The Medieval Review 11.11.28

Epstein, Robert and William Robins. Sacred and Profane in Chaucer and Late Medieval Literature: Essays in Honour of John V. Fleming. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. viii, 238. $60. ISBN 978-1-4426-4081-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Anne McTaggart
University of Alberta

nspired by the scholarship of John V. Fleming and edited by Robert Epstein and William Robins, Sacred and Profane in Chaucer and Late Medieval Literature offers a range of fresh perspectives on much- studied texts and longstanding critical debates. The introduction by Epstein and Robins announces the volume's anthropological interest in late medieval religious forms and ideas, invoking Durkheim and Eliade on the division between sacred and profane, and Weber and Taylor on the idea of secularization. But rather than adhering to any predictable dichotomies, Epstein and Robins point out that the late medieval texts under consideration in fact problematize these distinctions, and problematize also easy assumptions about the differences between medieval religiosity and modern secularity. Most illuminating here is their discussion of one of the collection's guiding principles: moving from Agamben's definition of paradoxical "profanation," in which the sacred and profane are not antithetical but overlapping and mutually constitutive, Epstein and Robins posit the central importance of "profanatory moments" for understanding medieval religious life and texts. Profanatory moments are those "limit-situations" at the border between sacred and profane, profaneness and profanity, which test, question, identify or re-affirm religious values. This introductory grounding in anthropological, sociological, and philosophical concepts and methodologies gives the volume a capacious, yet meaningful, interdisciplinary scope.

The first two essays in the collection, David Lyle Jeffrey's "Bathsheba in the Eye of the Beholder: Artistic Depiction from the Late Middle Ages to Rembrandt" and Lynn Staley's "Susanna's Voice," form an elegant pair: in a nod to Fleming's work in medieval art history, both focus on the biblical female object of an illicit gaze, and both trace a historical progression in attitudes towards that object. Jeffrey begins by pointing out the discomfort generated for medieval theologians by a shameful episode in the life of Israel's great king--the adultery of David and Bathsheba--a discomfort evidenced alternately by reticence, excuses, or attempts to allegorize the story. In contrast to these textual evasions stands the medieval and early modern tradition of visual art depicting Bathsheba, which tended to be voyeuristic or "frankly erotic" (36). Jeffrey's analysis culminates with Rembrandt's 1654 Bathsheba at her Bath, which he reads as a "watershed painting" for its sensitive rendering of Bathsheba's inner character, a rendering that effectively subverts the earlier "voyeuristic" tradition (42). Staley's essay charts an analogous progress from woman-as-visual-object to woman-as-subject, from tellings of Susanna's story that emphasize her chastity and silence to those that feature an outspoken Susanna voicing a critique of legal corruption. In particular, Staley details the alliterative Pistel of Susan, a fourteenth-century poem in which Susanna's assertion of innocence prompts an adolescent Daniel to complain against false judges and to instigate a legal inquiry into her case.

The next three essays deal with Chaucer's pre-Canterbury works. In "The Ends of Love: (Meta)physical Desire in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde," Jamie Fumo argues that Chaucer represents love in the poem as a problem of theological belief, and that while Troilus proves himself to be "a pagan character capable of profound (if misdirected) belief in a deific power" (76), Criseyde's betrayal of him is rooted in her rationalist refusal to grant love ontological reality. In her argument that Criseyde is "not an agnostic, but an atheist," Fumo channels the spirit of Fleming by looking back, before the recent critical trend of indifference to the poem's spiritual and metaphysical concerns, and defines her position in response to earlier readings (Dunning, Fleming, Minnis) that focused on Chaucer's moral philosophy (79). William Robins' "Troilus in the Gutter" takes us from these metaphysical heights to the literal depths of Trojan plumbing. Robins argues that Pandarus' comment that Troilus enters his house on the night of the consummation scene "thorough a goter, by a pryve wente" indicates Chaucer's satirical purposes: travelling by way of a gutter, or latrine passage, Troilus's sexual idolatry of Criseyde is aligned with the medieval Christian association between "pagan idolatry, sexual passion, and excremental filth" (102). This association is complicated, Robins contends, by a second association of Pandarus' gutter with the passageway used by Diomedes and Ulysses to penetrate the walls of Troy and steal the Palladium in texts such as Servius' commentary on the Aeneid and Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae.

In a different vein, Julia Marvin's "The Suicide of the Legend of Good Women" looks at the relationship between reading and writing in the unfinished and, according to Marvin, self-consuming Legend, and explores its relevance for the text's self- reflexive representation of poetic authority. In emphasizing the meaning-making role of the reader, Marvin argues, Chaucer puts his writerly authority on a par with Virgil and Ovid, but simultaneously undermines the very notion of such authority, thereby effecting a textual dissolution analogous to Dido's self-destruction: "Seen from one side, the beleaguered teller of the legend of Dido is rebelling against his authors; seen from the other, he is surrendering exegetical authority to his own eventual readers" (125).

