Rachel Fulton

title.none: Ellington, From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul (Rachel Fulton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.008 02.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Rachel Fulton, The University of Chicago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Spivey Ellington, Donna. From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 284. ISBN: 0813210143.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.08

Spivey Ellington, Donna. From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 284. ISBN: 0813210143.

Reviewed by:

Rachel Fulton
The University of Chicago

Why is it so difficult for historians to write about Mary? I wanted to say "write well," but I think the problem goes deeper than the admitted merit of much current work. It is not just that there are few scholarly monographs on the medieval or early modern devotion to Mary (a scarcity Ellington attributes to the richness and complexity of the Marian cult itself); it is that so often what work has been done scarcely engages with devotion to Mary at all. If for Anselm of Canterbury, it was impossible to praise Mary enough--"Nihil aequale Mariae, nihil nisi deus maius Maria"--more recent scholars (at least among medievalists) have been reluctant to say anything about her at all, almost as if to admit interest in Mary to the same degree as in Christ or the saints were somehow embarrassing or, worse, not really scholarly. To give but one example, in her review of Gabriela Signori's otherwise illuminating book on the collections of miracle stories made for eight medieval Marian shrines, Amy Remensnyder [Speculum 74.4 (1999): 1123-25] poses a "somewhat uncomfortable question" that Signori says one of her readers asked her: "How Marian were these shrines really?" Signori's reply--that they were Marian because Mary and not another saint happened to be their patron-- speaks, I think, directly to the reticence in the scholarship to engage with the cult as Marian.

In such a climate, any work on Mary is extremely welcome, particularly for the later Middle Ages where thus far the greater contributions to our understanding of medieval religion have been made through studies of devotion to Christ and the saints, with Mary playing only bit parts (when she appears at all). When I first learned of Donna Spivey Ellington's work (through her article in Renaissance Quarterly 48 [1995]: 227-61) on the late medieval and early modern devotion to Mary, I was therefore very excited. Her focus--on the sermon literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries--seemed a promising one, and her interest in the doctrinal as well as the cultural significance of the cult--in particular, the late medieval importance of Mary's body and the shift in emphasis following the Protestant reform from her body to her soul--suggested a desire to engage with the cult as itself an agent in the great transformation that overtook European Christian culture at the transition from the medieval to the modern age. Whether this was in fact Ellington's intention (I may have been reading more into her article than she wanted to say), I was disappointed to find that it is not in fact borne out in her book--like the article, a revision of the work that she did for her dissertation (Duke University, 1991), and again like the article, largely focused on the writings of some dozen or so Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit preachers active throughout Europe over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As declared in her preface, Ellington's broader purpose in writing the book was to make sense of "some of the massive changes occurring in religious perception in late medieval and early modern Europe," most particularly the shift from "the material, concrete devotional forms so popular in the Middle Ages" toward a "more inward piety" (p. vii). Being itself one of the most prominent elements of this devotional culture, the cult of the Virgin Mary seemed a suitable point of entry to its complexities, for, Ellington says she reasoned, whatever changes visible in the way in which the preachers described Mary should themselves reflect the changes taking place in the culture at large. And indeed, this is what Ellington found: a shift in the approach to communication (one of Ellington's principal heuristics is the shift in standards of literacy with the invention of printing) and religion "mirrored precisely in the Marian sermons of the day" (p. 201). It is difficult to say how deeply disappointing I found this "reflective" approach to the importance of the cult of the Virgin. To learn that the late medieval devotion to Mary is worth our attention as historians because it was "representative of the kinds of religious devotion with which late medieval Christians were familiar" (p. 98) and that what changes we can see in perceptions of the Virgin "were due, in large part, to much broader changes within European Christianity and society as a whole" (p. 244) is--or so it seems to me--simply to beg the question with which we began. How do we account for changes in devotion if they are always already (as Ellington's argument seems to me to suggest) simply reflections of transformations in "society as a whole?" Are changes in devotion never in fact creative of that society and its cultural forms?

