skip to content

Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership - Student Profiles



I read English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge before studying for the interdisciplinary MSt in Medieval Studies run by the History Faculty at Oxford. I am happy to be returning to Cambridge for my doctorate and to a text which has interested me for some time. When I first encountered Piers Plowman, I found the poem imposing: a seemingly impenetrable macaronic allegory which asked more questions than it answered. It is a work famously described by Morton Bloomfield as ‘a commentary on an unwritten text’.

Years later this impression has not diminished, but the difficulties I once found obtrusive now create an enduring fascination. Piers Plowman does not offer easy answers because its subject is vast beyond comprehension – Bloomfield’s ‘unwritten text’ turns out to be life itself. Faced by uncertainty and falsehood at every turn, Langland shows how truth can still emerge from broken people and compromised faculties in a sinful world. Langland’s unorthodox education and peculiar genius drive this tendency to complicate but not dismiss. He appears to synthesise the intellectual traditions available to him but also to respond poetically in ways that are distinctive and original.


My research looks at how medieval thought on creation places God at the heart of everything we see and do. I am interested in how literary techniques like allegory and analogy, central to Piers Plowman, feature in scholastic discussions of how we might describe God in earthly language. From this linguistic aporia comes Aquinas’ analogia entis, which profoundly alters medieval metaphysics and unifies the many strands of his natural philosophy. As effects of God's creative act all material things are said to manifest the Divine nature in mysterious ways and to continually depend upon God's being for their existence. These ideas about the symbolic potential of creation can ultimately be traced back to Christian Platonists in the ancient world who were trying to reconcile the conflicting imperatives that God be both transcendent and imminent to us.

I have a particular interest in the reception of one of these Platonists, known as pseudo-Dionysius. His influence on twelfth-century pastoral theology is behind a conflation of the Platonic mystical sign with the Christian 'sacrament'. Under the influence of Dionysius, medieval theologians produce sophisticated accounts of how ritual and ceremony mediate our experience of God's analogic self-presentation in nature. The theologian Hugh of St Victor explains that the sacraments restore nature and man's ability to understand the mysteries presented by natural signs which retain traces of supernatural truths. Hugh sees the seven sacraments of the New Law as the elevation and fulfilment of these pre-existing natural signs. Through their intrinsic properties, developed by institution in scripture and the mysterious work of grace, these signs become tools to counteract the Fall and its distortion of the ‘mirror of nature’. In my work, I present a new interpretation of Langland that sees his narrator’s epistemic journey shaped by the revelatory power of the sacraments and their transformation of natural signs.

Areas of interest: Piers Plowman, Chaucer, Bibliography and Textual Scholarship, Theology, History of Ideas, Codicology


Key publications: 


Academic Articles

McKee, Conor, ‘Pedagogic and Dramatic Roles of the Liturgy in Piers Plowman’, The Cambridge Quarterly 45:4 (2016), 343-364

McKee, Conor, ‘Langland's Tree of Patience', Yearbook of Langland Studies 36 (2022) forthcoming

McKee, Conor, ‘Henry Bradshaw’s rhyme tests and the formation of the Chaucer canon: the Glasgow Romance of the Rose and The Tale of Gamelyn’, The Chaucer Review, 57:1 (2022) forthcoming

McKee, Conor, 'Literalising Metaphor in the Poetry of Robert Southwell' (in progress)


Other publications: 


Academic Reviews

McKee, Conor, ‘Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, by Arvind Thomas, Toronto, Toronto University Press, 2019’, Reformation 26:1 (2021), 88-89

For a Wider Audience

McKee, Conor, An Introduction to Lancelot Andrewes and his Legacy | The North American Anglican (

Teaching and Supervisions


I have taught medieval literature or Practical Criticism at the following colleges: Trinity, King’s, Sidney Sussex, Pembroke, Murray Edwards and Newnham.

Other Professional Activities

With Daniel Hanigan (Classics) I co-organised an international conference entitled Microcosms and Macrocosms from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Macrocosms and Microcosms Final Poster (


Department: English
Supervisors: Prof Nicolette Zeeman, Prof John Marenbon
College: Pembroke
AHRC subject area: Language and Literature
Title of thesis: Piers Plowman and the Sacraments of Nature
Mr Conor  McKee