Repentant Readers: Reforming Body and Soul in Late Medieval and Early Modern England

Clarissa Ann Chenovick, Fordham University


This thesis offers the first sustained examination of penitential texts and reading practices across the divide of the English Reformation, shedding new light on early modern beliefs about the physiology of reading. Drawing on canonical and understudied literary texts and archival sources including manuscript prayers, diaries, sermon notes, emblems, and treatises on the diseases of the soul, "Repentant Readers" argues against the long-held assumption that early modern Protestants made repentance a disembodied intellectual activity. It also contends that the popular premodern trope of sin as a disease or wound is not simply a cliché, but rather an attempt to articulate complex relationships between body, soul, and self. A number of critics have challenged the long-entrenched division in English literary studies between medieval and early modern, a distinction rooted in stark demarcations between “Catholic” and “Protestant”, between pre- and post-Reformation. This thesis reexamines penitential beliefs and practices as a means of complicating this oversimplified history. Examining literary reworkings of the trope of sin as a wound as well as invocations of embodied penitential expressions like sighs, tears, and groans, it shed light on the powerful cognitive and psychophysiological resources pre-Reformation models of repentance continued to offer to post-Reformation English readers.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Chenovick, Clarissa Ann, "Repentant Readers: Reforming Body and Soul in Late Medieval and Early Modern England" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10621659.