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  • Dying, Death, and the Afterlife: Non-Gendered Teachings from Beyond the Grave
  • Kortney Stern

From the tale Chaucer’s Pardoner tells to the “ars moriendi” [the art of dying] and “memento mori” [remember death] traditions, later Middle English literature often reveals a preoccupation with death and dying. While these texts range in subject and purpose, one particular subset deals specifically with female corpses and dying women, a gendering that is often associated with corporeality, bodily desire, and fleshliness in the Middle Ages. Turning to three such examples from the fourteenth and fifteenth-centuries, Pearl, Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, and “A Disputacioun betwyx þe Body and Wormes” each offer a glimpse into various stages of the female body as it transitions from dying to dead to spirit. In Shewings, Julian of Norwich recounts her near-death experience, allowing the reader to process the fact of dying indirectly through her failing body. In contrast, the “Disputacioun” forces its readers to pay witness to a debate between a reanimated female corpse and the worms who act as agents in its decay. At the end of the brief 218-line discussion, the corpse prompts the reader to confront “þe tyme to cum” [the time to come] in which the reader’s own earthly body will decompose, too (“Disputacioun,” line 183).1 Pearl, with its bejeweled descriptions of the afterlife and its heavenly maiden as guide, offers an intimate view of an eternal future. The bedazzling and otherworldly scape of the heavens in Pearl encourages the dreamer, and therefore the reader, to accept the temporariness of human existence. While each of the speakers in Pearl, Shewings, and “Disputacioun” are undeniably female, their dying, dead and spiritual accounts are universal and unifying. Thus, the speakers in each of these texts use their dying or dead bodies strategically, as instruments, to teach about the instability and even irrelevancy of their gendered bodies after life. While their gender is undoubtedly “real” or actualized while living, the speakers’ dying and dead bodies instruct readers to see that gender is only as stable as the time in which bodies are bound. Beyond the grave, the female as subject is rendered unnecessary in the [End Page 59] sense that the imagined afterlife grants a space wherein gender and time become signposts of the past. Ultimately, the speakers in these three works grant the reader access to a future in which their teachings are valued for more than the gender of their bodies.

While Pearl, Shewings, and “Disputacioun” share a collective lesson on the temporariness of earthly, gendered bodies and the ever-dwindling materialization of time within dying and dead bodies, I do not yoke these texts together strictly for their overlapping didacticisms. Though thematic echoes reverberate across these three works, each text is a product of its own distinct genre and generic conventions, and, thus, one might expect to see varied and even unrelated responses about the production and purpose of gender in these pieces. However, scholarship, particularly feminist-oriented scholarship, has largely located the crux of significance within the female flesh of these three speakers.2 Turning to Pearl, Sarah Stanbury claims that the dreamer in the poem is only able to understand the temporariness of life and accept “what he has lost” by consuming the Pearl-maiden’s teachings through her spiritual incarnations of “daughter, lover, [and] mother,” roles the dreamer’s pearl can never assume on earth.3 By attaching the Pearl-maiden’s wisdoms to her body, the lesson of the text becomes as much about the temporariness of earthly bodies as it does about the performance of female embodiedness.4 The dreamer desires to see his pearl alive in ways he understands and recognizes, and, as we, the readers, experience the text and the Pearl-maiden’s body through the perspective of the dreamer, we, too, maintains Stanbury, begin to associate the Pearl-maiden’s authority with her gender; as a result, Catherine Cox echoes, the Pearl-maiden’s teachings become inextricably female.5 Of course, this seemingly inseparable connection between the maiden’s didacticisms and her body is one that has largely been curated by the dreamer and his desire to be reunited with...


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