Elaine E. Whitaker

title.none: Delany, Impolitic Bodies (Whitaker)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.011 99.08.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elaine E. Whitaker, University of Alabama at Birmingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England. The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxfo rd University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 236. $45.00 HB 0-195-10988-0. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-195-10989-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.11

Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England. The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxfo rd University Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 236. $45.00 HB 0-195-10988-0. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-195-10989-9.

Reviewed by:

Elaine E. Whitaker
University of Alabama at Birmingham

In her most recent work, Sheila Delany brings to our attention a little-known Augustinian friar from East Anglia. Delany's second subtitle, The Work of Osbern Bokenham, most accurately describes her book. By its conclusion, one has a working knowledge of an individual translator, situated in the generation after Chaucer and responding not only to Chaucer's work but to the politics of the times. Delany also contextualizes her translation of Bokenham's A Legend of Holy Women (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, the inaugural volume of Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture) and the text she translated (Mary S. Serjeantson's edition of MS Arundel 327, EETS O.S. 206, published in 1938 and reprinted in 1971). In her 1992 translation of the legendary, Delany turned Bokenham's late Middle English poetry into late twentieth-century prose: in Impolitic Bodies, she has translated fifteenth-century sensibilities into late twentieth-century terms.

Delany's new books contains her promised "fuller discussion" of "the structural alignment of Bokenham's hagiography with Chaucer's Legend" (p. xxiii of her earlier translation). As one would surmise, Delany became interested in Bokenham's legendary as a result of her distinguished work with Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Thus, she repeatedly relates her reading of Bokenham to her reading of Chaucer, so that Impolitic Bodies also functions as a study in reception theory.

Impolitic Bodies simultaneously and convincingly answers the questions "Who was Bokenham?" and "Why should we care?" Delany's introductory chapter furnishes basic information that makes Impolitic Bodies accessible to undergraduates and general readers. Chapters Two and Three synopsize what is known or relevant about Bokenham's life, work, and world, creating a picture of the times as Osbern Bokenham would have experienced them.

In addition to describing Bokenham and his work, Delany creates a tripartite bio-architecture that serves as scaffolding for her larger arguments about the structure of Bokenham's legendary and about post-Chaucerian England in general. This architecture gives the book its title: Impolitic Bodies. Bodies themselves are of three types: the body or "corpus of . . . texts," the "female body" that is Bokenham's subject matter, and the "body politic" (p. 4). The books' nine chapters break into three groups of three, with the central group arguing that the structural arrangement of Bokenham's legendary can be seen in terms of body parts: Chapter Four for "Head, Feet, Face, Womb," Chapter Five for "Tongue, Mouth, Language," and Chapter Six for (Breast, Genital, Gut, and All." Chapters Seven and Eight follow on with "The Body Politic" and "Sexual-Textual Politics." These chapters contextualize the materials of the legendary as they relate to Bokenham's contemporaries and as they might shape the reception of Chaucerian and other texts. Finally, Delany's concluding chapter is largely a personal meditation on the meaning of these materials to their late twentieth-century author.

In some ways, reading Impolitic Bodies frustrated my sense of time and timing. First, in terms of publication time, the preponderance of work on Impolitic Bodies appears to have occurred in 1993 and earlier, though its bibliography contains a few 1994 and 1995 publication dates. Second, Delany's translations into today's English remove alterity, even though I applaud them as a means of making Bokenham's legendary and related documents available to a wider audience. Third, I am frustrated by a writing style that lacks or delays overt connection of evidence to a thesis or topic sentence. I found myself thinking, "That's interesting. What does it prove?" Readers more prescient than I may find this stylistic trait intriguing--like reading a mystery and trying to outguess the detective. That said, Sheila Delany's integrity as a scholar handling previously overlooked information is clear, and her work deserves our attention.