Sights and Sites of Sovereignty: Visualising Matrilineal Inheritance and Female Agency in the Middle English Melusine

Colquitt, Olivia
(2022) Sights and Sites of Sovereignty: Visualising Matrilineal Inheritance and Female Agency in the Middle English Melusine. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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This thesis examines the Middle English prose romance, Melusine, reflecting in particular upon the visual frameworks underpinning the construction of individual and matrilineal identities within the narrative and its contexts. It sheds light upon medieval ideas about women, the gaze, and the body by engaging with a diverse corpus of scientific, theological, philosophical, and medical texts in circulation in the later Middle Ages. The study is likewise grounded in a consideration of Melusine’s sociocultural contexts, drawing upon its French sources and literary analogues, and analysing historical events which may have shaped responses to Melusine’s position as a supernatural founding mother. These insights are used intersectionally with contemporary explorations of gender, spatiality, and disability to analyse how resistance to normative ideologies enables Melusine to accrue power and maintain autonomy. Furthermore, the analysis demonstrates that the preservation of agency and influence is contingent upon Melusine’s ability to manage degrees of visual access. The first chapter establishes the conceptual framework for the thesis, outlining medieval theories about optics, the senses, and cognition; reviewing representations of monstrosity and femaleness in medieval visual culture; and evaluating modern critical approaches to the gaze. Chapter II examines the significance of visual markers in forging collective memory and explores the recurrent visual motifs involving supernatural women in the initial episodes of Melusine. Integrating visuality with ecocriticism, Chapter III analyses how the figure of Melusine inscribes maternal influence and dynastic identity upon the landscape and exerts agency through the spaces she creates. The final chapter centres on the visualisation of non-normative bodies, fusing gender and disability theory with medieval studies of physiognomy to evaluate how cultural anxieties about maternal influence and embodied difference permeate the text. Through visuality, the thesis maps the various parameters by which notions of identity, sovereignty, and inheritance were configured in the late medieval imaginary. In doing so, Melusine is shown to give visual expression to the conflicting perspectives of female authority and ancestry that pervaded medieval English culture. As I conclude, the romance may not resolve this conflict, but it does call upon readers to reassess the genealogical contribution of those operating beyond normative hegemonies.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of the Arts
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 16 Dec 2022 12:37
Last Modified: 16 Jan 2024 17:21
DOI: 10.17638/03164959