contributor.author: Shannon Gayk

title.none: Dyas, Edden, and Ellis, eds., English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts (Shannon Gayk)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.017 06.10.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Shannon Gayk, Indiana University, shayk@indiana.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Dyas, Dee, Valerie Edden and Roger Ellis. Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts. Christianity and Culutre: Issues in Teaching and Reasearch, vol. 2. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 213. $90.00 (hb) 1-84384-049-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.17

Dyas, Dee, Valerie Edden and Roger Ellis. Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts. Christianity and Culutre: Issues in Teaching and Reasearch, vol. 2. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 213. $90.00 (hb) 1-84384-049-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Shannon Gayk
Indiana University
shayk@indiana.edu

Vernacular religious writing in medieval England is frequently addressed in scholarship, but little studied in undergraduate courses (excepting selections from the books of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe). The editors and contributors to Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts, the second volume in the Christianity and Culture: Issues in Teaching and Research series, seek to remedy this unbalance. As its inclusion in this series promises, the collection contains essays that speak to both classroom practices and scholarly research. This dual interest provides a loose (and frequently transgressed) structure for the volume's fourteen essays. Indeed, its neat division into three sections (a set of historical introductions; "Approaches to Scholarship"; and essays devoted specifically to teaching medieval religious texts) obscures the ways in which the essays themselves frequently reveal the fine line between pedagogical practice and scholarly process. The very essays that refuse to acknowledge a divide between the two realms of academic work make some of the most innovative claims about late medieval vernacular religious writing.

The opening section, "Anchoritism and Mysticism: Some Contexts," aims for synthesis rather than critical intervention, but I suspect most readers will find that its four survey essays provide valuable background materials for both teaching and research. E.A. Jones' "Hermits and Anchorites in Historical Context" discusses the appearance of solitaries in late medieval England, focusing especially on the growth in popularity of solitary vocations after the Fourth Lateran Council. Dee Dyas addresses the symbolic significance of place in religious experience by examining the centrality of the idea of "wilderness" in Christian thought from the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible, to the writings of the desert Fathers, and finally in the medieval English appropriations of the motif. Dyas explores how the wilderness simultaneously represents a place of exile, temptation, repentance, divine provision and wooing. It is these multiple meanings, she suggests, that made the motif so easily adaptable across geographical and temporal contexts. Like the preceding essays, Valerie Edden's article, "The Devotional Life of the Laity in the Late Middle Ages," surveys recent scholarship but focuses specifically on lay piety and religious practice. The essay covers parish life and clerical instruction, lay learning through vernacular texts, guilds, female "textual communities," and Lollardy. The final contribution to this section of the book is Santha Bhattacharji's essay, "Medieval Contemplation and Mystical Experience." Beginning with an etymology of "Contemplation," Bhattacharji examines the tension in late medieval Christian mysticism between body and spirit, affectivity and intellectualism, and cataphatic and apophatic understandings of religious experience.

The essays of the book's second section, "Approaches to Scholarship," take as their subjects the set of writers frequently called "Middle English Mystics": Richard Rolle, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. The authors of these essays demonstrate some ambivalence about naming these writers "mystics" and challenge the reader instead to pose questions about the uses of these religious texts. Indeed, as a number of the authors point out, many of these "mystical texts" texts are essentially didactic, intended more as teaching devices than as accounts of "mystical experiences." Barry Windeatt, for example, directly confronts these issues in the opening lines of his essay on Margery Kempe, asking his reader to consider the use of the book. An examination of the issue of teaching within the book, Windeatt argues, reveals many of the tensions at work in the text, in particular the ways in which Margery asserts her authority to teach while denying that she is doing so. Yet, insofar as Margery's book is intended to teach its reader, Windeatt suggests, it may be more useful to think of Kempe's book as an "autohagiography."

