Jo Ann McNamara

title.none: Aers and Staley, The Powers of the Holy (McNamara)

identifier.other: baj9928.9708.003 97.08.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jo Ann McNamara, City University of New York,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Aers, David and Lynn Staley. The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. 310. $45.00 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01541-1 (hb), 0-271-01542-X (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.08.03

Aers, David and Lynn Staley. The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. 310. $45.00 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01541-1 (hb), 0-271-01542-X (pb).

Reviewed by:

Jo Ann McNamara
City University of New York

The five essays (bounded by jointly written introduction and conclusion) that comprise "The Powers of the Holy" represent years of dialogue between the two literary critics, David Aers and Lynn Staley. It is this sense of common consideration of a complex set of problems that gives the book its underlying unity. The essays are tightly focussed on a group of writers working in England in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Both writers interpret some of the ideas of Julian of Norwich, the Wyclifites and Chaucer (with supporting evidence from Rolle, Hilton, Langland, Gower, and Kempe) in the context of contemporary power struggles. Aers places the resistance of Wyclif and his followers to the temporal power of the church in a larger debate concerning spiritual authority that also encompassed mystics like Julian. Staley's papers focus more closely on the political crises of the reign of Richard II linking Julian and Chaucer with other writers seeking a just order after the disasters of the Peasant Rebellion and the subsequent deposition and murder of the king. The essays are linked together by this common context though they do not pursue a consistent analysis of the power struggles of the age. Indeed, at the outset they resist a common definition of power itself, preferring to let its meaning reveal itself in a variety of dimensions. In contrast to the fluidity they allow themselves, I think they somewhat overstate the case that recent scholars have imposed too homogeneous a definition on fourteenth-century spirituality as expressed in eucharistic devotion and identification with the suffering body of Christ.

Each essay is an independent unit and, despite the efforts of both authors in the introduction and conclusion, they do not result in any unified thesis regarding the deployment of the powers of the holy in this period of political and religious crisis. Let me admit at the outset, that as a historian who is not very adept at the techniques of literary criticism, I cannot claim that I have successfully followed all the subtleties of their readings. The book is endlessly challenging in its details, if not always consistent in its conclusions. The writing of this review has stimulated me to think and re-think my reactions repeatedly and I expect that it will reward all of its readers in the same way.

Aers' devotes his three chapters to the concept of Christ's humanity, urging us to look beyond Caroline Bynum's thesis of female empowerment through identification with the crucified Christ. At least in fourteenth-century England (an area not covered by Bynum's sources), he feels that the eucharistic devotion associated with such women only validated the power of priests who orchestrated their self-mortification. In Aers' opinion, the adorable icon of the crucifix distracted the worshiper from Jesus, the revolutionary preacher executed by political and religious authorities. In contrast, he offers a Lollard spirituality which defined the humanity of Christ in terms of the revolutionary preacher espousing the cause of the powerless. Set in the context of the papal schism, Wyclif's denial of transubstantiation was directed at an erosion of clerical power in favor of a priesthood of believers. His followers, whose ideas form the focus of Aers' second chapter, sought to imitate Christ by non-violent acceptance of suffering as the penalty for resisting injustice while not exalting the suffering itself. Thus they constructed a more militant Christ whose triumphal resurrection affirmed his opposition to religious and secular authority. For roughly a quarter of a century, even moderate authors like Julian and Chaucer sought to reassert the Christian tradition of resistance to oppression. Both authors reveal a debate on the nature of power fueled by these historical events, a debate which involved considerable risk for its participants and ultimately ended with the early fifteenth century when a reconstituted church and state joined in the pursuit and destruction of heresy.

In their respective essays on Julian and Staley's essay on Chaucer, gender is used to interpret authorial strategies in resisting the dominant powers. Assuming that Julian was aware of traditions gendering writers male and readers female, Staley argues that over twenty years (1373-1393) she subtly shifted her own stance. In the Short Text, she identified with her female readers but in the Long Text she became the interpreter of her own experience, erasing all indicators of her sex. Aers, in a complementary but different reading, reveals Julian's redirection from the crucified to the risen Jesus, an identification with a more masculine God which enabled her to incorporate feminine characteristics into a masculine level of power. Both authors thus ultimately reject modern readings of Julian's representation of God as mother, the feminized Christ, in favor of a complex image of motherhood as an intrinsic aspect of parenthood: the power of motherhood as a source of wisdom and mercy. Staley sees Julian as "less interested in gender than in the office attached to gender (p. 174)."

