Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England, c.1350-1600

University of Notre Dame Pess
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Tropologies is the first book-length study to elaborate the medieval and early modern theory of the tropological, or moral, sense of scripture. Ryan McDermott argues that tropology is not only a way to interpret the Bible but also a theory of literary and ethical invention. The “tropological imperative” demands that words be turned into works—books as well as deeds. Beginning with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, then treating monuments of exegesis such as the Glossa ordinaria and Nicholas of Lyra, as well as theorists including Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and others, Tropologies reveals the unwritten history of a major hermeneutical theory and inventive practice. Late medieval and early Reformation writers adapted tropological theory to invent new biblical poetry and drama that would invite readers to participate in salvation history by inventing their own new works. Tropologies reinterprets a wide range of medieval and early modern texts and performances—including the Patience-Poet, Piers Plowman, Chaucer, the York and Coventry cycle plays, and the literary circles of the reformist King Edward VI—to argue that “tropological invention” provided a robust alternative to rhetorical theories of literary production. In this groundbreaking revision of literary history, the Bible and biblical hermeneutics, commonly understood as sources of tumultuous discord, turn out to provide principles of continuity and mutuality across the Reformation’s temporal and confessional rifts. Each chapter pursues an argument about poetic and dramatic form, linking questions of style and aesthetics to exegetical theory and theology. Because Tropologies attends to the flux of exegetical theory and practice across a watershed period of intellectual history, it is able to register subtle shifts in literary production, fine-tuning our sense of how literature and religion mutually and dynamically informed and reformed each other.
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About the author

Ryan McDermott is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh

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Additional Information

University of Notre Dame Pess
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Published on
Apr 15, 2016
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Literary Criticism / Comparative Literature
Literary Criticism / Medieval
Literary Criticism / Renaissance
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Modern readers and writers find it natural to contrast the agency of realistic fictional characters to the constrained range of action typical of literary personifications. Yet no commentator before the eighteenth century suggests that prosopopoeia signals a form of reduced agency. Andrew Escobedo argues that premodern writers, including Spenser, Marlowe, and Milton, understood personification as a literary expression of will, an essentially energetic figure that depicted passion or concept transforming into action. As the will emerged as an isolatable faculty in the Christian Middle Ages, it was seen not only as the instrument of human agency but also as perversely independent of other human capacities, for example, intellect and moral character. Renaissance accounts of the will conceived of volition both as the means to self-creation and the faculty by which we lose control of ourselves. After offering a brief history of the will that isolates the distinctive features of the faculty in medieval and Renaissance thought, Escobedo makes his case through an examination of several personified figures in Renaissance literature: Conscience in the Tudor interludes, Despair in Doctor Faustus and book I of The Faerie Queen, Love in books III and IV of The Faerie Queen, and Sin in Paradise Lost. These examples demonstrate that literary personification did not amount to a dim reflection of “realistic” fictional character, but rather that it provided a literary means to explore the numerous conundrums posed by the premodern notion of the human will. This book will be of great interest to faculty and graduate students interested in Medieval studies and Renaissance literature.

Who will mourn with me? Who will break bread with me? Who is my neighbor? In the wake of the religious reformations of the sixteenth century, such questions called for a new approach to the communal religious rituals and verses that shaped and commemorated many of the brightest and darkest moments of English life. In England, new forms of religious writing emerged out of a deeply fractured spiritual community. Conflicts of Devotion reshapes our understanding of the role that poetry played in the re-formation of English community, and shows us that understanding both the poetics of liturgy and the liturgical character of poetry is essential to comprehending the deep shifts in English spiritual attitudes and practices that occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The liturgical, communitarian perspective of Conflicts of Devotion sheds new light on neglected texts and deepens our understanding of how major writers such as Edmund Spenser, Robert Southwell, and John Donne struggled to write their way out of the spiritual and social crises of the age of the Reformation. It also sheds new light on the roles that poetry may play in negotiating—and even overcoming—religious conflict. Attention to liturgical poetics allows us to see the broad spectrum of ways in which English poets forged new forms of spiritual community out of the very language of theological division. This book will be of great interest to teachers and students of early modern poetry and of the various fields related to Reformation studies: history, politics, and theology.
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