Andrew G. Traver

title.none: Hirsh, The Boundaries of Faith (Traver)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.008 98.02.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andrew G. Traver, Southeastern Louisiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Hirsh, John C. The Boundaries of Faith: the Development and Transmission of Medieval Spirituality. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. xii, 189. $77.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10428-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.08

Hirsh, John C. The Boundaries of Faith: the Development and Transmission of Medieval Spirituality. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. xii, 189. $77.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10428-3.

Reviewed by:

Andrew G. Traver
Southeastern Louisiana University

Hirsh's work, The Boundaries of Faith: The Development and Transmission of Medieval Spirituality, contains a collection of nine loosely connected chapters or "spiritual case studies," two of which (3 and 5) have been previously printed in a modified format. Although only 171 pages of printed text, this study has as an ambitious scope: to explore the development and transmission of medieval religious faith between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries. Hirsh himself explains that the work is only intended to present exempla and explorations of medieval spirituality. These exempla are usually text-based, focusing primarily, but by no means exclusively, on faith within the context of the Middle English literary tradition.

In the Introduction, Hirsh admits the difficulty of his task. He first raises several essential questions to attaining his goal: Can one delineate "the boundaries" of something as free of constraint as faith? Can faith be discussed? Can it be recorded? and Can its transmission be understood?

After detailing these dilemmas, Hirsh proceeds to define faith. He offers a lengthy definition from the Oxford English Dictionary but then hones in on his particular focus. Faith, Hirsh argues, is a social, not a personal aspect, which is manifested in action, not in reflection. Moreover, it involves trust and confidence in others. Hirsh continues, "[Faith] is not merely a habit of mind . . . nor does it simply call forth a response from the will. Rather . . . it is itself that response: indeed it can be seen to be the first of many actions in which it issues" (5). These actions, along with the individual and social means by which faith engages others, form the crux of Hirsh's study of medieval spirituality.

After describing faith, Hirsh explains that he has narrowed his focus to the "boundaries of faith" -- both internal and external -- because, as he asserts, frontiers are usually identifiable and it is usually on these frontiers that religious attitudes become most apparent. These frontiers or boundaries of spirituality, however, neither exist between the spirit and the world nor between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Rather, the boundaries which Hirsh studies "exist between and among persons as they define their lives and consider their ends. They are concerned primarily with values and attitudes . . . as they manifest themselves in the programs of action which make up human life" (9).

In the Introduction, Hirsh identifies three major themes present within the following chapters. First, the ways in which spirituality is rooted in religious persons, not in texts or practices; second, the interaction of gender to spirituality (as exemplified extensively in The Book of Margery Kempe); and third, the relationship of mysticism to spirituality. Hirsh then divides his nine case studies into four categories, though oddly enough, his chapters do not follow this systematic order. Two chapters (1 and 6) deal with prayer and meditation; two more (4 and 5) treat gender; chapters 2 and 3 contain a study of sources which contribute to a text's spirituality, and the final three chapters explore modern parallels to medieval religious attitudes.

Chapter 1, entitled "The Origin of Affective Devotion" looks at individual relationships to God based on structural formulations in prayers. In this chapter, Hirsh pinpoints two areas in which the transition from traditional communal prayer to individual affective prayer can be seen. First, he examines the prayerbook of Archbishop Arnulf II of Milan (London, British Library, Egerton 3763), copied sometime around 1000. Hirsh finds that although this prayerbook descended from earlier more traditional ones, it "suggests a conscious effort to engage deeply the individual reader in his prayer and devotion" seen most clearly in the internal organization of the matter (17). Hirsh then examines the manuscript transmission of the prayer to the Virgin Singularis Meriti between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to demonstrate how textual changes indicated a movement towards affective piety. Hirsh discovers that the trend manifested itself in three ways: 1) the later texts emphasized a greater distance between Mary and the suppliant; 2) they accentuated the penitent's personal actions and responsibility (meis iniquitatibus became meis actibus) and they emphasized the role of Mary as the intercessor between God and mankind (by the inclusion of the phrase et intercessionibus).

Chapter 2, "Buddhism and Spirituality in Medieval England" examines the Buddhist sources for three Middle English texts Barlam and Iosophat, the morality play Everyman, and Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. In this chapter, Hirsh examines the aspects of Eastern Buddhism that influenced the West and discusses their transmission -- both written and oral. Chapter 3 examines the ways the divine is represented in the three texts Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, Havelock, and the Middle English Lay de Freine.

Chapter 4 asks the question whether the "Book of Margery Kempe is a Feminist Text." After examining different aspects of feminist thought, and employing the idea of patriarchy, Hirsh concludes that for Margery, like St. Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich, "gender was not an ultimate category of definition, but one of the most important which they encountered in the course of a complicated struggle, one which was at once spiritual and secular" (75-6). Chapter 5 compliments 4, but should perhaps have preceded it, by examining feminism and spirituality in Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale.

Chapter 6, entitled "Christ's Blood" explores the sacred blood as an object of devotion. Here Hirsh traces the scriptural origins of the devotion, examines the literary tradition of the sacred blood (especially in fifteenth-century England), and explores the origin of its cultus (especially at Hayles Abbey).

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 provide modern parallels to medieval mysticism. In Chapter 7, Hirsh compares Richard Rolle to the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff; Chapter 8 examines the arma Christi (the instruments of Christ's Passion) and compares them with iconography in inner-city America (guns, police). Chapter 9 entitled, "The New World", examines the Franciscan missionary experience in sixteenth- century Mexico and discusses the development of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, using it as a case study for New World spirituality.

What Hirsh has produced is an unusually well written and insightful work about various aspects of medieval spirituality. His chapter on Buddhism and late medieval English spirituality provides a well researched and splendidly detailed case analysis of Eastern religion influence on the West. However, the main problem with this study -- if it can be considered to be a problem -- is that Hirsh intended to offer a series of exempla. While his examples and presentation of medieval faith-in-action are thorough, since they are merely exempla it is difficult to see the text as a coherent whole. The overall structure of the work seems a bit forced and the Introduction and the Conclusion almost appear to be an afterthought. Perhaps the individual chapters would have been better served if they were published as separate articles rather than included in a single monograph.