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Machines of the Mind

Personification in Medieval Literature

In Machines of the Mind, Katharine Breen proposes that medieval personifications should be understood neither as failed novelistic characters nor as instruments of heavy-handed didacticism. She argues that personifications are instead powerful tools for thought that help us to remember and manipulate complex ideas, testing them against existing moral and political paradigms. Specifically, different types of medieval personification should be seen as corresponding to positions in the rich and nuanced medieval debate over universals. Breen identifies three different types of personification—Platonic, Aristotelian, and Prudentian—that gave medieval writers a surprisingly varied spectrum with which to paint their characters.

Through a series of new readings of major authors and works, from Plato to Piers Plowman, Breen illuminates how medieval personifications embody the full range of positions between philosophical realism and nominalism, varying according to the convictions of individual authors and the purposes of individual works. Recalling Gregory the Great’s reference to machinae mentis (machines of the mind), Breen demonstrates that medieval writers applied personification with utility and subtlety, employing methods of personification as tools that serve different functions. Machines of the Mind offers insight for medievalists working at the crossroads of religion, philosophy, and literature, as well as for scholars interested in literary character-building and gendered relationships among characters, readers, and texts beyond the Middle Ages.

368 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Medieval Studies


"Machines of the Mind is one of the most thorough and insightful texts on personification available. . . . Breen is a meticulous writer, and the book is successful in its aims. Taking on a large wealth of information and literature in stride, Breen writes out a detailed history. . . . Audiences who have a critical background in personification will find this book to be invaluable to their studies."


" Breen’s Machines of the Mind traces the formal and historical development of three traditions of personification that, as she argues throughout the book, are available to medieval authors: Prudentian, Platonic, and Aristotelian. She describes how each type of personification functions as a pliable and complex 'engine of thought' that allows writers and readers to think through difficult questions."

Qui Parle

Machines of the Mind persuades its readers to think more systematically about the types and uses of personification. Breen clears away some forty years of confusion about medieval philosophical positions on realism and so-called nominalism, clearly differentiating them from the postmodern nominalism of twentieth-century high theory and imaginatively reconsidering their implications for literary representation. Her schema will allow future scholars to differentiate Platonic, Neoplatonic, moderate realist, and nominalist strategies for personification while also recognizing that many medieval works may employ multiple types at once. This book will remain a reference point for many years to come.”

Fiona Somerset, author of Feeling like Saints: Lollard Writings after Wyclif

"Machines of the Mind: Personification in Medieval Literature is a powerful and original intervention in medieval allegory studies and, more broadly, literary history and theory. This is a book that will reshape our thinking about the interaction between poetics and philosophy in antiquity and the Middle Ages."

Rita Copeland | Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies

Table of Contents



Part I  Prudentian Personification
Chapter 1  Consecratus Manu: Men Forming Gods Forming Men
Chapter 2  How to Fight like a Girl: Christianizing Personification in the Psychomachia

Part II  Neoplatonic Personification
Chapter 3  Ex Uno Omnia: Plato’s Forms and Daemons
Chapter 4  Oh, Nurse! The Boethian Daemon

Part III  Aristotelian Personification
Chapter 5  E Pluribus Unum: Abstracting Universals from Particulars
Chapter 6  Dreaming of Aristotle in the Songe d’Enfer and Winner and Waster

Chapter 7  A Good Body Is Hard to Find: Putting Personification through Its Paces in Piers Plowman


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