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Wearing Your Heart on Your Face: Reading Lovesickness and the Suicidal Impulse in Chaucer

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Miniature of a lover and his lady from Christine de Pizan, ‘The Book of
the Queen’ (BL, MS Harley 4431, f. 376: c. 1410-14).


Date: Friday 5 September 2014
Time: 1.00pm - 2.00pm
Venue: Room 204, Napier Building, The University of Adelaide

Chaucer frequently depicts the emotions and dispositions of his literary characters via the outward physical signs of the body, especially the face, and he often does so using a medical-like discourse that draws on medieval theories of health. A striking example of Chaucer’s medicalized descriptions of emotion is his adaptation of the suicidal impulse associated with lovesickness in medieval poetry. Chaucer reconstructs this motif in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and The Book of the Duchess by altering his sources and analogues to create medicalized analysis of the emotional body of the suffering knight. These depictions call upon other characters’ and the reader’s interpretive skills to decode emotional expression via an analysis of the individual’s health which moves from the perceived outer to the unseen inner body. Through the medicalized language of bodily health describing emotional upheavals, other characters and the reader are prompted to feel with and begin to understand and appropriately respond to the suffering individual.

Rebecca F McNamara, a Postodoctoral Research Assistant at The University of Sydney works on the literature and language of Medieval England, and she is also interested in the cultural history of medieval Europe. Her current project, part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, identifies and theorises emotions related to suicide in the Middle Ages. She examines cases of self-murder (including suicide attempts) and emotions surrounding those cases in medieval English legal records and chronicles, as well as tracing a trajectory of the emotions related to the suicidal impulse in literature from 1200-1500.