The Medieval Review 11.12.09

Campbell, Kirsty. The Call to Read: Reginald Pecock's Books and Textual Communities. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 310. . . $38. ISBN 978-0-268-02306-5.

Reviewed by:

Wendy Scase
University of Birmingham

Despite his conviction in 1460 as a heretic and destruction of his writings, a large body of Reginald Pecock's work survives making him author of one of the largest fifteenth-century prose oeuvres. In being convicted of heresy, Pecock has seemed to exemplify, however quirkily, the position of the vernacular theological writer in the fifteenth century, subject to vigorous repression by ecclesiastical authorities concerned to extinguish any sign of free-thinking or intellectual creativity. Recent work on vernacular religious writing in the fifteenth century, however, has sought to revise this narrative, offering instead a picture of fifteenth-century religious literary culture as diverse, creative, and experimental. In The Call to Read, Kirsty Campbell seeks to position Pecock in this revisionary narrative, describing him as the exponent of one position among many, as less a polemicist than a contributor to a richly-nuanced and diverse theological culture whose aim, however, was that of "promoting orthodoxy and shutting down the possibilities for heretical belief" (258).

The Call to Read is essentially an exposition of Pecock's ideas about religious education based on an analysis of the statements he makes on relevant topics across his six extant works. Campbell focuses on Pecock's ideas about the methods and curriculum for religious instruction aimed at lay readers; his views on and provision of resources for prayer and meditation; his advice about the use of contemplative practices by those living the mixed life; his provision of cognitive skills training to enable readers to think for themselves when they are reading; and his position on lay reading of the Bible. She also considers his attempts to re-think relations between clergy and laity, viewing this as an effort to resolve tensions between the insistence on lay intellectual empowerment and the emphasis on clerical authority in his scheme.

Throughout her analysis of his writings, Campbell compares Pecock's ideas and practices with those of contemporary catechetical literature. She suggests that Pecock writes in the tradition of pastoral manuals aimed at teaching the basis of the faith, but he breaks with the tradition in seeking to replace existing writings with a new corpus of his own. His corpus transcends what had been attempted before in constituting a structured curriculum and in presupposing the creation of social structures that will transmit that curriculum. Pecock's aim is to transfer "an entire discipline of thought into the vernacular for diverse readers" (14). Campbell thus presents Pecock as an innovator in the great enterprise of "vernacular theology" by means of which vernacular writings contributed to and transformed the transfer of religious knowledge from clergy to laity.

Scholars will undoubtedly be indebted to Campbell for offering a way of integrating Pecock into the recent revisionist narratives of fifteenth-century religious writing. Her monograph also offers a Pecock more appealing, accessible, and congenial for the twenty-first century, replacing the image of a vituperative, unreadable bishop crushed by the authorities with that of a learned scholar who responds to social questioning of his profession by creating a coherent argument about knowledge transfer and the value of scholarly learning for wider audiences.

Campbell devotes the first chapter to "Pecock's Audience," but her evidence for the dissemination of Pecock's works and his winning of lay readers is largely inferential and circumstantial. The truth is, there is pitifully little sign that any of Pecock's grandiose scheme was realised or had even begun to be implemented. Instead of assuming that Pecock's works did reach a lay audience it would have been worth considering the alternative interpretation of the evidence: that Pecock's grand scheme remained largely unrealised and, indeed, was hopelessly unrealistic given the prevailing conditions of vernacular book production and dissemination and the uncompromising demands on the reader of Pecock's prose, to name just two hurdles on the path to success. It would have been useful to have included some consideration of the disparity between Pecock's grand ideas and the exiguous evidence for their fulfillment.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that Pecock's works and ideas reached a different kind of audience, though, oddly, Campbell does not investigate this material. She does not address, for example, Pecock's ideas about preaching and his assertions that prelates were not bound to preach. We know that these ideas generated virulent controversy among London clerics--and beyond, as witnessed by Thomas Gascoigne's aggressive remarks in his Liber de Veritatibus. It would have been worth considering whether Pecock's ideas about preaching fit in with his scheme for re-engineering religious education through creating a corpus of vernacular texts. She ignores entirely the one excellent source for a contemporary response to and reading of one of Pecock's works--John Bury's Gladius Salomonis, a response to book one of Pecock's Repressor. She does not fully consider the implications of the calls for searching for Pecock's books among the clergy of the province of Canterbury. Historical evidence of this kind would seem to point to Pecock's attaining a clerical audience for his ideas and his writings, whatever his intentions for them, and any suspicion on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities that a lay audience had been achieved might have been based on inferences from Pecock's writings themselves rather than from actual discoveries.

The Call to Read, then, gives us a new approach to Pecock and a way of considering his work in relation to late medieval ideas about and resources for lay religious education. But this reading is very much at odds with the contemporary reception of Pecock's ideas and works for which we have so much evidence. It is to be hoped that future work on Pecock will test Campbell's thesis against the plentiful sources for how his learned and powerful contemporaries viewed him and his writings.