Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature

Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature by Hetta Elizabeth Howes is a consideration of the metaphor of water in religious literature, especially in relation to women. Dr Howes provides fascinating insight into water, its importance in our every day lives and how its usage and means might differ from the Middle Ages.

Less than an hour after I clicked send on the finished manuscript of Transformative Waters, I was settling down to eat a celebratory dinner, sheltering from the fierce rainstorm raging outside. A slow but loud drip, drip, drip alerted my partner and I to the fact that some of that fierce storm was actually getting in through our ceiling. We got a bowl to put underneath the leak and carried on with our meal – as any London renter will know, this sort of thing is not unexpected. A few moments later the leak was followed by an unnerving creaking overhead. Suddenly and rather spectacularly, part of our ceiling caved in, accompanied by a huge and noisy rush of water.

Bearing in mind my book is about water, this seemed quite an apt occurrence, if a little frightening and more than a little messy. The heavens had literally opened in our flat. But it seems even more apt bearing in mind that my book isn’t just about water per se, but about its very particular flexibility as a metaphor in medieval literature – its productive ‘able’-ness, as encyclopaedist John Trevisa puts it – and also about our attempts to control and regulate its use, especially metaphorically.

Water is part of the fabric of our daily life; whilst its usages and means might differ between the Middle Ages and the present day, its importance endures because our lives depend on it. Already that day, I’d used water in a myriad of ways. For cleanliness (a hot shower), for relaxation and hydration (more cups of tea and coffee than I’m comfortable counting), for more cleanliness (washing my hands – more frequently and for longer than before, thanks to COVID-19), for pleasure (as part of a celebratory cocktail), for preparing and cooking food. Someone in the Middle Ages would have different means and methods in the absence of, for example, electricity and boilers. But their reasons for using water would have been the same – hygiene, pleasure, relaxation, life-preserving hydration, to name just a few. And, like us, someone in the Middle Ages would have been just as aware as we are of the contradictory nature of water. Water can both give and take life, can heal and destroy. Water can be manipulated and controlled by humans, used to our advantage. However, it can also, easily and destructively, escape that control, slip and slide out of our grasp. The water that I’d previously been watching outside of my window with some rather fanciful pathetic fallacy – will the editor like my book? Will the readers like it? Is it terrible? – had circumvented the manmade protective ceiling above my head and was now causing serious destruction, swimming around my feet.

The contradictory nature of water – its practical importance, its symbolic significance, its ability to represent a number of different, often opposing things at once – is something that has long been understood. However, my book starts with this understanding and examines it in a different light to previous studies. By considering how medieval devotional authors use water as a metaphor, this book argues that devotional prose borrows an attitude to water as something flexible and productively ‘able’ from medieval encyclopaedias. Water is something that both encyclopaedists and devotional writers attempt to categorise and hierarchise but which often, by its very nature, undermines such attempts. With chapters organised around a number of particular usages of water as a means of mediation and exchange between the human and divine, from crossing a stream to dissolving in the peaceful sea of God’s love, Transformative Waters reveals that, just as we humans try and manage the element of water in daily life, male authors try to manage the metaphor of water in their guidebooks for women. However, thanks to the slippery nature of water, its ‘able’-ness and flexibility, this metaphor can elude their grasp. Moreover, it can then be picked up and reclaimed by women writers to mean something entirely different – and more transformative.

The water gushing through my ceiling led to quite a lot of transformation, in the end, although not the spiritual kind that my book examines. After living with the hole in the ceiling for almost sixth months through a lockdown winter (again – London rentals, what can you expect?!) we were forced to move house, away from London, to somewhere with a more secure ceiling and closer, incidentally, to water in the form of local streams, wetlands and canals, all a stone’s throw away, but hopefully not within flooding distance. The rain through the ceiling – water where it wasn’t expected or wanted and which enforced change – served as a timely reminder that, just when we think we’ve got a handle on this mischievous element, it’s liable to transform and take us by surprise. Transformative Waters might be finished but my own work on water in medieval literature certainly isn’t – I know I’ll be pursuing its rivulets for some time.


This guest post was written by Hetta Elizabeth Howes, Lecturer in Medieval Literature at City, University of London and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.

Transformative Waters in Late-Medieval Literature
by Hetta Elizabeth Howes
9781843846123, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35