The next two essays also deal with Chaucer, but focus on the corrupt clergy of the Canterbury Tales: Robert Epstein's "Sacred Commerce: Chaucer, Friars, and the Spirit of Money" and Martin Camargo's "How (Not) to Preach: Thomas Waleys and Chaucer's Pardoner," to which is appended Camargo's translation of Waleys' "On the Quality of the Preacher." Epstein's essay on The Summoner's Tale begins with reference to Fleming's influential work on Franciscan literature, but makes the intriguing observation that, while antifraternal literature often satirizes greedy friars for their love of a material good (money) that they claim to reject, Chaucer's antifraternal tale emphasizes the extent to which money is not, in fact, material: money is rather "what intercedes so that people do not have to exchange one material directly for another material" (133). The "ars-metrike" of the fart, the economy of money, and the business of poverty--the sacrum commercium or "sacred commerce" as it is described in one thirteenth-century Franciscan text--are linked as profane analogues in the tale, a link that makes the prime object of the satire the friar's hypocrisy rather than his greed. Camargo's piece makes a convincing case, in the absence of conclusive proof, that Chaucer may have known Waleys' text and that he mined the rules laid out therein to create the character of the Pardoner; specifically, the Pardoner's flaunting of his own mortal sin, his admission of his crooked motives for preaching, as well as his misplaced confidence in his own rhetorical abilities constitute a point-by-point rejection of Waleys' lessons for preachers. The relation between The Pardoner's Prologue and Chapter 1 of Waleys' On the Method for Composing Sermons is thus one of "ironic reversal" (151).

Fiona Tolhurst's "The Radical, Yet Orthodox, Margery Kempe" refutes earlier readings of Kempe as a challenger of patriarchal oppression and as a sophisticated social critic. On the one hand, Tolhurst argues that Kempe's defiance of male ecclesiastical authority "has a conventional source" in the mystical tradition, providing proof of the correctness of her behaviour and of God's favour towards her (186). In this and in her descriptions of "disturbingly literal visions of the life of Christ," Kempe's text echoes other visionary texts and falls well within the range of orthodoxy (185). On the other hand, Kempe's confidence in her own speech, her complete lack of interest in Christian charity, and her clearly self-interested motives for pursuing sainthood set her apart from other mystics, such as Julian of Norwich, and undermine the notion that she had a radical or transformative agenda. In short, Tolhurst concludes that modern critics who attribute "intellectual sophistication" and "social subversion" to Kempe "could be reading complexity of motive and generosity of spirit into The Book of Margery Kempe that it does not possess" (198).

The final contribution to the volume is Steven Justice's "Preface to Fleming," which he describes aptly as "part essay, part memoir, part encomium" (205). This re-evaluation of Fleming's scholarship and its contribution to the field of medieval studies makes a thoughtful and persuasive case for seeing Fleming's unfashionableness as "independence," not only from his own mentor D. W. Robertson but also from "the whole drift of literary criticism from the 1970s on," from New Historicism to post-modernism (215). According to Justice, it is his independence, even resistance, to the dominant modes of criticism of his day, and his steadfast commitment to reading medieval authors as individuals rather than as symptoms of their time, that render Fleming's work--unlike that of many of his contemporaries--acutely relevant today, perhaps even instructive for our current post- historicist moment.

The interpretive power of the profanatory moment, that mysterious interface separating but also joining the sacred and the profane, is more evident in some essays than in others. Those by Jeffrey, Robins, and Epstein, in particular, demonstrate with nuance the remarkable presence of the sacred in the profane, and vice versa. In Jeffrey's analysis, the figure of Bathsheba becomes a metonym for the profanatory, which is likewise subject to the eye of the beholder, open to multiple and conflicting interpretations: shameful and desirable, degrading and purifying, dangerous and transformative. A similar model of unstable dualities is at work in Robins' comments on the privy, a "symbolic corollary" of idolatry insofar as both are characterized by the double movement of intake and output: just as idolatry, religious or erotic, involves the impossible task of separation, of keeping one's idol pure, so is the privy a "channel for expelling refuse that is also a vulnerable opening to the outside" (102). In Epstein's piece, it is the idea and language of money, paradoxically opposed and analogous to spiritual values, that taps into this interface. The essays by Staley, Fumo, Marvin, and Camargo are no less competent, but their subjects deal more with what we might call "rule breaking" than "taboo breaking," with questions of legality and error rather than sanctity and pollution. Challenges to legal practices, to theological belief, to poetic authority, and to preaching guidelines are certainly not irrelevant to considerations of the sacred, but they do not fall into the category of "profanation" quite as clearly as do voyeurism, sewage, and flatulence. This difference seems anthropologically significant in itself, and worthy of further reflection: for instance, the striking juxtaposition of Fumo's essay with Robins' raises the intriguing question of what follows from the suggestion that Criseyde's failure to love well is a failure of belief whereas Troilus's failure to love well is a failure of sanitation. Tolhurst's piece provides a neat conclusion to the preceding essays, and a lovely segue to Justice, because her analysis of Kempe's Book invokes implicitly the fine and ever-shifting line between radical and orthodox--outside and inside--in medieval Christendom itself, and does so in an essay that underscores its independence from the current drift of Kempe scholarship.

The keen insights offered in the individual essays make valuable contributions to Chaucer studies and to our understanding of late medieval Christianity by pushing the usual boundaries of what is considered religious, what irreligious. The thematic focus of the collection as a whole indicates not only that the field has moved beyond the contentious and polarized debate between the historicist and exegetical schools of criticism, but also that we learned much from it. Fine reading for academics and graduate students working in all areas of medieval studies, Sacred and Profane in Chaucer and Late Medieval Literature may also open up important lines of dialogue between literary and religious history and cultural anthropology.