Carolyn Muessig

title.none: Suydam and Zeigler, eds., Performance and Transformation (Muessig)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.012 01.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carolyn Muessig , University of Bristol,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Suydam, Mary and Joanna Zeigler. Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 364. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-21281-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.12

Suydam, Mary and Joanna Zeigler. Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 364. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-21281-X.

Reviewed by:

Carolyn Muessig
University of Bristol

This book consists of eleven articles and an introduction by Joanna E. Ziegler. The introduction clarifies the focus of the book as a study of medieval mystics "as performers, actors and dancers--in short, as artists who performed their mysticism". (xiii) Ziegler explains that the volume attempts to thwart the common tendency to label mystical behavior as bizarre. This is done by reconstructing the Sitz im Leben of the mystic. By recapturing the "mystical and devotional actions" (xv) of the mystic, Performance and Transformation puts forward the argument that a mystic is not a troubled or deranged soul, but a person who has been transformed by a series of experiences. (xv) Once these experiences are clarified, the mystic although unusual is better understood and hence less likely to be classified as a "sick soul". Ziegler also stresses that within this mystical performance of transformation there is an audience which is edified by the mystic. Hence, mysticism has a communal dimension.

The contributors to the volume cover the late medieval period and a wide geographical expanse which includes England, the Low Countries, Germany, France, Spain and Sweden. The tableau of mystical performance which they analyze is based upon the methodological theory known as performance studies. Mary A. Suydam in her article "Background: An Introduction to Performance Studies" succinctly highlights various scholars who have contributed to this newly defined discipline; these scholars include Victor and Edith Turner, Richard Schechner, Ronald Grimes and Mircea Eliade, just to name a few. Appropriating some of the approaches found in anthropology, ritual studies, theater studies and feminist studies and reforming them to create a new approach, the contributors set out to unlock the performative dimension of medieval mystics and their audiences. Suydam states that the aim of performance studies is "to highlight action, space, emotion and sensory dimensions rather than intellectual content of the ritual text". (2)

Catherine Muller, in her contribution "How to Do Things with Mystical Language: Marguerite d'Oignt's Performative Writing", places the emphasis on writing as a form of performance. By analyzing Marguerite's Pagina Meditationum and Letters, Muller argues that Marguerite empowers "those who hear, read and meditate upon her words". (39) Keeping on the theme of writing as form of performance, Laurie A. Finke examines the fifteenth-century English translation by a Carthusian monk of Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. Finke deftly demonstrates how the English translation interacts with the original French text. The Carthusian translator attempts not only to translate but to control and to mediate a text which he at once found compelling and doctrinally problematic.

Claire L. Sahlin in "Preaching and Prophesying: The Public Proclamation of Birgitta of Sweden's Revelations" moves away from the written performance to the spoken performance. She presents a fascinating account of how Birgitta, a woman who did not have the right to preach, could make her words heard through her "faithful mouthpieces", that is, the Swedish clergy. Nanda Hoppenwasser in her depiction of another late medieval mystic argues that Margery Kempe was a type of performance artist who created her religious persona in the Book of Margery Kempe.

Robert Sweetman examines the ways in which the Dominican preacher and hagiographer Thomas of Cantimpre interpreted text. Depending on the function of the text, Thomas of Cantimpre would adopt the appropriate ecclesiastical persona becoming exorcist, priest, or scholastic. Reading hence was not a static event, but one which could elicit different performances.

The remaining chapters focus more on the actual interaction between mystic, audience, and ritual. In "Beguine Textuality: Sacred Performances," Mary A. Suydam investigates the communal dimension of beguine spirituality. She argues that beguines "were not passive recipients of divine favor, but active participants who created sacred performances that transformed both themselves and others". (196) At the center of this performance are beguine spiritual texts. Suydam convincingly demonstrates that mystical texts which depict ecstatic performances were not fixed in time; rather the texts were re- interpreted and sometimes re-enacted by later generations of beguines. Picking up on this theme of mystical re-enactment, Rosemary Drage Hale analyzes the Revelations of the Dominican nun Margaretha Ebner. Hale highlights the highly performative spirituality found in fourteenth-century German Dominican nunneries. Nuns like Margaretha would cuddle, breastfeed, and pamper effigies of the human Christ-child. This imitatio Mariae could influence the performer and the audience to have a deeper understanding of Mary and Christ.

In William F. Hodapp's "Ritual and Performance in Richard Rolle's Passion Meditation B", the performative nature of prayer is examined. Hodapp persuasively argues that a performance of Rolle's Meditation B was the main aspect of its devotional function. Based on a close analysis of the text he explains that the individual when reading Meditation B "can enter into a devotional monologue with Jesus and ritually recover and repeat the sacred time and space of his passion". (262)

In Mary E. Giles "Spanish Visionary Women: The Paradox of Performance," attention is given to late medieval mysticism in Spain. The absorbing cases of the mystics Madre Juana, a tertiary Franciscan, and Sor Maria of Santo Domingo, a tertiary Dominican, are compared and carefully analyzed. Relying on the works of Victor Turner and William Dilthey, Giles maintains that these two women were quite different mystical performers, and their performances had a great impact on their hagiographical destinies.

The final article examines a case of mystical performance par excellence. Susan Rodgers, a cultural anthropologist, and Joanna E. Ziegler, an art historian, combine forces to study the mystic Elisabeth of Spalbeek. This thirteenth-century beguine was famous in her day for acting out Christ's passion in her local church. Her oft-repeated dance was documented by Philip of Clairvaux in 1267. Based on a close reading of Philip's text and applying performance theory to Elisabeth's dance of the passion, Rodgers and Ziegler have reconstructed elements of what they "speculate to have been her conceptualization of self, divinity, and architecture". (340)

The scope and detail of the articles make a significant contribution to the study of medieval mysticism. However, while all the articles are germane to the study of mysticism, some more than others fit more directly into the scope of performance studies. The articles which deal with the more introspective "performances" of writing and reading appear to fall into the category of literary theory and hence outside the theater of performance. But those articles which are concerned with outward displays of devotion and ritual rely more explicitly on the various theories which make up performance studies. Furthermore, in regard to performance studies as applied to the Middle Ages, it surprising not to find in this volume an analysis of the place and role of liturgy in medieval culture. An in-depth consideration of the role of liturgy would have clarified and further "demystified" the various practices in which mystics engaged. Regardless of these criticisms, the editors should be commended for providing an introduction and background which offers a synthesis of the aims of the book and a summary of the methodologies involved. Moreover, their enterprise to investigate the medieval religious imagination has reaped fruitful results. With the resources that performance theory has to offer, the contributors have breathed life into the mystics under investigation.