The Medieval Review 11.05.16

Tinkle, Theresa. Response to TMR 11.04.20, Theresa Tinkle, Gender and Power in Medieval Exegesis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), reviewed by Felice Lifshitz, Florida International University, 2011. Pp. . . .

Reviewed by:

Theresa Tinkle
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

I will not quibble with "brilliant," though it may prove to be an overstatement. I am, however, surprised that Professor Lifshitz does not detect what she would consider a sustained, cohesive argument, the qualifying distinction of a "true monograph."

Her response to the book is apparently based on her belief that it contains too much previously published material: "three of its four substantive chapters...either have been or will be published wholly...or partially." This is misleading. By my reckoning (counting pages), about 27 percent of the book was previously published in some form. Professor Lifshitz's notion that the "parts of the book could...easily be torn asunder" may be justified, but her assumption that pre-existing publications preclude a unified argument is flawed.

The reviewer assumes prior publications have been simply pasted into the book. As she puts it in reference to Chapter 4, "readers who missed the 2003 article might as well read it here." This is too cavalier. In fact, readers should consult the book as a superior piece of scholarship: not only is the argument of the book chapter significantly revised (the article says nothing about gender), but it is also a more reliable guide to exegetical sources and editions. Some 30 percent of the chapter is new material. As for Chapter 2, 6 pages out of the 30 (excluding notes) have been published in a similar form. In other words, about 80 percent of the chapter is new. Professor Lifshitz's own comments suggest that this article fits seamlessly into the chapter, undermining her claim that the previous publications are "tangential." Finally, a version of Chapter 5, "The Wife of Bath's Marginal Authority," appeared in Studies in the Age of Chaucer (2010). Only half of the article appears in the book, revised to fit its new context. In the process of revising the article into the book chapter, I cut a number of manuscripts from the discussion (among them the Ellesmere Canterbury Tales). Chaucer scholars will certainly not find the article and book interchangeable.

Professor Lifshitz passes hastily over Chapter 1, which in her view does not "succeed in bringing the chapters together." In fairness to the book, I would point out that the first chapter outlines a number of premises central to the argument and structure of the study. For example, the first chapter proposes that we broaden the canon of exegesis in order to access the full historical range of exegetical writings, which I argue should include not only formal academic commentaries (the present canon) but also drama, letters, sermons, autobiographies, and vernacular poetry (pp. 7-13). The selection of texts for the case studies that follow is linked to the argument about opening the canon. This is meant to be a "discontinuous history" (13), an attempt to "historicize medieval inventions of religious authority, including the actual breaks and reversals in the development and justification of ecclesiastical power" (5). If we open the canon, I propose, we discover that exegesis is "a broadly dispersed discourse that is...neither continuous nor unified" (9). Accordingly, I concentrate on historical points at which exegesis exhibits "breaks with its own past, shifts of emphasis, and reinventions of form as well as method," for "it is precisely at such moments of change that we can best perceive what is at stake in exegesis: the cultural work the discourse is expected to do or fails to do...the methods by which exegetes (re)establish authoritative practices; and the strategies by which they authorize their works within particular social and institutional settings" (9). This argument develops through case studies drawn from particularly fraught moments in the history of exegesis, "beginning with scripture, progressing to the age of Augustine; passing next to the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, and ending with the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries" (13). The reviewer and I might disagree about whether such a thing as "discontinuous history" is worthwhile, but it should be recognized that the book does have an explicit overall design and rationale for the selection of texts.

The point of the book, what Professor Lifshitz calls the "broader approach," is to develop a sociohermeneutic analysis of exegesis that brings out writers' particular agendas, and the social, institutional circumstances of exegesis (11). From my perspective, the fact that Professor Lifshitz considers each chapter compelling means the case studies function as intended: each provides an in-depth analysis of particular works in particular contexts. Although the reviewer does not seek or recognize methodological and theoretical unity in the book, those are nonetheless valid principles of literary study. The chapters could doubtless be torn apart (what chapters cannot?), but the whole, even in her representation of it, does advance an argument about how, in each successive age, exegetes invent new literary forms in order to re-write scripture for new audiences.