New Publication: Machines of the Mind: Personification in Medieval Literature, by Katharine Breen

In Machines of the Mind, Katharine Breen proposes that medieval personifications should be understood neither as failed novelistic characters nor as instruments of heavy-handed didacticism. She argues that personifications are instead powerful tools for thought that help us to remember andmanipulate complex ideas, testing them against existing moral and political paradigms. Specifically, different types of medieval personification should be seen as corresponding to positions in the rich and nuanced medieval debate over universals. Breen identifies three different types of personification—Platonic, Aristotelian, and Prudentian—that gave medieval writers a surprisingly varied spectrum with which to paint their characters.

Through a series of new readings of major authors and works, from Plato to Piers Plowman, Breen illuminates how medieval personifications embody the full range of positions between philosophical realism and nominalism, varying according to the convictions of individual authors and the purposes of individual works. Recalling Gregory the Great’s reference to machinae mentis (machines of the mind), Breen demonstrates that medieval writers applied personification with utility and subtlety, employing methods of personification as tools that serve different functions. Machines of the Mind offers insight for medievalists working at the crossroads of religion, philosophy, and literature, as well as for scholars interested in literary character-building and gendered relationships among characters, readers, and texts beyond the Middle Ages.

Part I  Prudentian Personification
Chapter 1  Consecratus Manu: Men Forming Gods Forming Men
Chapter 2  How to Fight like a Girl: Christianizing Personification in the Psychomachia

Part II  Neoplatonic Personification
Chapter 3  Ex Uno Omnia: Plato’s Forms and Daemons
Chapter 4  Oh, Nurse! The Boethian Daemon

Part III  Aristotelian Personification
Chapter 5  E Pluribus Unum: Abstracting Universals from Particulars
Chapter 6  Dreaming of Aristotle in the Songe d’Enfer and Winner and Waster

Chapter 7  A Good Body Is Hard to Find: Putting Personification through Its Paces in Piers Plowman

Review: Fiona Somerset, author of Feeling like Saints: Lollard Writings after Wyclif:

Machines of the Mind persuades its readers to think more systematically about the types and uses of personification. Breen clears away some forty years of confusion about medieval philosophical positions on realism and so-called nominalism, clearly differentiating them from the postmodern nominalism of twentieth-century high theory and imaginatively reconsidering their implications for literary representation. Her schema will allow future scholars to differentiate Platonic, Neoplatonic, moderate realist, and nominalist strategies for personification while also recognizing that many medieval works may employ multiple types at once. This book will remain a reference point for many years to come.”


Published by Ellie Wilson

Ellie Wilson holds a First Class Honours in the History of Art from the University of Bristol, with a particular focus on Medieval Florence. In 2020 she achieved a Distinction in her MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she specialised in the art and architecture of Medieval England under the supervision of Dr Tom Nickson. Her dissertation focussed on an alabaster altarpiece, and its relationship with the cult of St Thomas Becket in France and the Chartreuse de Vauvert. Her current research focusses on the artistic patronage of London’s Livery Companies immediately pre and post-Reformation. Ellie will begin a PhD at the University of York in Autumn 2021 with a WRoCAH studentship, under the supervision of Professor Tim Ayers and Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein.

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