contributor.author: Karen Jolly

title.none: Lees, Tradition and Belief (Karen Jolly)

identifier.other: baj9928.0110.017 01.10.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Karen Jolly, University of Hawaii at Manoa, kjolly@hawaii.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Lees, Clare. Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Medieval Cultures Vol 19. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 232. 19.95. ISBN: 0-816-63003-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.10.17

Lees, Clare. Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Medieval Cultures Vol 19. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. vi, 232. 19.95. ISBN: 0-816-63003-8.

Reviewed by:

Karen Jolly
University of Hawaii at Manoa
kjolly@hawaii.edu

In Tradition and Belief, Clare Lees offers us a new way to read late Anglo-Saxon religious prose and in so doing causes us to rethink the production of culture in any society. Her book represents an astute combination of cultural studies and textual analysis designed to broaden the usefulness of studying early medieval religious texts, while simultaneously inculcating some newer theories of cultural analysis into Anglo-Saxon studies.

Thus the audience for this volume bridges two groups often found in political tension within U.S. English departments, those engaged in post-modern cultural studies, frequently with a contemporary focus, and those engaged in more "traditional" textual studies, particularly Anglo-Saxonists focused on language and source studies. That Lees succeeds in bringing these two forces together in mutual benefit goes a long way toward healing this unnecessary division. Given this dual audience, the reading experience will vary accordingly. Contemporary theorists will be impressed by Lees' development and application of cultural studies, while gaining an appreciation for historic texts and their traditional formulation. Anglo-Saxonists unused to this style of discourse may find the theory heavy going in the initial sections, but will be rewarded with close and convincing analyses of Anglo- Saxon prose texts in the main sections of the chapters.

For a slim volume, Lees sets up a powerful agenda, bringing cultural analysis to bear on a traditional field of study, late Anglo-Saxon vernacular preaching, often untouched by such analysis. Lees seeks to overcome two major barriers to a broader study of Old English religious prose. One barrier is within the literature field, in the canon of poetic texts that often take precedence over the seemingly repetitive and derivative vernacular religious prose tradition and the belief structure it supports. Second, much of the textual work and source study necessary for an understanding of these religious texts has limited the audience to a small circle of those so trained, and has left the field isolated from larger theoretical movements in literary studies. Lees remedies this by asserting that the "commonplace" nature of these religious texts is, first of all, a vital part of the literary tradition of Anglo-Saxon England, and second that this genre is best understood in light of broader social constructs using theories of cultural formation. This approach allows her to speak, then, of a "conscious aesthetics of salvation". (xi) By highlighting the aesthetic and cultural meaning of repetition-- evident for example in the centrality of the liturgy in religious practice--Lees brings us within an early medieval sensibility often opaque to modern readers. In the process, she demonstrates how an Anglo-Saxon Christian cultural identity came to be self-consciously formulated in and through traditional beliefs and religious instruction.

The theoretical underpinnings for this study of traditionality as a cultural phenomenon are laid out in the Introduction ("Culture and Belief") and Chapter 1 ("Tradition, Literature, History"). The approach is interdisciplinary, combining religion, literature, and history, but is primarily aimed at forcing the literature field to take religion and history seriously. (10-11) The theory she deploys is rooted in Allen Frantzen's challenge to Anglo-Saxonists to move out of source- based analysis into studies of culture and power, although Lees herself is careful to acknowledge the success and necessity of source study methodology. The cultural studies framework is the British Birmingham school prominent in literary studies, rather than the Annales school tradition used in historical circles or models from post-Geertzian cultural anthropology. Specifically, Lees adopts the neo-Marxist cultural materialism of Raymond Williams in order to examine "Anglo-Saxon Christian cultural production". (15) In doing so, she chastises the proponents of this approach for being so obsessively focused on contemporary societies that they are blind to religious belief as a significant factor. This secular mentality creates unnatural divides between aesthetics, belief, and historical context. In supporting a more holistic critical analysis, Lees likewise encourages literary scholars sensitive to early medieval religious belief to consider the benefits of a more historically rooted analysis of material culture and political power. For a historian, this argument for more history in literature and cultural studies seems self-evident and hence belabored in chapter 1, but perhaps is the product of the literary studies audience envisioned by Lees.

As her title emphasizes, both tradition and belief are essential components to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture that have been underrated by literary scholars and cultural theorists. Lees succeeds in redressing this imbalance in the subsequent four chapters, in which she puts theory into practice. In building on, and moving away from, source analysis, Lees emphasizes the performative aspects of late Anglo-Saxon vernacular religious texts, valorizing their repetitions of earlier patristic materials as iterations in a process of forming a uniquely Anglo-Saxon Christian identity. Unsurprisingly, Aelfric, and Wulfstan to a lesser extent, looms large in this study of homilies, sermons, and saint's lives, since he is the dominant author of this genre and time, and as Lees sees him, the self-conscious creator both of this tradition and of the cultural identity it produces (see p. 154). Yet because she proceeds topically in the chapters, the texts of these two reformers are embedded as examples in a larger analysis of the historical conditions of which they are both product and agent.

