contributor.author: Charles M. Radding, Michigan State University

title.none: G. Constable, Three Studies

identifier.other: baj9928.9612.002 96.12.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Charles M. Radding, Michigan State University, radding@pilot.msu.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Constable, Giles. Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society. Cambridge \ New York \ Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xx, 423. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-30515-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.12.02

Constable, Giles. Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society. Cambridge \ New York \ Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xx, 423. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-30515-2.

Reviewed by:

Charles M. Radding, Michigan State University
radding@pilot.msu.edu

As Giles Constable explains in his introduction, these three previously unpublished studies have been evolving through a process of reflection and research since they originated as lectures in the 1960s; he publishes them now as a companion volume to a more synthetic forthcoming book entitled The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. Each essay surveys the range of medieval opinions on specific themes, the first two of which are essentially religious in nature, while the third concerns medieval conceptions of society as a whole. Although Constable himself does not attempt to link the different essays, they are nonetheless unified by the sources he employs, drawn primarily from monastic and religious writers, and by the periodization he adopts, with its consistent emphasis on the importance of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The first essay, "The Interpretation of Mary and Martha," treats the medieval interpretation of Lazarus' sisters, i.e., Luke 10.38-42 and John 12.1-8. Only a few medieval writers noted the importance of these passages for the role of women, with most applying the lessons derived from the sisters to both men and women. Constable further notes that medieval commentators tended to conflate Lazarus' sister Mary with Mary Magdalene, or (more rarely) with the Virgin Mary. But for the most part Mary and Martha were used together with other Biblical pairs to represent or symbolize choices, alternatives, or structured opposites, most commonly action and contemplation, but also synagogue and church, "two aspects of the church, two periods of history, or two types of prayer." (p. 11)

In this essay, and in the others, Constable divides the detailed account of the evidence into three, chronological sections: the patristic period extending through the early Middle Ages; the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and the later Middle Ages, with some significant overlaps into the period after 1500. Although the sisters were consistently allegorized in the first period, the range of pairs that they were seen to symbolize was remarkably various: church and synagogue in ecclesiological contexts; action and contemplation for monastics, but also those who entered a monastery or remained in the world, or even differences within the ranks of monks. It was the contrast or symbiosis between action and contemplation that took hold in the Latin fathers, however, notably in Augustine and Gregory the Great, followed by Isidore and Bede, among others.

Beginning in the tenth century, Constable sees an increasing tendency to distinguish more sharply between the sisters, representing them as in some cases mutually exclusive or identified with different social categories, but this trend ended in the late eleventh century with a new perspective that saw in contemplation and action, not clearly divergent choices, but attitudes that the same person could adopt at different times "rising to contemplation and descending to action 'by brotherly love'..." (p. 41). This new emphasis on action -- expressed in an enhanced evaluation of Martha -- did not supplant previous views, but from the twelfth century onward it was to hold its own alongside the more traditional exaltation of the contemplative sister, Mary.

The final section of this essay, beginning with the late twelfth century and extending into the sixteenth century, begins with Joachim of Fiore, who not only found many different qualities for Mary and Martha to symbolize but linked them to other Biblical pairs, male as well as female. In contrast to Joachim, for whom Mary naturally enough represented the advanced "spiritual men" he foresaw, Innocent III was a vigorous proponent of Martha and the active life. But these differences marked only the beginning of a series of later medieval interpretations of the sisters that Constable traces, not only through texts, but also through graphic images, including a striking, late sixteenth-century painting by Guido Cagnacci portraying a half-naked Mary being rebuked by Martha for her vanity. (The book throughout is handsomely illustrated with black-and-white photos.) "Mary and Martha," Constable concludes, "meant different things to different people, and sometimes to the same person, but the variety of interpretations shows the power of men and women to find in the Bible a message that is true for themselves, and reflects the changing values of Christian thinkers and writers over the centuries." (p. 141)

The second and third essays follow the same general model as the first, both deploying a wide variety of sources with chronological divisions that highlight the role of the eleventh and twelfth century. The second essay, "The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ," traces the development of this ideal from a concentration on the divinity of Christ among the Church Fathers and in the early Middle Ages to an increasing insistence on Christ's humanity in the twelfth century and later. Neither of these ideals was, or could be, exclusive; but Constable skillfully develops his thesis, linking it to the changing image of the cross, seen as a symbol of power and later as a symbol of suffering, and more generally to the broader conception of Christ as severe and frightening judge and later as a suffering man on the cross. The third section of this essay narrows to consider this evolution as manifested in portrayals, literary and artistic, of Christ's body and, especially of his wounds and suffering, taken now as a model of suffering; while the fourth and final section of the essay follows the story out through the later Middle Ages and beyond, when Christ's injuries became increasingly a subject of popular devotion and artistic representation.

The final essay takes up the question of "The Orders of Society," approaching this topic with the mix of mainly monastic and clerical evidence used in the other studies. Constable is concerned not with the three orders as we usually think of them -- oratores, bellatores, laboratores --but rather to illustrate how variously conceived medieval society was. In the early Middle Ages, many writers arrived at other tripartite divisions, such as that of Isidore and others into clerics, monks, and laity; whatever divisions were adopted, moreover, were often explicated by means of Biblical examples rather than social commentary. Nor did authors necessarily confine themselves to a single set of variants; Constable mentions four partitions employed at different times by Bede alone (p. 274).

The eleventh and twelfth century saw a tendency to combine monks and priests into a single order -- a result, Constable suggests, of the increasing frequency for monks to take orders: one consequence was the frequent occurrence of bi- partite conceptions of society, lay and ecclesiastical. The schemes for describing the laity meanwhile proliferated, with ethical or spiritual, occupational, and social criteria being invoked in different contexts, and also growing more elaborate as writers divided their principal categories (whatever they were) into subcategories that acknowledged more comprehensively the roles of different social groups. New possible partitionings of society continued to be proposed until the end of the Middle Ages (and afterward of course); but writers rarely felt the need to engage or refute alternative conceptions to their own, reminding us that this discussion was more meditative than normative. An interesting appendix treats the various middle categories, variously referred to as mediocres, mediani, and medii; but although these "middle" groups were broad and amorphous like the modern American middle class, in other ways they remained distant from modern conceptions, as when Hostiensis placed the clergy in the middle between the laity and those in religious orders.

Constable himself laments that there was much material which he was not able to include. But one doubts that any reader will complain about the richness of the material discussed in these essays, which fully accomplish the author's goal of displaying the richness and variety of medieval culture.