Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Katherine Eggert

Second Advisor

William Kuskin

Third Advisor

Katherine C. Little

Fourth Advisor

Anne Lester

Fifth Advisor

Doug Burger


This dissertation studies four works within the context of the contested rise of vernacular theology in late medieval England: the anonymous Marian debate lyric Dispute between Mary and the Cross; the Life of St. Margaret by the Augustinian friar Osbern Bokenham; and two plays from the Nativity group in the Chester cycle plays, the Shepherds play and the Purification of the Virgin Mary play. These texts are united in their intention to make religious material in the vernacular available to a wider audience. Reliant as they are on Latinate literary and cultural traditions, these works participate in the process by which academic and ecclesiastical topics and concerns percolate into the vernacular cultural imagination. But, as this dissertation contends, these orthodox works also articulate distinctive theological ideas and notions of clerical reform that arise in the “theological encounters” between figures of the laity and the clerical elite dramatized within these texts. These generically diverse texts share three key premises. First, they express a fundamental conviction in the possibilities for lay participation in the economy of salvation. Second, they demonstrate that doctrinal understanding alone is not enough; rather, they suggest that theology must be performed in order to be understood. Finally, as transmitters of vernacular theology, these texts exhibit a self-reflexive concern with their own rhetorical and interpretive performances. This dissertation, thus, is concerned with how these four vernacular works promote themselves as theologically legitimate and spiritually efficacious—as “faithful handmaids” to Scripture. In their foregrounding of issues related to the politics of vernacularity, these texts engage with and intervene in the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century debates surrounding the translation of Scripture and religious matter into the vernacular. These include questions about lay access and lay self-determination; concerns over interpretive privilege (who could interpret and who could best interpret); and controversies over the resourcefulness and limitations of the vernacular as a tool for salvation. In its attention to four non-canonical texts, this dissertation participates in the current rethinking of vernacular religious writing in late medieval England.