Tara Williams

title.none: Lipton, Affections of the Mind (Tara Williams )

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.012 08.11.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Tara Williams , Oregon State University ,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. x, 246. ISBN: $32 978-0-268-03405-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.12

Lipton, Emma. Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. x, 246. ISBN: $32 978-0-268-03405-4.

Reviewed by:

Tara Williams
Oregon State University

Affections of the Mind opens with a provocative connection to contemporary politics, noting that "recent controversies over gay marriage have highlighted the important place of marriage in the complex nexus of civic and religious authority in modern life" and underscoring that "marriage is a deeply political institution" (1). This opening reveals the book's relevance to the current moment but the project also fills an important gap in the history of marriage, building on Dyan Elliott's landmark study of chaste marriage, Spiritual Marriage, as well as the significant work on medieval marriage more generally by examining portrayals of sacramental marriage. The sacramental marriage paradigm, Lipton explains, defined marriage by affection rather than consummation and thus served as "a model for such values as lay spirituality and mutuality in social relations, and in doing so, helped both to express and create values for the members of the emergent middle strata, as well as helping them to construct an identity for themselves and understand themselves as a social group" (2).

In making this argument, Lipton has written a book that offers alternative and interesting interpretations of often familiar passages while also carefully contextualizing those readings (with respect to historical as well as literary contexts). She also brings an unusual variety of texts into conversation with each other around this issue, uniting all of these readings with an admirably clear line of argument. There are a few spots where a more detailed discussion might be desired, but that is a minor caveat about a very interesting and useful book.

The introduction explores the model of sacramental marriage, beginning with St Augustine, and the reasons why such a model might have been attractive to the "middle strata." Lipton shows how the contradictions inherent within medieval ideas about marriage--as defined by companionship or consummation and as a hierarchical or horizontal relationship--created a particularly productive field for reconsidering different forms of authority. The texts that concern Lipton attempt to reconcile (or exploit) these divergent ideas about marriage; similarly, those texts incorporate the characteristics of different genres. While I have reservations about the coherence of "late medieval sacramental marriage literature" (13) as a category, Lipton does not press that point and does maintain convincingly that her case studies involve a generically diverse set of texts united by a common set of interests in marriage and the middle class.

The first chapter takes on a text that is both familiar and famous for its representation of marriage: Geoffrey Chaucer's Franklin's Tale. Although George Lyman Kittredge saw this tale as offering a perfect model of marriage as the resolution to the "marriage debate" within the Canterbury Tales, more recent critics have noticed the inequities in Arveragus and Dorigen's relationship as well as the differing treatments they receive from the narrator. The tale ultimately shifts its emphasis from marital to homosocial relationships and Lipton reads that shift from a fresh perspective, arguing that mutuality and friendship provide a common ground for both types of relationships and that the Franklin uses the virtues of sacramental marriage--especially "mutuality, generosity, and free choice"--to construct "a horizontal political model and a vision of society in which virtue is defined by personal merit rather than social status" (22). As Lipton points out, this manipulation of the discourse of aristocratic romance is specifically suited to the Franklin's status as a middle-class civil servant.

Lipton follows this new interpretation of a well-known text with a reading of a text that has received little critical attention: John Gower's Traitié pour Essampler les Amantz Marietz. This sequence of Anglo-Norman ballads describes lovers who do not honor marriage, allowing Gower to critique courtly love (most often by connecting it to adultery) while privileging marriage. Lipton demonstrates that Gower represents marriage as more valuable than chastity--thus promoting lay over clerical authority--and as central to male virtue and identity, often at the expense of women's concerns. This chapter is a significant contribution to Gower studies and particularly to the critical history of this text, which is still in its early stages. However, Lipton could have explained more comprehensively her intriguing claim that Gower uses sacramental marriage to construct a middle-class masculine identity. The chapter emphasizes self-regulation as a critical virtue and marriage as an important aspect of middle-class status, but what other characteristics might be part of that masculine identity? How did it revise or stand distinct from other models?

The third chapter takes up a third genre, examining the N-Town Mary plays. Lipton suggests that, although the plays draw on orthodox ideas and doctrines about marriage, they ultimately support lay authority. "Joachim and Anna" highlights the affection between the spouses and admires their piety as laypeople. "The Marriage of Mary and Joseph" explores the conflict in Church teachings that exalt virginity while encouraging marriage and emphasizes marriage as a lay sacrament. Taking this position a step further, "The Trial of Mary and Joseph" uses marriage as "a model for a sacramental theater that performs lay piety" (118). The connection to the middle strata is less direct here, but the treatment of performed representations of marriage makes a crucial contribution to Lipton's argument.

Finally, Lipton turns to perhaps the best-known portrait of bourgeois marriage in the Middle Ages: The Book of Margery Kempe. She notes that Margery is trapped between conflicting paradigms: sacramental marriage was a virtuous condition that did not require sex whereas the concept of the marital debt required sex without seeing it as virtuous. Scholars have widely recognized this dilemma, but Lipton approaches it from an unusual angle by suggesting that Margery exploits the sensuality of the mystical marriage tradition in order "to make her relationship with Christ an image of a new earthly model of marriage that unites love and sex, making sex a spiritualized expression of love" (130). Where most previous critics have treated the sexual and earthly aspects of Margery's relationship with Christ as an overly literal use of the imagery of affective piety, Lipton's interpretation moves in the opposite direction by reading Margery as remodeling earthly and sexual notions of marriage through her spiritual relationship with Christ.

The conclusion of the fourth chapter also serves as the conclusion to the book; Lipton reiterates the connections between medieval and modern controversies over marriage and locates Affections of the Mind within the broader cultural history of the institution. A more substantial conclusion would have allowed her to capitalize more fully on the productive readings that have been set forth and establish the position of this project within both studies of medieval marriage in all its forms and medieval literary studies more broadly. This desire for more detail, however, is a testament to the original premise and remarkable quality of readings in the book; it is an excellent contribution not only to how we understand medieval models of marriage but also to how we interpret familiar as well as relatively little known texts.