A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

19

Visions of the Afterlife

Ed Eleazar

Belief in a life beyond the grave is a common theme throughout many of the world–s major religions and has been such for at least the last six thousand years. The earliest written texts of which we have any knowledge, such as the epic of Gilgamesh, assume that eternal life is available to mortals in a realm beyond this present reality. Even in our own millennium, characterized as it has been by the ascent of rational, empirical thought and skepticism, belief in life eternal has persisted, fueling many elements of popular culture such as UFO abduction tales, blockbuster movies (Ghost, What Dreams May Come), and bestselling books (Talking to Heaven, Embraced by the Light). Belief in existence beyond the grave runs so deep in American culture that one of our major universities has even begun a long-term experiment to test its possibility (Japenga 18–19). Is it any wonder, then, that during the Middle Ages—the “Age of Faith”—that stories purporting to be visions of the world to come, told by men and women who had actually visited it in the spirit and returned, would become one of the most popular literary genres?

For the Christian church, the Revelation of St. John the Divine (especially chapters 20–22) represents the canonical locus classicus of all vision literature. However, many other early, noncanonical texts were also available to writers of the Old and Middle English periods, the most influential being the Apocalypse of Paul and the Apocalypse of St. Peter, both of which appeared roughly between the mid-second or early third centuries (MacRae and Murdock 257; Brashler and Bullard 373). Given the extensive history of otherworld visitations between 100 and 1500 A.D., it seems most prudent to restrict our discussion solely to the development of this genre in the Old and Middle English periods. Students desiring further discussion of the materials available to medieval authors should consult the studies of E.J. Becker, Howard R. Patch, A.B. van Os,

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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