The medieval theory of the sign and its relationship to "The Book of Margery Kempe", "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and "Piers Plowman"
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Literature in English, British Isles
The study of signs has an ancient past and a continuing history throughout the medieval period. Both Augustine and Aquinas, for example, believed that signs were visible manifestations of invisible truths which were finally linked to God. With Ockham we clearly see another concern: signs are a logical shorthand whose meaning is based on man's interaction with temporal and mundane things.
While Chapter One of the dissertation traces such a development in the medieval concept of the sign, the other chapters explore its impact in three pieces of late fourteenth-century literature. Chapter Two examines The Book of Margery Kempe, suggesting that the whiteness of Margery's dress functions as a sign for certain traditional medieval values. Margery's use of white violates society's understanding of its meaning, revealing that her society expected signs to function as visible indicators of invisible qualities.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, discussed in Chapter Three, is also concerned with signification. Gawain's pentangle, for example, implies an Augustinian and Thomistic understanding of signification. His sash, on the other hand, has its meaning rooted in the varying experience that individuals have of Gawain's adventure at the Green Chapel, suggesting an Ockhamistic perception of signification. Chapter Four analyzes Piers Plowman, a poem also concerned with signs and their function. Will's search for a stable framework which would allow him a sure interpretation of the signs that crowd his dream is continuous and almost always inadequate; instead, a term's meaning shifts according to Will's experience, suggesting that he too occupies an Ockhamistic world of incertitude.
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Hall, Kathryn Cushman, "The medieval theory of the sign and its relationship to "The Book of Margery Kempe", "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and "Piers Plowman"" (1987). English - Dissertations. 41.