Chapter 2, "Aesthetics and Belief: Aelfric's False Gods", explores Anglo-Saxon Christian ethnogenesis, giving particular credit to Aelfric for developing a hybrid theory of origins in a critical period of Anglo-Saxon history, the late tenth century. (64) Lees makes a useful and insightful connection between the poetic and prose canons by comparing elegies and homilies as twin means of defining communal identity: "The homilietic voice is the authoritative and universal 'we'--the pluralized voice of the preacher" versus the "fragmented, experiential voices of the elegies" whose protagonists find meaning by becoming "subsumed into this 'we'"; both forms of expression reveal how "Christian identity subsumes and resituates ethnic identity". (51) A distinctive Christian aesthetic thus cuts across prose and poetic traditions. (52) The cultural materialism of Lees' theoretical framework is significantly enhanced by her willingness to take religious belief seriously, recognizing its intentionality rather than seeing it as a byproduct or tool of power: "the cultural intent of this aesthetic...is to generate both worship and understanding". (55) In using this aesthetic as a measure of success, Lees favors Aelfric over Wulfstan, commenting that the disinterested and distant tone in the latter's De falsis deis signals a failure to engage his audience. (74-75) In framing Aelfric as a historian, Lees is able to show how, for all its universalizing of tradition and transcendent belief structure, Aelfric's agenda is indeed local and particular, very much the product of his historical moment.

Chapter 3, "Conventions of Time in the Old English Homiletic Corpus", takes on the problem of how a genre so steeped in tradition and universalizing in its sweep can have any direct relevance to the historical present. Lees argues cogently that "to view these strategies [lack of specificity, the eternal present of salvation history] as traditional and therefore atemporal is to misread the transformative power of belief in late Anglo-Saxon England". (93) Thus she argues for "the past in the present" in Aelfric's Lives of the Saints (pp. 93-101) and "reinventing tradition" in Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi (pp. 101-5). Lees' insights into the relations between the two authors (pp. 104-5) and her comparison of their strategies is compelling: "Wulfstan works from present situation to past analogy, which fortifies his reading of the present; by contrast Aelfric works firmly within the ideals of the past that imply the present". (103) In Aelfric's hands, the universal truth of salvation history becomes a tool for shaping Anglo-Saxon Christian identity in the present.

Chapter 4, "Didacticism and the Christian Community: The Teachers and the Taught", goes beyond the intentions of the authors to explore reception and popular culture. In addressing the "golden age" of homiletic didacticism in late Saxon England, Lees tackles two larger connected issues in medieval studies, that of the "formation of a persecuting society" as outlined by R. I. Moore and the notion of the "rise of the individual" propounded by Colin Morris (pp. 107-8). Both of these lines of argument are usually associated with the post-Anglo-Saxon period, but Lees asserts that late Anglo-Saxon England is "located at the intersection of [these] two contrasting narratives" and points us toward the "roles of conflict and of social power in producing cultural syncretism". (108) What Lees succeeds at in this chapter is showing the dynamic and complex relationship between the individual or "subject" and the community in a period when communal identity was the dominant mode of identity construction. In examining didacticism as a tool of instruction by those in power, she highlights the centrality of religious meaning and "the spiritual power of language". (121) Lees uses Aelfric's First Series Homily on the Circumcision to explore popular religion and to show how homiletic teaching "situates the individual in relation to truth and, as a result, produces the Christian subject in terms of a communal identity". (115) This analysis works very well for articulating the role of Aelfric (and in some respects Wulfstan) in the construction of a narrowly and rigidly defined orthodoxy, but perhaps underestimates the diversity and dominance of Anglo-Saxon Christian beliefs and practices beyond the sight lines of these two reformers (see pp. 116-17). Nonetheless, the conclusion of the chapter offers a powerful corrective to the widespread notion that early medieval communal and ritual behavior, in subjugating the individual, lacks interiority: "to argue that there is no interiority in the Anglo-Saxon period is to argue that the language of sin and virtue resists internalization". (132) Rather than seeing this period as the foil against which the later rise of the individual stands out, Lees shows how Anglo- Saxon Christianity sets the preconditions for the rise of the individual.

In Chapter 5, "Chastity and Charity: Aelfric, Women, and the Female Saints", Lees analyzes a cross section of this Christian community using gender as a framework. She begins with the notion that the "Christian as universal and transcendental...is implicitly masculine" (p. 133; cf. p. 143), but that all references to marriage relations are unmarked references to female bodies and not male bodies. (136-8, 147) The justification for the dominance of this view is found in the male monastic context of the Benedictine reform with its separation of sexes and emphasis on clerical celibacy, accompanied by a devaluation of female houses. (134) Ultimately, Lees moves beyond the constrictions of this binary view, arguing that the masculinist model is secondary in the "spiritual economy of chastity" (146) where chastity as sacrifice is part of a gift exchange relationship. In her reading of Aelfric's First Series homily on the Purification of Mary, Lees argues that the narrative pattern moves from an emphasis on a woman (and hence markedly female concerns) to a universal application for all Christians that Lees interprets as requiring masculinization in the process. (139-40). But Lees' gift exchange argument regarding chastity works just as well if one reads the homily's female role models (Mary and Anna) as directly representative of the universal Christian, the feminine soul. Thus while in some cases, "the embodied spiritual struggles of the female saint transform male and female" (148), in other cases this saintly transcendence of gender is undercut by the notion that these female lives, by remaining essentially examples of the feminine, are applicable only to the female nature of women and thus are in conflict with a universalized Christian identity. (150-51) Lees concludes this intriguing analysis with the remark that we need more analysis of the complex relations between ideology and cultural practice. I would add also that more study is needed of the associations between woman/female/feminine, man/male/masculine, and their relation to universal constructs of soul and body.

The brief conclusion to the volume suggests other areas for further research, for example, the role of liturgy. (155) Most of all, though, Lees encourages us to explore new approaches in order to understand the cultural power and the "dynamic network of interconnecting practices and discourses" that made up Anglo-Saxon society. Her book does an admirable job of setting us on these new paths. Anglo-Saxon studies needs more interdisciplinary work of this kind that can synthesize focused textual analyses within broader theoretical frameworks.