The Medieval Review 10.04.13

Raskolnikov, Masha. Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009. Pp. 225. $44.95 ISBN 978-0-8142-1102-1. .

Reviewed by:

Ewa Slojka
Providence College
eslojka@gmail.com

In her monograph, Masha Raskolnikov discusses a range of Middle English allegorical works that explore the relationship between the body and the soul: two thirteenth-century Body/Soul debates "In a Thestri Stude I Stod" and "Als I Lay in a Winteris Nyt," a thirteenth- century prose allegory "Sawles Warde" (part of the Katherine Group), and Piers Plowman. Taking up a term used by a scribe in the Vernon manuscript, the author names these texts works of "sowlehele," which she defines as "a mode of didactic writing that makes use of allegorical narrative to educate sinners about the nature of their own sinning selves" (9). The book contends that while these texts, arising out of needs of medieval confessional culture, draw on contemporary philosophical and theological insights about the nature of the human self, they nevertheless offer a view of the self that is independent from, and in certain aspects opposed to, the one developed by the high thought of the period. In particular, vernacular "sowlehele" allegories inspire a unique psychological thought by renegotiating gender relationships between the self's personified parts. This freedom to experiment with gender was, according to the author, in large part a consequence of the loss in Middle English of the grammar- imposed gendering of abstract nouns, which characterized Latin and Romance languages.

The discussion unfolds as follows:

After introducing the book's scope, its historical and theoretical contexts, and its argument, in her first chapter, "Thought Enfleshed: Philosophy and Psychology as Figured in Latin Allegory," the author considers the use of female personifications in several Latin allegorical works. The chapter discusses both the earlier allegories that, according to the author, "installed gender hierarchy as an issue to be resolved in later medieval conceptions of selfhood" (32) (specifically, Prudentius' Psychomachia and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy), and the later ones that the author interprets as "responding to the problems of allegorical gender and proper hierarchies within the self" (p. 28; two examples of such texts being the anonymous "Visio Philiberti" and Hildebert of Lavardin's "Liber de Querimonia"). The two latter texts serve to demonstrate that also Latin-language artists offered psychological insights that were more dramatically effective and appealing than the normative ones supplied by Latin theology and philosophy.

The book's next two chapters turn to two Middle English Body/Soul debates, "In a Thestri Stude I Stod" and "Als I Lay in a Winteris Nyt," which depart from the Latin convention of female abstractions to present male personifications of both body and soul. In "Allegorizing the Split Self: A Middle English Debate between the Body and the Soul," the author argues that "In a Thestri Stude" crafts a vision of the self that does not rely on gender difference to establish the clear dominance of the soul and that poses a challenge to Latin learning by its dualism and exclusion of the will. "'The Soul Is the Prison of the Body': Pedagogy, Punishment, and Self-Love in a Middle English Debate," the third, and in my view the book's most interesting, chapter, explores the relations of hierarchy, love, and power between the aspects of the self as portrayed in "Als I Lay" in the context of medieval discipline, pedagogy, and confession.

Chapter 4, "Defending the Female Self: 'Sawles Warde' and Sowlehele," interprets the prose section of the Katherine Group "Sawles Warde" as a female-oriented form of "sowlehele" focused on the necessity of guarding the self and aimed as disciplining women.

The concluding chapter considers Piers Plowman from the point of view of gender, emphasizing, on the one hand, the poem's concern about the necessity of human dependence on another being and, on the other, its gradual elision of female personifications. On the author's interpretation, these two problems point to the possibility of seeing women, despite their child-bearing role, as after all not necessary in human society.

The book highlights these Middle English works' thought-provoking representations of the self, often relating to gender, such as a language of love permeating a male-gendered relationship between the body and the soul, a portrayal of the body as endowed with a will and a thought of its own, negotiations of responsibility between the various aspects of the self, a class hierarchy between the body and the soul, and a depiction of the soul as an entity separate from the human will and reason. However, despite its many stimulating observations, in my view the study fails to develop convincingly its key concept, "sowlehele" psychology.

Firstly, I felt that the study did not sufficiently demonstrate that the representations of either, broadly, the human self or, specifically, gender relationships in these texts constitute "psychological theories" or "psychological thought." These terms, used throughout the study, imply a sustained insight into the nature of the self and gender. However, when the discussion calls for specification of these representations' divergence from Latin thought, it mostly slips to such vague descriptions of their content as "quotidian" (34), "unsystematic" (36), "playful" and "informal" (86), "intricate" and "ambivalent" (91), and "in the vernacular" (96). These are all very thin specifications of what the book claims are theories that offer correctives to philosophical teaching. When the author describes a text as capable of "having its didacticism complicated by its own story and characters" (155), she does not quite make explicit what these complications amount to. The closest that the discussion comes to lending content to these vernacular theories is by indicating the texts' view of the self as contentious, embattled, split, adversarial, and "somehow unimaginable as the ethical whole" (84). But it is not clear how this view really deviates from the account of the earthly self's inner struggles in so many canonical Christian texts (one can only recall Augustine here). What are then the implications for the medieval conception of selfhood of the "surprising dynamics" (75) that the author observes in her texts? It seems that her discussion relies too heavily on the present-day concept of "queerness" to provide the answer. But to a reader unconversant with queer criticism (if this criticism is indeed key here), the question of what the medieval works reveal about human beings remains largely unresolved.

Secondly, readers attentive to the ways in which medieval vernacular texts engage philosophical teachings may find reductive the author's appraisal of medieval philosophy as offering rigid and abstract models, lacking clarity, removed from common sense, and failing to undertake the type of inquiries that literature would. At times the author's unfounded assumptions about medieval philosophical thought produce questionable conclusions about the texts. In one such instance, when posing an exclusion of the personified will from the debate about guilt between Body and Soul in "In a Thestri Stude," the author implies that an orthodox view of guilt would take recourse to the will. However, allocation of sin primarily to the will is a late (late-thirteenth-century) development in medieval philosophy, which is commonly understood in scholarship as a departure from the more traditional view of sin as a weakness of the intellect (even if this development was, in a very disputed sense, a return to Augustine).

In sum, while the study's numerous observations stimulate reflection about the vernacular texts' perception of selfhood and gender, its lack of depth leaves the reader unconvinced.