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“Lothly thinges thai weren alle”: Imagining Horror in the Late Middle Ages

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posted on 2023-08-30, 15:41 authored by Helen Marshall
Scholars such as Noël Carroll have traditionally placed the terminus post quem of the horror genre at the eighteenth century. The exclusion of the medieval period persists for two central reasons: firstly, if the horror literature is taken as arising from a set of recognizable tropes, then these tropes largely originate within Gothic literature; secondly, the fear of the supernatural exploited in horror literature is particularly calibrated to a post-1750 world in which monsters are considered a figment of the imagination. Whereas Carroll excludes the Middle Ages, H.P. Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) offers a useful avenue for interrogating the fashioning of horror within the Middle Ages, because he focuses not on the development of genre, but on the memorable effect of pain and the menace of death; as such, he argues that elements of the weird tale might appear in “memorable fragments” within material whose “massed effect may be of a very different cast” (Kurtagic 2013, 6). This paper uses Supernatural Horror in Literature as a springboard to bring modern theories of horror into conversation with medieval literature whose genres tended to have an instructional religious purpose. I take as a case study The Prick of Conscience (1350), a poetic treatise produced in surprisingly high numbers in England, which uses memorable fragments of suffering and monstrosity to encourage penitence. Scholars such as Howell Chickering have argued that the Conscience poet aimed only to shock his audience into empty fear, or timor vanus, but an understanding of the text’s operations on purely theological grounds does not fully account for the particular pleasures of the poet’s narrative tactics. In this paper, I will show significant points of overlap between cognitive approaches to horror which posit horror texts as “emotion machine[s]” (Tan 1996), and the meditational and mnemonic tradition which shaped the genre and operations of The Prick of Conscience, a tradition which encouraged readers to reflect on images of violence such as Christ’s death upon the cross, and then to channel their fabricated horror into spiritually salutary processes.



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Palgrave Macmillan

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London, UK

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New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature: The Critical Influence of H. P. Lovecraft




Sean Moreland

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  • Accepted version


  • eng

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ARCHIVED Faculty of Arts, Law & Social Sciences (until September 2018)

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