'Figuring with Knots'

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This article examines the affordances of late medieval knots. Although knots are mentioned, both literally and figuratively, in a wide
range of medieval writings in a western Christian context, they are rarely
discussed, described, or explained in detail. As a result, while they are an enduring aesthetic and practical feature of medieval life and thought, they remain mysterious. This essay considers knots both as material and symbolic
densities and as ligatures, looking at their role in religious thought and practice and in relation to cognitive processes. Drawing on recent theories of
materiality and metaphor and focusing primarily on Middle English sources,
it examines how knots offered medieval writers and practitioners distinct
yet interrelated ways of being and communicating. Both divine and mundane, enabling and resistant, knots are powerfully associated with memory,
writing, and relationships. Medieval knots shaped spiritual, mental, and
religious habits; devotional objects; and certain letters of the alphabet. They
articulated the confluence of mind and body that resulted in disposition
and composition and became ornamental, formal, and stylistic features of
texts. This conjunction of discursive and material properties makes them an
example of what Sophia Roosth calls figuring. Binding fleshly as well as verbal “matere,” knots’ versatility made them useful even as their complexity
often posed a challenge. Knots situated the human subject in particular and
revealing ways, meeting minds in unpredictable encounters.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-38
JournalDigital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • knots
  • metaphor
  • figuring
  • sympoiesis
  • medieval
  • materiality
  • Gordian


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