Navigating the Body and the Soul

This post was written by Drew Swasey, a Humanities Center student fellow.


During a period of my college years, my ascent of the stairs behind the Maeser building became a ritual punctuated by necessary breaks. The physical discomfort of those moments has nearly faded from my memory, yet the process I would use to recover remains. In those pauses, I engaged in a deliberate process to regain composure: I would make a concerted effort to control my breathing, to loosen the fierce clutch of my ribs as my heart battered against them, and to lower my head between my knees to count to ten. Then, a minute later, the anticipation of entering a space where my creative faculties would be challenged and expanded would enthuse me enough to rise from the curb and chase the creative possibilities awaiting me.

This sense of division between body and soul is a phenomenon I frequently encounter—perhaps more often than I’d like to admit. Such experiences prompt me to question whether this duality is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and whether the responsibility to reconcile these disparate moments lies solely within our own hands. If so, how do we navigate such a tumultuous relationship? What pathways exist for us to harmonize these intrinsic aspects of our being?

The medieval world was rife with attempts at unraveling the complexities of the body-soul problem. Various models from the Middle Ages—such as those proposed by Augustine (and even earlier, Aristotle)—aimed to articulate this perceived separation between the physical and the spiritual. A tentative consensus emerged that creativity and intellectual inquiry were vital for addressing the tangible questions posed by this divide. Yet, among these models, a distinctive approach stands out for its direct interaction with literature and allegory. This approach, termed sowlehele by scholar Masha Raskolnikov, draws upon a series of entries from the Middle English Dictionary to define it as a form of poetry or allegorical narrative aimed at mending the soul. Distinguished from theological or medical texts, sowlehele, or “soul-heal,” engages the self in dialogue through accessible language, akin to what today might be described as “self-help.” Sowlehele captivates because it doesn’t merely address the schism but actively seeks to heal the soul by examining and entertaining the divide in simulated, dramatic encounters between dissonant parts of the self.

One such encounter can be found in the thirteenth-century debate poem known as “In a Thestri Stude I Stod” (In a Dark Place I Stood). This work of sowlehele separates and personifies the body and the spirit, putting them in direct conversation with each other as they argue during their funeral. The body, lying upon a bier, seems to want to waste away in its shortcomings; however, the spirit has other plans. Even after the body gives up speaking, the spirit, undeterred, admonishes and uplifts its counterpart with reflections on redemption and renewal.

While highly allegorical, this poem represents the split self in a way that taps into simple human intuition—the body and soul as distinct and dynamic entities that have the capability to be at odds with one another. Initially, the spirit appears to hold the upper hand, reproaching the body for its misdeeds that led to their morbid state, symbolized by the vivid imagery of “worms that must eat [their] throat and [their] pale, white side” (35). The body’s defense, however, is deeply evocative and humanizing: “Now is this day come upon me, woe has indeed overwhelmed me. / My hands are bound, my eyes are covered up, / I think that I will remain here, in this evil that has happened to me” (18-20). While agency is an important part of mortality, the body’s protest that the world does take its toll upon us certainly rings true. It can feel as though our spirits are trapped within a weaker frame, ready and willing to censor once they’ve gotten through to us. By portraying this discord, “In a Thestri Stude” is not meant to present a clear winner between the aspects of the self, but rather to help the reader heal the gap between their own body and spirit, encourage resilience, and theorize the full concept of personhood.

There is something to be said about how this poem and other works of sowlehele can themselves embody the healing process. Creative works have a unique power to simultaneously represent a body-by-proxy and a raw slice of our soul. Thus when we create, we channel our imaginations into conduits that are able to mirror and mend the rifts within us. In thinking back to my experience walking up the stairs, it becomes evident that my drive was not just spirit-assisting-body but deeply connected to the pursuit of creative fulfillment. This yearning to engage in the creative process—whether through academic courses, clubs, or other avenues on campus—acts as a bridge, connecting the physical exertion of my climb with the spiritual upliftment found in creative expression. In this light, the act of creation becomes a critical facilitator of mental and physical resilience as it bridges the chasms of dissonance between body and soul.

This is not to say that there won’t be moments where, unlike the spirit in “In a Thestri Stude,” our spirits will be quiet, refusing to tell us everything. In those times, it’s up to the body to drag them up from their darker places to conceive of a brighter perspective. In such moments of need, it’s important to use the body to recognize simple moments as having the trappings of creativity. I make a concerted effort to lean into the academic run-off; I pull my hands out of my pockets and spread my fingers; I let my arms swing freely by my sides. I face the sun as it peeks through the clouds and inhale the crisp, winter air. I allow nature to hit my body and harmonize it with my mind for one, centering moment that follows me across campus, down the stairs, and
into my drive home.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “In a Thestri Stude I Stod.” Translated by Masha Raskolnikov. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Raskolnikov, Masha. Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2009.

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