Both authors agree that Julian rejected the "feminine" spirituality that dominated the age, claiming a masculine (though masked) teaching role and incorporating feminine imagery into a "masculine" power structure. Staley goes on to argue in her second chapter that, as Julian sought to divert attention from her sex, Chaucer, also sociologically "feminine" in his dependence on patrons and his general powerlessness, took the personae of powerless and humble women to defuse his own political criticism. A close reading of his version of the Legend of Saint Cecilia, the Tale of Melibee, and the story of Patient Griselda, reveals his identification with women who used their own weakness to criticize abusive authority, coopting a Christ-like persona to strengthen their opposition. Both authors, in Staley's view, subtly cloak themselves in divine authority to deliver their respective political messages. Both authors argue for the benevolence of legitimate authority modeled on a loving god's care for a feminized humanity.

It must by now be evident that I found the introduction of gender as an analytical tool in these essays to be as fluid as the authors' definition of power. Indeed, ultimately I found the imprecision profoundly troubling. It works best in concrete instances where the respective authors themselves take on gendered personae or employ gendered imagery. Characterization of the vernacular as "feminine" (associated with the carnal, the imprecise, and the wayward) against the "masculinity" of Latin and the disciplines it expressed, may shed some light on Julian's problem as a female interpreter of theological material. But it lingers in the mind as an impossible stumbling block to Staley's further discussion of Chaucer's strategies as translator and female voice. Again, the perception that fourteenth century critics gendered Richard II's court "feminine" or blamed his failure to deal with the social upheavals of his reign on "feminine" weakness and lack of discipline does not seem to enhance a discussion of Chaucer's use of feminine personae to criticize abusive authority. Looking over the work as a whole, I am reluctantly moved to suggest that gender did not prove to be a very useful instrument and I am moved to urge readers to give some rigorous thought to the way in which we characterize abstract concepts and institutions or how we can systematically interpret the imagery of our subjects.

The problem of gender is most slippery and treacherous in Aers' analysis of the concept of Christ's humanity. The devotion to the crucified body that Bynum characterized as feminine is stripped of its empowering virtue in his scenario of clerical cooptation. Moreover, since the women Bynum studied did not inhabit late fourteenth century England, their loyalty to the established church and their eagerness to share in its deployment of spiritual power are not addressed. He places the Wyclifites and even Julian of Norwich in quite a different conceptual universe which, by implication, seems to be classified as masculine. Let me be clear: Aers is far too subtle and careful to produce grotesque stereotypes of feminine victimization and masculine resistance. Nor does he ever classify the role of persecutor by gender. There are no defenders of the power structure among the writers that Aers and Staley discuss (or at least none of these writers are cast in that light). But somehow these ancient stereotypes lie like rocks beneath the flow of their readings, threatening the buoyancy of the entire argument. It may be my own shortcomings as a reader that led me constantly to extend their gender imagery beyond the limits of their own discussion. But as I understand our sophisticated modern principles, this reader response must be regarded as part of the whole process of analysis.

As a historian, I have nothing but praise for the rigor with which both authors set this literature into a firm historical context. The political debate they elicit from so broad a variety of sources is persuasive and so is their decoding of the various devices that some of the authors used to protect themselves in a dangerous atmosphere. I applaud their introduction of gender into the complexities of the debate even where I find it distracting or possibly even counter- productive. Concentrating on the debate, however, they avoid offering any conclusions regarding its sad results. I could not avoid the impression that the powers of the holy in the late fourteenth century in England were already so reduced even before the brutal Lancastrian legislation was passed that they could offer nothing to their proponents but hope for a better world elsewhere. Wyclifite resistance to the dominant ecclesiastical power ended with the dispersal and burning of his followers. Julian's elaborate strategies enabled her to have her say without being punished, but they also ensured that no effective resistance to an abusive power structure would coalesce around her. Chaucer's postures were so subtle that few readers, even now, have even deciphered his political message. Scholars of late antiquity have shown that holiness did constitute power in an age when the state had broken down and the church was yet to be erected. Bynum showed that it still endowed certain women with a sense of power over their own bodies and even over select congregations of admirers elsewhere in late fourteenth-century Europe. Aers and Staley convinced me that a generation of English writers tried to use an alternative set of symbols and devotions in defense of the powerless. They failed, however, to prevent the rising secular state from coopting the weakening church in a common drive to crush dissent. In the end, "the Powers of the Holy" appear to have been dismally inadequate to avert the victory of the pomps and princes of this world.