Mr Perry Hughes

Research project: Maternal Oralities and Amorous Appetites: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Gender, Sex and Nourishment in Literature from De Troyes to Milton


The significance of food in literature has commonly been overlooked: however, recently there has been a shift towards (re-)evaluating the role of food as a signifier of socio-cultural concepts. Existing criticism predominantly focuses on food either in contemporary literature through a theoretical lens or pre-Victorian literature from a historical perspective. Images of consumption and nourishment in Medieval and early modern literature have seldom been analysed using critical theory despite being rich with possibilities. Therefore, in my thesis I intend to employ the theoretical lens of psychoanalysis to provide a framework to analyse the significance of food in literary texts from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Over the course of this thesis, I conceptualise food as possessing an affinity with the body of the mother, the act of eating at a primal level recalling the first instance of oral consumption at the mother's breast, which is regulated or structured through the practices of cooking, dining and fasting. Freud's theory of the pre-genital oral stage is anticipated and conceptualised by Edmund Spenser, John Milton and William Shakespeare – forming the focus of the first part of this thesis – who evoke the maternal body and its nourishment as a dangerous space where one is vulnerable and corruptible to a maternal authority, in contrast with the Symbolic identity and community offered by the Father, repeating the semiotics of food and sex in the Bible. The monstrous mothers of Errour and Sin from The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost and their idealised counterparts of Charissa and Eden represent the anxieties surrounding maternal love and nourishment beyond the law of the Father. In Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Macbeth, through the "bad" mothers of Tamora and Lady Macbeth, these anxieties become projected on the maternal body rendering the breast as a site of demonic and animalistic corruption. Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare present how in the socio-cultural imagination the maternal breast becomes a symbol of both the primitive history of culture and the individual.

A primitive history which informs one's character, as Karl Abraham posited: ‘oral eroticism is a source of character-formation'. This history, manifest as fantasy, leaves its imprint on the subject as the first object of the mother comes to influence its successors, which becomes expressed through the relationship with food. The garden episodes of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Tasso's The Liberation of Jerusalem and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, as well as the motif of the Eaten Heart in Boccaccio's The Decameron, Dante's Vita Nuova and Ford's Tis' Pity She's a Whore, to different extents illustrate an oral eroticism that is underpinned by a desire for the maternal body, and deadly for it.

Oral eroticism as a term betrays the perceived transgressive quality of this mode of sexuality, especially when one remembers, as Freud identifies, how sexual activity is largely defined and accepted still on the principle of procreation. In the wedding feasts of De Troyes' Erec and Enide and Spenser's epic poem, the banquet and etiquette of dining become Symbolic practices to structure and regulate the transgressive maternal character that underlines oral consumption and nourishment, a regulation which is pushed to extremity in the practice of ascetism by (female) mystics, particularly Catherine of Siena and Margery Kempe where (non-)eating figures largely in their personal and religious narratives.

Through a diverse range of literature that cross different times and cultures, it becomes apparent in this intertextual network how the relationship with food and eating comes to formulate one's gender and sexual identity, symbolic identity being assumed, or more often failed, in the regulation (or not) of food, which stands for the mother's body. For a modern culture obsessed with dieting and fitness, and revulsed by non-sculpted flesh, one may see how this cultural anxiety of an oral connection and dependence on the (m)other is deeply rooted in Western Christian culture.

  • Research degree: PhD
  • Title of project: Maternal Oralities and Amorous Appetites: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Gender, Sex and Nourishment in Literature from De Troyes to Milton
  • Research supervisor: Dr Selene Scarsi
  • Other research supervisor: Dr Matthew Birchwood


I completed my undergraduate degree in English Literature in 2018. After my BA, I proceeded to start my doctoral study which focuses on food in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, and employs critical theory as a framework to analyse the representations and the significance of food in the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Areas of research interest

  • Medieval Literature
  • Early Modern Literature
  • Critical Theory
  • Food Studies


  • BA in English Literature, Kingston University London

Conference papers

‘Civilised Diets and Primitive Appetites in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene', delivered at ‘The Uses and Abuses of Civility, 1500–1700' conference (University of Neuchâtel, 26-27 May 2023)