The Medieval Review 11.03.10

Barr, Jessica. Willing to Know God: Dreamers and Visionaries in the Later Middle Ages. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010. Pp. 296. $49.95 ISBN 978-0-8142-1127-4. .

Reviewed by:

Barbara Newman
Northwestern University
bjnewman@northwestern.edu

In this smart, honest book, bold in its aims but modest in style, Jessica Barr sets out to discover how medieval visionaries came to know God. Adopting a method I introduced a few years ago in God and the Goddesses, she reads "authentic" and "literary" or dream visions side by side, comparing works in these two intertwined modes to gain a firmer purchase on visionary knowing. How exactly does it work (when it works) to integrate affect and intellect, will and reason, grace and human effort? But also, how can it fail, and when it does, how can we tell what has gone wrong? After three preliminary chapters on the epistemology of visions, Barr reaches her home turf in late medieval England. Reading five canonical works (A Revelation of Love, Pearl, Piers Plowman, The House of Fame, and The Book of Margery Kempe), she probes the fissures and junctures in each, seeking points where the diverse human faculties collaborate with God to produce authoritative visionary knowledge--or conversely, where a skeptical author critiques the mode.

The agenda of Chapter 1, "Knowledge and the Vision in the Middle Ages," may seem daunting. To assemble a working theoretical account of visions, Barr runs through The Apocalypse of Golias, Hildegard, and Thomas Aquinas, followed in short order by Boethius, The Romance of the Rose, and the Commedia to provide a taxonomy of vision types. Many a dissertation has trodden such paths on its way to fourteenth-century England, so I found myself thinking "Oh no, not again!" To her credit, however, Barr holds resolutely to her core questions, refusing to be distracted by the complexities of these texts. A key point, too often overlooked, is that despite the "rhetoric of passivity" used by visionaries for strategic reasons (exemplified by Hildegard and amusingly spoofed by Golias), serious accounts of human knowing understood it to involve both the ratio (discursive reasoning, an active faculty) and the intellectus (intuitive or passive grasp of a truth). Only angels attain knowledge by intellect alone. Further, the Thomistic theory of the primacy of intellect was offset by a Franciscan account (Duns Scotus, William of Ockham) that privileged the will as the dominant faculty. Barr presupposes that visionary knowledge, as a type of human knowing, does not escape the epistemological strictures of all knowledge. Though "discerners of spirits" were more concerned with the supernatural source of visions, divine or diabolical, Barr's approach through epistemology permits a refreshing focus on types and degrees of human agency.

The three great continental texts exemplify different relationships among the faculties. In the Consolation, Lady Philosophy represents human knowledge at its summit, but does not transcend it. Boethius's vision is therefore educative, rather than revelatory, though his will fully assents to Philosophy's teaching. In the Commedia, on the other hand, the educative function of Virgil (ratio) yields in the end to the revelatory power of Beatrice (intellectus). Yet Dante's intellect cannot be illumined by grace until he has first attained a "volitional union with God" through repentance and confession. The Rose illustrates the failure of this process. Because the Lover's will is firmly set on carnal desire, he rejects Reason and attains the Rose, rather than Truth. As long as his will is so disposed, no guide, no matter how authoritative, will be able to enlighten him.

In the next three chapters Barr looks at female visionaries--Marguerite d'Oingt, Gertrude of Helfta, and Julian--chosen because each one enables her to study a different phase of the cognitive process involved in visions. From the little-known writings of Marguerite d'Oingt (d. 1310), Barr selects a passage in which the prioress, wishing to understand the Latin word vehemens, rejects the French synonyms offered her and prays until she receives a vision, which dramatically enacts the vehemence of grace to give her the knowledge she seeks. Illumination here responds to active questioning. Gertrude's Legatus includes a startling passage in which God promises the mystic that his angels will be subject to her as their empress, because her will is so perfectly united with his that she can will nothing but his will. Anticipating the reader, Gertrude expresses doubt at this extraordinary claim and fears that she will simply exalt her own wishes to divine status. Though Barr emphasizes the primacy of a submissive will as the guarantor of revealed knowledge, one could also point to a tension between Gertrude and the anonymous hagiographers (her fellow nuns) who wrote most of the Legatus, for it was they who ascribed near-infallibility to her revelations.

In her excellent chapter on Julian, "The Vision Is Not Enough," Barr cuts through stubborn misreadings that have arisen from an exaggerated emphasis on the affective, bodily, and hyper-feminine qualities of this mystic. Of all medieval women, it is Julian whose ratio is most clearly at work—questioning, challenging, interpreting, and refining the content of her visions for decades after she received them. Because we are fortunate to have both earlier and later versions of A Revelation, we can see exactly how Julian revised, creating her text in a dialectical process that began where many think it ended, with the close of the final showing. "Julian is a medium for God's message," Barr writes, "but a medium that changes, adapts, and in part creates the message as it passes through her" (112). Integrating intellectus with ratio and sensuality with substance, she achieves what Langland would call a kynde knowing of Christ and the Trinity.

