Heart-stopped transformations
Swooning in late medieval literature
in Swoon
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This chapter explores some of the earliest surviving examples of swooning in English, in which the swoon’s symbolic power is bound up with the potential it allows for dramatic alteration: for conversion, for renewal, for sudden change, for spiritual revival into life from death. In the ‘Life of Mary Magdalen’ (c.1290), the swoon is bound up with religious renewal and transformation, and with the new life in ‘Crist’ that might come from a symbolic death. This early example binds suffering in childbirth to swooning, and anticipates the (apocryphal) artistic tradition of the Swoon of the Virgin during the Passion, bringing birth pangs and swooning together in an overwhelming agony that produces new life. This chapter also examine the relationship between passivity and passing out in terms of the construction of gender in the most famous swoony text of medieval literature, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1380). Troilus, a ‘weldy’ knight, swoons spectacularly in this text and Chaucer provides us with a strikingly physiological account of the swoon. Criseyde also swoons at an important point in the text, and these paired but asymmetrical passings-out reveal much about mutuality and difference in the lovers’ relationship. The radical claims made by contemporary theorist Leo Bersani in respect of masochism are considered here alongside the erotics of suffering rendered through the medieval literary swoon. Attentively reading the swoons in Chaucer’s poem helps us to understand its larger patterns of transformation, including its movement into tragedy.


A poetics of passing out


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