Liminal definition in medieval epistemology and Chaucer

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MacDougall, James Frederek
Texas A&M University
english; Major english
thesis / dissertation description
In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer's revision of Boccaccio's II Filostrato, the poet investigates the different forms that reading and writing can assume. The poem's emphasis on texts within the poem-the letters that pass between Troilus and Criseyde, the texts that the narrator and Pandarus cite in advancing their own, intertwined narratives-serve to also emphasize the textuality of the poem itself, expanding the game of interpretation, key to the narratives within the poem that focus on Criseyde, beyond the boundaries of the poem itself. Chaucer's earlier poems show a similar interest in questions of interpretation, examining the connections between established authorial frameworks and individual readings. The role of individuals within universal frameworks, and specifically the ability of individuals to intellectually realize universal conceits, was also a central theme in fourteenth century epistemology. The systems that Ockham and Wyclif outline focus on the abilities of individual intellects, in contact with the sensual world, for self definition and in articulating the universal frameworks that shape these definitions. Both philosophers ultimately place greater emphasis on the role of individuals in defining the influence of archetypal frameworks: while Ockham held that the natural world was symbolic of the limitations of individuals (as defining a closed system in which individual intellections are sufficient for attaining knowledge), Wyclif argued that sensual objects revealed the individual's place within a rational universe of ordered affinities (as revealing a hierarchy of causes, potentialities, and significations that ultimately led to the First Cause). As I argue in this thesis, these questions are also fundamental to many of Chaucer's poems. In Troilus and Criseyde, in particular, a rewriting of Boccaccio's original work, Chaucer provides a complexly layered examination of the conflicting demands of individual self definition and the authorial frameworks in which this definition occurs.