Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Mary Dzon

Committee Members

Roy Liuzza, Laura Howes, Sara Ritchey


Though despair and scrupulosity are often thought of as Early Modern or Protestant phenomena, they manifest as significant concerns especially in late medieval hagiography and pastoralia. This dissertation traces the threads of intrusive thoughts and scrupulosity as spiritual challenges through medieval religious literature, with a focus on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a type of “temptation to despair.” I examine a range of medieval texts and their manuscript contexts from the twelfth through the fifteenth century including The Profits of Tribulation, The Chastising of God’s Children, William Flete’s Remedies Against Temptation, The Life of Christina of Markyate, Marie d’Oignies’s vita, Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations, Catherine of Siena’s vitae and The Orcherd of Syon, The Book of Margery Kempe, and The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, among others, with the lenses of the history of emotions and medieval gender to better understand the valences of medieval temptation to despair. I argue that temptation to despair was conceptually rooted in the tradition of tribulation as spiritually profitable; that temptation to despair could be conceived of as a nun’s scrupulosity or worry over past sins on a lay person’s deathbed; and that these modes of despair became more deeply intermingled by the late Middle Ages. Moreover, I demonstrate that temptation to despair—especially intrusive thoughts—held particular weight in female spirituality, given medieval anxiety over women’s enclosure.

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