The subject of madness : insanity, individuals and society in late-medieval English literature
Chapter Three discusses the dream vision of Book I of the Vox Clamantis; it shows how Gower repeats the commonplaces of medieval didactic writers, regarding the peasant insurrection of 1381 as an outbreak of demonic derangement. It is seen that Gower makes use of the 'organic analogy' of society to show this madness as an infection of the entire social body. The sufferings of the nobility at the hands of the rioting mobs are described sympathetically in terms of 'grief-madness'. Thus Gower presents two very different, class-based, attitudes towards insanity. The discussion of Chaucer's Miller's and Summoner's tales in the following chapter continues the investigation of the link between madness and social class. Here it is seen how Chaucer undermines the traditional theological interpretation of madness as a punishment for sin by encouraging comparison and contrast of the many allegations of insanity in the texts. A rather different approach is taken in Chapter Five, which examines the major works of the civil servant Thomas Hoccleve. Far from regarding madness as essentially spectacular, the apparently insane narrator of Hoccleve's major poems stresses that insanity is a hidden and undetectable affliction. This conclusion, it is argued, contradicts the standard view of psychiatric history regarding madness in the Middle Ages. The relationship between madness, expressions of interiority and medieval autobiography is considered. The final chapter explores the association of madness, female unruliness and mystical rapture in The Book of Margery Kempe. It argues that the Book displays two contradictory attitudes towards madness. Kempe is eager to present madness as a moral abomination and she frequently invokes ecclesiastical authority to do so. Nevertheless, she herself is held mad by many of her contemporaries on account of her controversial devotional behaviour; this explains why madness is presented positively elsewhere in the Book, as a blessed condition of increased spiritual insight. In this sense the Book contains a craftily double-edged attempt by Kempe to vindicate her conduct.