Recombinant Metaphors: Uses of Language and Medieval Interdisciplinarity in Pearl

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Eve Salisbury

Second Advisor

Dr. Jana K. Shulman

Third Advisor

Dr. Richard Utz

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth C. Teviotdale


Pearl, Medieval poetry, history of science, language, rhetoric


The lengthy hiatus between Pearl‘s composition, which current critical consensus estimates at 1390, and its first appearance in print in 1864, though obviously not an isolated case in the study of medieval literature, creates both a curious cognitive bridge between medieval and twenty-first-century readers and a compelling interpretive vacuum that recent literary scholarship has been endeavoring to fill. The great obstacle to an interpretation of so subtly complex a work as Pearl is the discontinuity between medieval modes of thought and our own, partly resulting from persistent stereotypes that have accrued to the reception of the Middle Ages. The Pearl-poet imbues his work with the stratifications of a broadly literate experience, an intellectual contextualization that accumulates in the poem in fractally multiplicitous layers of imagery—his literacy is not merely in the literature of his time, but in all the liberal arts (both trivium and quadrivium). Such breadth, though a consistent feature of medieval literature, seldom factors into twentieth- and twenty-first-century critical methodologies. A method of reading medieval literatures that allows for the accumulated layering of meaning unique to the intellectual contextualizations of medieval poetry is needed.

This study examines the many contexts that circumscribe the interpretive space of Pearl including the medieval disciplines of cosmology, numerology, and alchemy, as well as natural sciences as reflected in lapidaries, bestiaries, and herbals. By looking at the poem in its historical and intellectual settings, this study demonstrates the value of a multivalent approach that renders both poem and era more comprehensible to readers today. Central to an interpretation of the poem based on this approach is an acknowledgment of the holistic nature of medieval thought, a fully actualized and integrated epistemology linking the medieval material environment of the late fourteenth century with the scientific and philosophical disciplines of the time.


A revised and expanded version of this dissertation is expected to be published in 2018.

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