Date of Completion


Embargo Period



medieval, history of medicine, Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, Christina of Markyate

Major Advisor

Fiona Somerset

Associate Advisor

Sherri Olson

Associate Advisor

Robert Hasenfratz

Field of Study

Medieval Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access


“Be Wholly Out of Body”: Astonishment in Late Medieval English Literature examines how late medieval English literature uses medical discourse to show how the body is central to writers’ imagined transformations and to gain spiritual insight. When encountering a figure like God or Lady Philosophy, the subject loses all physical and mental faculties. After a period of stasis, the faculties are restored, often at a heightened state. Medieval texts describe this as astonishment, and in medicine, astonishment is understood as a cerebral malady like paralysis or epilepsy. While medical texts describe the somatic symptoms of astonishment, literary narratives use its pathology to investigate the effects of this state on the mind and soul. This project unites literary criticism and the history of medicine to argue that medieval authors drew from popular medical knowledge to ground and extend their investigations into the limits of embodiment and achieving spiritual insight. The literary texts of this study describe the visceral reaction to the presence of a divine figure as astonishment, an illness described in medieval medical discourse alongside cerebral maladies.

Astonishment is an aesthetic and philosophical concept. Philosophically, astonishment is included in investigations of wonder and its relationship to wisdom. Affectively, astonishment is defined as a range of emotions: wonder, awe, surprise, confusion, shock. However, astonishment functions much differently than these wide-ranging emotions, particularly because astonishment provokes bodily reactions, a fact that has left astonishment without significant critical attention. The inherent physicality of astonishment merits deeper investigations into both its historical significance and its impact on the body. Considering that the English word for being astonished, astonyed, was first used in the Middle Ages, a historical investigation of astonishment must consider its translation from Latin, its use in medical, spiritual, and philosophical texts, and its range of complex implications for overwhelming bodily, cognitive, and spiritual experiences.

Available for download on Friday, May 03, 2030