A more specific example may be useful here. One of Ellington's central claims is that over the course of the sixteenth century "European religion began to become less centered on concrete manifestations of the holy and more concerned with inward religious experience" (p. viii). Her principal support for this claim is not, however, the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sermon literature that provides the bulk of her primary evidence, but rather, the assumption that the increase in literacy attendant upon the origin of printing (itself arguable) was accompanied not only by an "increased reliance on sight and visual awareness" (p. 201; cf. p. 126) but also by a "more spiritualized understanding of the faith" (p. 20). Certainly, the sixteenth-century sermons may be read as promoting such an increased insistence on the importance of inner belief, but it is unclear from this perspective how exactly Ellington's claim that late medieval religion was focused more on the body than on the interior self fits in when she argues that it was in fact listening to sermons (among other things) that promoted the medieval emphasis on the bodily--and on the interior self--in the first place: "Through the sounds of interactive speech, the body enabled persons to join their inmost selves, their ideas, thoughts, and feelings to the interior of another and to acquire knowledge of them" (p. 200). To be sure, Ellington is not the first to claim that late medieval religion or, more particularly, devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary was characterized by a greater emphasis on the concrete, incarnational, or material aspects of the faith, and that early modern religion was focused more on inner awareness, individualism, and introspection, nor, to be fair, does she simply reduce the transformation with which she is concerned to the effects of literacy (although literacy is one of her primary lenses). Neither, however (and this seems to me to be the principal problem), does she question its purported effects on the basis of the very literature--sermons--that she takes as her source. How, after all, is it possible to see an increase in self-awareness on the part of the laity more generally (as, I think, Ellington wants to suggest we should) when what in fact we are reading are texts intended--in some form or other--to be spoken publicly by the clergy? What of the fact, in other words, that the genre we are dealing with here has not changed whatever the changes in its content? (Which changes in content, to give Ellington's argument its due, she attributes to the increase in the literacy of the clergy, the effects of which were then communicated orally to the laity through preaching [p. 151].)

To argue that the shift in the image of Mary "from sacred body to angelic soul" can best be seen as one of the effects of printing is simply to skirt the issue, as Ellington herself to some degree admits ("More research will have to be done before any firm conclusions may be drawn about the place of Mary in the context of personal Catholic spirituality during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" [p. 250]). It is also--and this is the more serious concern--to assume along with Huizinga and a host of Protestant polemicists that the late medieval devotion to Mary in her maternal, fleshly compassion for her Son was in fact less "interior" than the early modern devotion to Mary in her humble obedience to the will of God. If one of the effects of late medieval preaching was to "manifest something of the interior thoughts and attitudes of [the preacher]" (p. 124) through his bodily gestures, surely the same would have been the case for the audience of an early modern preacher. Why, then, was the latter performance more likely to provoke reflection on the listeners' interior states? (It couldn't, at least not formally.) Nor is it possible to insist on a shift from a more sacramental, concretized medieval devotion to a more spiritual, literate early modern one if, in fact, as Ellington herself again notes, "even in an increasingly literate and interiorized society, speech is still the primary and most natural form of human communication; therefore, bodily presence represented by relics or even images would continue to be an important source of assurance [throughout the early modern period] that a saint [including Mary] was truly present and able to hear supplications" (p. 235). Adding the experience of confession, "a new stress on civility and manners," the Protestant challenge to the Marian cult, the post- Tridentine concern with "moral discipline," and "a general suspicion of the body generally, and of women's bodies specifically" (pp. 21, 147, and 250) only complicates the picture; it does not resolve the question of change--nor could it, when the result itself--"a more individualized and interiorized understanding of Christianity" (p. 243)--is so hard to locate along the spectrum of change. How, for example, did praying the Rosary, a practice intended, according to Ellington, "to cultivate among the people a more vital participation in personal and interior prayer" (p. 226), differ in its effects from the practice (not mentioned by Ellington [cf. p. 80]) of meditating on the life of Christ as encouraged from the thirteenth century by the Franciscans? Was the early modern practice truly more "interiorized" than the medieval?

And yet, without question, something in the devotional significance of Mary to Catholic Christians did change between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries--even if, in the seventeenth-century devotion to her Sacred Heart, there was apparently as much emphasis on physical changes in the hearts of her devotees as on their union in love with Mary and her Son (p. 262). What that change was is now--thanks to Ellington--relatively clear (the reader might also enjoy Sarah Jane Boss, Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary [London: Cassell, 2000] on this transformation). The question remains as to why it occurred. My sense is still that Ellington is on the right track--that the sermons are one of our best sources of evidence and that they must be read as witnesses to the shift. Perhaps a reading of the sermons that situated them more immediately in the life of the individual preachers (Bernardino of Siena, Bernardino of Busti, Johannes of Verden, Michel Menot, Olivier Maillard, Gabriel Barletta, Jean Gerson, Lawrence of Brindisi, Christopher Cheffontaines, Francis Panigarola, Peter Canisius, Robert Bellarmine, and Fran½ois de Sales) than according to a general doctrinal schema (Motherhood, Compassion, Intercession) would have illuminated the transformation, and thus its agents, more clearly. But this, of course, would have been to write a different book, and there is still much to commend in the present one--above all, its detailed summaries of the doctrinal and devotional arguments of the preachers themselves. If I am critical, it is only because the topic matters so very much, not only for my own work, but also, I think, for our understanding of the history of Christian devotion and religious life as a whole. If, as Anselm prayed, "Nothing equals Mary, nothing but God is greater than Mary," how would it be possible to ever say enough? Ellington has made an important beginning by pointing us to the richness and complexity of the late medieval and early modern devotion to Mary. The task now is to force ourselves to ask what it means without assuming that Mary was simply a mirror for what "really matters"--either (as for Signori) the sociopolitical significance of shrines and miracle collections or (as for Ellington) literacy and the (purported) increasing interiorization of the early modern self. I suspect we will be rather surprised at what we find.