Conditioning the soul: Spiritual athleticism in medieval English theology and literature

Date of Completion

January 2006


Literature, Medieval|Theology|Literature, English




This dissertation argues that the idea of Christian spiritual athleticism, first established by Paul in his epistles, is important for understanding the religious and literary worlds of medieval England. The trope of the spiritual athlete---the holy man or woman who subjects his or her body to discipline in order to prepare the soul for the "athletic" contest with temptation---was used by many writers of the early Christian world. My study focuses on its use in England between the years ca. 700 C.E. and ca. 1600 C.E. During this 900-year span, the concept of spiritual athleticism had a profound effect upon and was profoundly affected by English history, theology, and literature. By exploring hagiographic literature such as Guthlac A and the texts of the Katherine Group, along with imaginative poetry and prose such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Langland's Piers Plowman, Malory's Morte Darthur, and the Towneley mystery cycle, I demonstrate that spiritual athleticism is significant for our understanding of medieval English spirituality, particularly the relationship between soul and body. In the course of the study I also show the progression of the spiritual athlete from theological trope in early medieval English texts to metaphorical construct in late medieval and early modern English literature. To do so, I necessarily examine the importance of athletics in late antique and medieval societies in order to establish just how the tradition of spiritual athleticism began and developed, thereby constructing a socio-cultural history of sport that complements my investigation of the literature. ^