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Title: Narratives of decline in late medieval English sermons and in Piers Plowman
Author: Bennett, A. K.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2009
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This dissertation examines narratives of decline as part of the late medieval discourse of complaint and social criticism, focusing on vernacular orthodox and Wycliffite preaching, and on Piers Plowman. I argue that these texts sought to ‘place’ their readers and listeners within a narrative, where the past was characterised by the build up of sin, and where future recuperation depended on a will to reform in the present. I draw on the work of Paul Ricoeur to account for the interaction between textual narrative and human experience, and so to describe the way narratives of decline were offered to readers and congregations as a way to understand their own lives. Preachers and poets identified narratives of decline with one another, creating a ‘horizon of expectations’ about the ultimate consequences of sin and social decay, and with other narratives where decline led to reform, creating a ‘horizon of expectations’ about the possibilities for renewal. Narratives of decline formed part of the authoritative critical rhetoric of orthodox preaching, but were also appropriated by ‘unlicensed’ speakers like the poet of Piers Plowman, and by the heretical preachers of the Wycliffite movement. These texts, or group of texts, which, in turn, form the topics of my three main chapters, understood decline in different ways, and proposed very different kinds of reform in response to it. In orthodox preaching, narratives of decline most often served to promote a new engagement with the Church, commonly through the custom and practice of penance. Yet for Piers Plowman, and, in different ways, for the Wycliffite preachers, the Church itself was involved in narratives of decline. These writers redeploy the rhetoric of decline in more radical ways, challenging the ‘horizon of expectations’ they inherit from orthodox preaching.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available