The Medieval Review 12.05.16

Fanous, Samuel and Vincent Gillespie. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism. Cambridge Companions to... Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xxviii, 309. $90 hb. ISBN 978-0-521-85343-9. $29.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-521-61864-9.

Reviewed by:

Jessica Barr
Eureka College

In this useful contribution to the scholarship on Middle English religious writing, Fanous and Gillespie propose a revised definition of "mysticism" in the English context. Instead of focusing only on the visionary or overtly mystical figures from medieval England--such as Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and Walter Hilton--they consider "mysticism" to encompass the contemplative tradition in medieval England, a category that includes devotional, affective, and visionary literature (1). Pointing out that the phrase "mystical theology" is a relatively recent term that assumed its modern disciplinary meaning only in the seventeenth century (5), Nicholas Watson, in his introduction to the volume, argues that the term is in some ways "anachronistic" and "evaluative," and that "contemplation" is a more historically apt and inclusive organizing concept (11). Further, the twentieth- and twenty-first-century interest in visionary experience was not necessarily shared by medieval readers and writers; as Barry Windeatt notes, the visions in most fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century saints' lives were not the main source of interest in those texts (212). Our own concepts of "mysticism" are therefore due to be challenged, at least as they are applied to the medieval period, and "contemplation" is settled on here as a preferred term. "Contemplation," in this volume, means the cultivation of a state of receptivity to glimpses of the divine--"preparing and readying the soul to receive whatever sight, sound, word, or revelation might appear to be offered in a mystical experience," writes Gillespie (x). By engaging with medieval English conceptions of contemplative and mystical writing, this collection posits the genre as a coherent area of study that encompasses a wide array of cultural products.

While one effect of shifting our attention away from a narrowly defined concept of "mysticism" and on to "contemplation" is to greatly increase the number of texts that the volume could reasonably consider, of greater importance is the fact that doing so situates those texts within a broader context; Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich no longer appear (as they sometimes can) as exceptions, but as part of a much broader devotional movement--or set of movements--that was in many ways integrated into medieval religious practice. As such, the historical and cultural contexts of the literature become very important.

The book itself is set up to reflect this integration of texts into their cultural contexts. Following the introductory essay and a time line of English and Continental mystics from Pseudo-Dionysius through the seventeenth century, the book is organized chronologically, with chapters on five time periods beginning in 1080 and ending in the 1550s. Each time period gets two chapters: The first, "culture and history" (uncapitalized in the book), establishes--as its title suggests--the relevant historical and cultural events from the period; and the second, "texts," discusses in varying degrees of depth the vernacular English contemplative and mystical literature from that period. The "texts" chapters include works that were translated into English from other languages, on the grounds that these texts equally shaped the contemplative tradition in England and became, in essence, a part of the English mystical tradition. The literature discussed in the "texts" chapters includes a wide array of material, including saints' lives, works of vernacular theology, and contemplative and devotional guides.

Some of the more famous medieval mystics--such as Margery and Julian--get relatively short shrift in this volume; however, this refocusing of attention makes sense given the extent to which these figures have been studied in recent decades. The attention called to lesser known religious writers of the period is refreshing, as well, bringing to light some writers and textual developments of which many readers may be unaware. The "texts" chapter for 1215-1349, for instance, by Denis Renevey, not only contains a section on Richard Rolle, but also discussions of Thomas of Hales, John of Howden, and anchoritic texts such as the Ancrene Wisse, Hali Meiðhad, Seinte Margarete, and þe Wohunge of ure Lauerd. Bringing these works together highlights the connections between them. As Renevey argues, in addition to their common origin in the twelfth-century affective tradition promulgated by the Cistercians, they also all contain a "high degree of performativity" (109): That is, they depend for their effectiveness on their extra-textual work, their "performative qualities" and the "feeling they hope to their requirement for active engagement" (110). In addition, the integration of such a variety of texts underscores the wide range of audiences that they address. Rather than being written exclusively for a female public (as has often been assumed of anchoritic texts) or a monastic audience (as in the case of certain of Rolle's treatises), the various discourses in which these works are written indicate a readership for affective contemplative literature that would include male and female religious and literate laypeople (110).

Likewise, the "culture and history" sections allow the authors to illustrate the connections between contemplative literature and medieval religious practice more broadly. In Jeremy Catto's chapter, "1349-1412: culture and history," Richard Rolle's work is again picked up, this time to discuss its influence after his death. The importance of his writing to the development of mainstream practices among the laity provides a context for the theological developments and controversies of the period as well as the laity's increasing role in the shaping of religious life (113-17), which would fit into the Wycliffite movement of the later fourteenth century. The interpenetration of discussions of theology, history, and devotional literature demonstrates the integrated nature of these cultural elements and the necessity of seeing them in relation to one another. However isolated it might ideally have been, contemplation, it seems, did not happen outside of the rest of society.

Across periods, too, the essays demonstrate how the medieval English contemplative tradition built upon itself and in reference to earlier writers. "1412-1534: texts," by Barry Windeatt, discusses the evidence of a fifteenth-century familiarity with fourteenth-century mystical works that is provided by devotional compilations (206). Reading devotional anthologies as contemplative treatises in themselves, Windeatt explores how they function as evidence of their owners' devotional practices as well as how such compilations emphasize the importance of their spiritual use (209). As in Renevey's analysis, then, the performance or "application" of contemplative treatises is at the forefront of their authorship and reception. Windeatt's chapter also picks up on the idea of readership--a theme that is developed through many of the chapters--in his discussion of these compilations' anticipated audiences; for example, a collection including three lives of Low Countries holy women and a letter about Catherine of Siena is explicitly addressed to "alle men and wymmen þat in happe rediþ or heriþ" it (211-12), again demonstrating the possibility that a wide readership, not limited by sex, was anticipated for these texts.

The foregoing are only a few examples of how each individual chapter advances the goals of the collection and of the arguments put forward by each. While discussing the approaches and conclusions of every chapter is beyond the scope of this review, suffice to say that they all cover important ground and can fruitfully be read individually, although the richness of the volume comes from the ways in which the chapters build on and refer back to one another.

The weakness of this collection--and I hesitate to label it as such--is the weakness inherent in any such anthology of essays: an inability to dwell for long or in much detail on any particular text. But this weakness is also related to the book's strength; by covering so much ground, and bringing together so many texts, Medieval English Mysticism draws attention to the richness of the contemplative tradition in medieval England--a tradition that has all too often been addressed piecemeal and through anachronistic disciplinary distinctions.

A Guide to Further Reading, divided into sub-categories, and a Glossary of Theological Terms add to the usefulness of the volume. In short, this will be an important reference work for the student of medieval English Christianity--with or without an emphasis on the "mystical"--as well as the history, culture, and literature of the period. It is increasingly evident that these subjects cannot adequately be studied discretely, but that precisely such comparative and boundary-questioning works as this one are necessary to shed light on the cultural fabric of the Middle Ages.