Sleep and its spaces in Middle English literature

Ethics, emotions, dreams

Author: Megan G. Leitch

Middle English literature registers intimate concerns with sleep and the spaces in which it takes place. These concerns about sleep, and the intersecting medical and moral discourses with which they engage, have been overlooked by studies more concerned with what sleep sometimes enables (dreams and dream poetry), or with what sleep sometimes stands in for or supersedes (sex). In the medieval English imagination, sleep is an embodied and culturally determined act, both performed and interpreted by characters and contemporaries; both subject to a particular habitus, and understood through particular, and pervasive, hermeneutic lenses. This book argues that sleep mediates thematic concerns and questions in ways that carry specific ethical, affective and oneiric implications in the medieval English cultural imagination, and that also offer defining contributions to different Middle English genres: romance, dream vision, drama and fabliau. Concentrating particularly on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, this book also attends to a longue durée in the literature and ideas about sleep circulating from the twelfth century to the early seventeenth. It focuses on continuities in the construction of sleep across this span – scientific, social, spiritual and spatial continuities – and explores the cultural specificity of premodern English literature’s widespread interest in sleep. Analysing the ways in which representations of sleep in a range of genres animate ethical codes and emotive scripts, this book’s contributions include establishing the significance of sleep-related motifs to Middle English romance, and offering a more embodied understanding of dream visions by Chaucer, Langland and the Pearl-poet.

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