In addition to Windeatt's essay, the other pieces in the section call for fresh scholarly approaches to familiar writers. Denis Renevey asks what we gain from terming Richard Rolle a mystic and then suggests we consider Rolle's important contributions to other genres, most notably his often-neglected Latin commentaries on the scriptures and liturgy. In his essay on Walter Hilton, Thomas Bestul, like Renevey, argues for greater consideration of the author's Latin writings and a more broadly conceived understanding of Hilton's diverse readership, centrist position, and devotional importance in late medieval religious culture. A. C. Spearing calls for a reevaluation of the literary value of The Cloud of Unknowing. He models this approach in a reading of the paradoxical use of language in the Cloud, which, he shows, bears some affinities to the treatment of "language and its limits" in Pearl. While this essay does indeed offer an often-neglected way of approaching the Cloud in scholarship, in its comparative analysis it also suggests a fruitful approach to teaching the somewhat difficult work. Finally, Liz Herbert McAvoy's essay on Julian of Norwich, draws on feminist theory to reconsider some of the most widely read (and taught) moments in both versions of Julian's Shewings as representative of patterns of the maternal feminine.

The third section of the book picks up the collection's emphasis on teaching and more explicitly explores pedagogical practices that might be used in classes on medieval religious writing. As a teaching resource, the volume repeatedly makes a case for the value of introducing this largely unread set of writers to undergraduate students, both in survey classes and in special topics courses such as "Visionaries and Heretics" and "The Mystics and the Body." These pedagogical essays seek to negotiate the "strangeness" of religious texts and their relevance to modern readers.

One way to make these texts approachable while helping students deal with linguistic and ideological difference is to teach Middle English religious writing alongside related religious texts that have been translated into modern English. Acknowledging the significant linguistic barriers created by the early Middle English of the central works of the anchoritic tradition, Alexandra Barratt advocates using translations and offers an extended discussion of translations and editions suitable for classroom use. To tackle the alienating ideologies and theologies assumed by the texts, Barratt suggests introducing the central ideas of anchoritic spirituality through Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum. The brevity of the text, clarity of its three part structure, and the availability of inexpensive Modern and Middle English translations, Barratt argues, make it an excellent tool for structuring a course on medieval spirituality. Roger Ellis makes a similar suggestion and proposes using the prologue to Suso's Horologium as an entry into the central interpretive issues of mystical and anchoritic literature. Ellis finds the prologue to the Horologium more useful than those of the Middle English religious writers insofar as it raises the basic literary forms and problems of approaching and interpreting mystical texts: the tension depicted between religious learning and experience, the mystical author's anxiety about right interpretation of his writing, the author's anxiety about his or her own authority, and the "status of revelation-literature as a form of holy fiction" (169).

Teaching the contexts of these works, the remaining essays in this section argue, is a large part of making them accessible to students. R. S. Allen emphasizes the importance of providing background information on mysticism since many students today are unfamiliar with religious history and vocabulary. Allen also offers an overview of special topic courses she has taught on medieval religious writing, provides an honest analysis of the more and the less successful elements of each course, and suggests alternate modes of student assessment, such as creative writing assignments. Ann M. Hutchison's "Approaching Medieval Women Mystics in the Twenty-First Century" suggests the usefulness of paying special attention to the manuscript context of the various religious texts. The final contribution to the collection, Marion Glasscoe's essay on teaching Julian, recommends approaching Julian's Shewings by situating it in literary and aesthetic contexts as varied as Middle English lyrics, the poetry of Emily Dickenson and medieval images. The volume concludes with two short appendices useful for teaching: a description of an in-class dramatization of the trial of Margery Kempe used by Catherine Innes- Parker, and a glossary of "Useful Terms for Students" assembled by Dee Dyas, Roger Ellis, and Ann M. Hutchison.

As this overview should suggest, students and teachers alike will find this collection to be a valuable handbook for the study of late medieval English religious writing. Yet, this emphasis on pedagogy and summary may make it less helpful for those already well versed in Middle English devotional writings. The middle section of the collection does, however, suggest and model fruitful avenues for future research such as further study of the "minor" texts of writers such as Rolle and Hilton and the need for literary readings of works such as The Cloud of Unknowing. In the end, this collection should prove to be a valuable resource for the study and teaching of Middle English religious writing and culture.