy Feast and Holy Fast ten years ago, many scholars of the Middle Ages have examined how bodies played a more complex role for medieval writers than had often been suggested by some vituperatively anti-carnal writings. Sometimes bodies could even provide the means to reach a spiritual connection with Christ, Bynum argued. I am convinced that bodies provided spiritual understanding in the Middle Ages both in theory and in practice and I am also convinced by those who argue that some bodies were also limited and hurt by the ramifications of medieval rhetoric which argued the superiority of soul to body. Ancrene Wisse exhibits this tension over whether the body is a hindrance or a help to the person seeking spiritual growth and, since it is written for an explicitly female audience, puts that tension into a gendered context. I am interested in exploring the connections between the soul and the body in medieval literature in order to analyze the constructions and interactions of subjectivity, bodies, power, and knowledge in the Middle Ages. After looking at the distinctions between inside and outside, soul and body, it becomes clear that the body and the soul cannot be separated in a straightforward manner, either discursively or practically.