Dowel Dobet, Dobet, and Dobest in Middle English Literature
Past efforts to clarify Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest have failed to some degree because they often seek a singular solution from outside PPl and then attempt to impose that solution forcibly upon L’s work. The concept of doing well, doing better, and doing best is common to much of medieval English literature, and so L need not have read any patristic, scholastic, or rhetorical source in Latin to have encountered the idea of Three Lives. This essay examines instead a wide variety of vernacular Middle English texts and their authors’ definitions of what doing well, doing better, and doing best entail. It demonstrates that there are, in fact, three overlapping models in medieval English literature for the concept of doing well, better, and best, which should not and cannot be viewed as existing in rigid isolation from each other: the virginity tradition (marriage, widowhood, and virginity), the martyrdom tradition (martyrdom as the highest of three virtues, with the other two variously defined), and the contemplation tradition (longing for death as the highest of three virtues). L seems most in tune with the martyrdom tradition, which stresses, as do three of PPl‘s seven figures who define Dowel, obedience as the first step, as well as the importance of teaching others. The essay concludes by asking why, with all this instruction, Will still fails in his search, proposing that L’s vision of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest adheres to the exclusivist vision of the contemplative experience, in which life in the world is of little interest, rather than the inclusivist vision that defines Dowel and sometimes even Dobet as stages to which the lay reader can aspire.
Florilegium, 14 (1995-96), 171-95.