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Title

Eco-Narrative and Self-Fashioning in Medieval European Travel Writing: Marco Polo, John Mandeville, Margery Kempe, and Felix Fabri

Author Chen CUI
Director of thesis Prof. Denis Renevey
Co-director of thesis
Summary of thesis

This doctoral project examines the eco-narrative — that is, the rhetorically well-wrought and richly connotative verbal descriptions of what is traditionally construed as “nonhuman” — in relation to the poetic externalisation of “human” perception, emotion, and subjectivity in four medieval European travel texts attributed respectively to Marco Polo, John Mandeville, Margery Kempe, and Felix Fabri. The concept of “nonhuman” is delineated to include the spatial-temporal existence, meteorological phenomena, landscapes, animals, plants, minerals, as well as imagination-based unearthly experiences, such as visions and dreams, all transpiring in spheres extraneous to human physicality.

 

I argue that quite contrary to the modern dichotomous approach towards the material world, the four medieval travel texts demonstrate favouring recognition of the mutual placement and mutual illumination between the human and nonhuman. This runs counter to the underlying logic of dualism at the heart of the Western Modernity, which has bred anthropocentric ideology in recent years. Philosophically, I read the four travelogues as vivid examples of the medieval concentric insertion of “the human” within the materialistically defined “nature”, namely the terrestrial sphere of the earth planet. And I further propose that the travelogues also present a medieval scenario where the "human" and "nonhuman" are perceived as interlocked rather than dichotomously separate in the earthly realm; and meanwhile, the "nonhuman" serves as an agency conjoining the terrestrial and celestial ambits intersubjectively, extending the connotation of “nature” from the visible to the intangible. And this is precisely what 21st-century eco-criticism is scarcely mindful. On the level of the poetics, moreover, I detect that the four travel texts foreground the essential role of “nature” in stirring, materialising, and rhapsodising ineffably complex human emotions inter-subjectively, which is most prominent in the mystical, devotional, and homiletic writings of allegorical travel that is not at all categorically distinct from the physical travel in medieval literatures of the Latin West.

 

While "nature" acts as an objective medium to which humanness and humanity are projected in the process of verbal innovation, I consider that “nature” shall be viewed also as a vital source of inspiration during the later Middle Ages, from which poetic ingenuity is derived, thus of crucial significance to both the occurrence and conveyance of literary thinking and, by extension, to the poetic construction of a new self at the dawn of a new age. Needless to say, central to the eco-narratological fashioning of the self is the theological origin of modernity. The nascent self's peripatetic reverberation with the theocentric system of the ecclesiastical church generates a variety of echoes in the travelling-narrators’ self-expressions of their diverse identities, ranging from the ethnographic and religiopolitical, to the mercantile, chivalrous, pro/anti-Crusade, anchoritic, as well as facets and layers of the self pertaining to race, class, and gender attributes. Being eco-critical in the façade, the doctoral thesis virtually probes into the medieval perception and conceptualisation of “nature” in the Latin West, as well as their textual embodiments. Particular heed is paid to the joint efforts of emotivity and rationalisation in portraying nature in times of the emergence of “ars nova” and intellectual historical transition from the enthroning of Thomas Aquinas to the gradual embracing of William of Ockham at the end of the Middle Ages.

Status middle
Administrative delay for the defence 2025/2026
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