If Julian illustrates successful visionary knowing, the visions of the Pearl Poet, Langland, and Chaucer demonstrate different types and degrees of failure. In Pearl, a vision that combines the educative and revelatory modes, the Jeweler achieves at best an imperfect grasp of his revelation. This is not because he is thick-headed or literal-minded, Barr argues, but because his will stubbornly clings to his desire for the Maiden's bodily presence. Like the Lover in the Rose, the Jeweler rejects Reason (as exemplified in the Maiden's discourse) when she asks him to abandon his possessive grief and set his desire on God instead. If the Maiden is a kind of Beatrice, the Jeweler is no Dante, as we see in the celestial procession when the sight of his beloved, rather than Christ, provokes his ill-advised effort to cross the stream. Barr rightly stresses the centrality of renunciation in fourteenth-century spirituality, though I would question her use of The Cloud of Unknowing in this context. The counsel to hold all creatures beneath a cloud of forgetting pertains not to lay Christians like the Jeweler, but only to contemplatives, and even then, only during the work of prayer. This sternly restricted audience is a key difference between the Cloud author and Meister Eckhart, whom Barr also cites.

Langland's Will, like the Jeweler, has a problem of will. Though he is genuinely seeking God, he seeks proudly, even angrily, so his quest cannot succeed. He also has a grammatical problem: mistaking Dowel for a noun (a person) when it is actually a verb (an imperative), he goes astray. What saves him, Barr proposes, is oddly enough the vision of his double, Haukyn the Active Man. In a sense, the tears Will sheds for Haukyn let this ordinary sinner take the place of Christ as an object of compassio. Like Julian's empathetic vision of Christ's Passion, Will's experience of empathy for Haukyn prepares him for a vision of Christ's glory. In the harrowing of hell episode, Will's overworked ratio finally yields to a moment of intellectus, the intuitive or kynde knowing of love that he has sought all along. Barr describes the vision of the Samaritan as a "vivid allegorical experience" with an "affective impact on the dreamer that the faculties' discourse has failed to achieve" (181). True enough--yet one is left to wonder how the allegory of passūs 17 and 18 differs from the equally allegorical passūs that precede them. Barr is sympathetic to a nominalist reading of Piers, but a distinction between realist and nominalist modes of allegory might clarify her point.

Both Pearl and Piers Plowman, on Barr's reading, diagnose problems that can interfere with a visionary's access to the knowledge a vision is meant to convey. But if Piers "undercuts the authority of the visionary interlocutor,... The House of Fame annihilates it" (185). This satire shows Chaucer at his most skeptical, undermining every aspect of visionary knowing. The narrator Geffrey admits to being clueless about the varieties of dreams; Fame deliberately mingles lies with truths; the promised "man of gret auctorite" never materializes; and God has nothing to do with it. The substance of the vision further undermines authority: speech and sound are "radically democratized" and reduced to their material basis in "eyr ybroken," leaving no ground for one utterance to be more authoritative than another (199). Although Geffrey browbeats readers lest they "mysdeme" his vision, the text offers no ground for distinguishing true from false interpretations beyond the reader's moral sympathy.

From these specimens of partial or total skepticism, Barr turns to a text that is desperately concerned with validating its own visionary knowledge, The Book of Margery Kempe. Both Margery and her interlocutors periodically doubt her visions, which are validated in a variety of ways--divinely, by the fulfillment of prophecies; externally, by authoritative churchmen; and internally, by the "feelings" God gives to reassure her of his love. While external validation carries more weight with the audience within the text, Margery's intuitive feelings--analogous to intellectus, Barr suggests--matter more to the "actual" audience of readers. As in the case of Gertrude, this repeated drama of doubt and confirmation both comforts the visionary and helps to establish her holiness. Nevertheless, Kempe's constant need for legitimation, taken alongside Chaucer's skepticism, Langland's reservations, and the paucity of native visionaries, provides further evidence for "something like a crisis of authority" in English religious culture, at least where visions were concerned (238). This is not a new observation, nor is Barr the first to suggest that it had something to do with nominalism. The question of English exceptionalism has yet to be fully probed, for such hypotheses can finally be tested only by comparative work. In late medieval France, religious and political visions abounded. It would be well worth asking if they show a similar degree of skepticism.

I noticed a few minor errors. Marguerite d'Oingt is presented as "reading scripture" when she is in fact hearing Mass. Some translations from Gertrude's Legatus are wobbly, and the Latin infinitive "to use" is uti, not usi. But despite these quibbles, Willing to Know God will be extremely useful to English medievalists. It covers a wide terrain in a concise, accessible fashion and could lay the groundwork for a fine seminar. One understated, but important finding is that none of Barr's skeptics doubt the authority of visions, or fail to learn from them, because of misogyny. The willful dreamers of Pearl and Piers Plowman are men, as is the bumbling Geffrey. No one suggests that the Pearl Maiden, or for that matter the goddess Fame, lacks authority because she is female. Even Margery's detractors mistrust her not qua woman, but qua wife and mother failing to perform the duties of her station. After decades of intensive scrutiny, the question of gender deserves a rest. But visionary writings raise a host of others, no less fascinating. Barr's focus on cognition and its discontents shows one promising way forward.