03.04.05, Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Robertson, Warren, The Vernacular Spirit

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Nicole Rice

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.005


Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, Duncan Robertson, Nancy Warren, eds.. The Vernacular Spirit: Essays on Medieval Religious Literature. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. vii, 324. ISBN: 0-312-29385-2.

Reviewed by:
Nicole Rice

This collection of thirteen essays, the twenty-eighth volume in the New Middle Ages Series, investigates a range of vernacular religious writing in later medieval England and Western Europe. The Vernacular Spirit is an interdisciplinary and comparative volume that offers a major contribution to the study of devotional literature. In their introduction, the editors propose the year 1200 as the beginning of the end of Latin's monopoly over theological discourse in Western Europe. They observe in this period a growing need "to develop the spoken vernacular as an idiom capable of conveying doctrinal complexities and affective experience" (1). But vernacular languages had an ambiguous status in the religious realm. On the one hand, clerics tended to believe that the vernacular reflected the spiritual weakness and disorderly tendencies of the uneducated, particularly women; on the other hand, the vernacular could serve as a valuable way of "inculcating desirable ideologies" among these populations (2). Adopting the term "vernacular theology," coined independently by Nicholas Watson and Bernard McGinn, the editors draw attention to the local and relational aspects of vernacular religious writings, rightly noting that these works arose "from encounters between clergy and laity, men and women, teachers and disciples, patrons and writers -- and most generally of course from the encounter between written and spoken languages" (2).

The introduction also usefully traces the development of scholarship in the field, reminding readers that during the past thirty years, the study of vernacular theology has become a cooperative endeavor among theologians, historians of religion, and literary scholars. The editors, literature professors like most of the contributors, emphasize the literary orientation of the volume, arguing for the importance of close attention to issues such as genre, narrative techniques, and rhetorical strategies. The volume's four sections group the essays according to language: English, French, German/Flemish, and Spanish. Major themes include the meaning of the vernacular for popular religious instruction, the encounter between religious and secular vocabularies, and the gendered uses of vernacular theology. Most authors emphasize careful historicization and close textual readings, relying more heavily on medieval theological and literary theories than on contemporary critical theory. Although most authors draw relatively circumspect conclusions from their readings, the essays have the cumulative effect of demonstrating both the centrality of religious subjects to the development of vernacular literatures and the impact of vernacular languages on the writing of theology.

The first essay in the "English" section is Lisa Manter's "Rolle Playing: 'And the Word Became Flesh.'" Manter, building on Nicholas Watson's book-length study of Richard Rolle's works, begins by reiterating Watson's well-proven argument that Rolle, a writer of both Latin and English, used calculated textual strategies to authorize himself as a mystic and a spiritual guide to others. Using Derridean terms of analysis, Manter argues that Rolle's "play" with the "name of Jesus," Rolle's signature devotion, offers one key to the mystic's textual attainment of "prestige and authority." According to Manter, in Rolle's Latin writings, the process of self-authorization depends upon an initial substitution of the "name of Jesus" for Jesus himself, which enabled Rolle to manipulate Jesus as a sign rather than a signified, creating "a void of meaning that Rolle [could] then fill with a chain of signifiers of his own choosing" (21). In his English works, Manter contends, Rolle played upon the discourse of imitatio Christi to establish the interchangeability of his own passion with that of Christ, using that composite textual persona to win himself disciples. Manter's Derridean reading of the name of Jesus as a "transcendental signifier" is a provocative and useful way to understand Rolle's manipulation of the term to bolster his textual authority. Unfortunately, her overarching argument is based on a flawed premise. Her contention that Rolle wrote in Latin primarily for the sake of gaining self-confidence and turned to English when he wished to "gain living disciples" is seriously undermined by the fact that Rolle wrote the vast majority of his works in Latin, for living readers, and that his English works, while justly celebrated, make up a relatively small part of his total oeuvre. Rolle's English epistles and meditations are important works of vernacular theology, but Manter seems wilfully misguided in portraying his Latin works as mere "midwives" (18) to his English works.

The other two essays in the English section are more responsibly contextualized. Moira Fitzgibbons's "Disruptive Simplicity: Gaytryge's Translation of Archbishop Thoresby's Injunctions" considers the pastoral possibilities of translation. Fitzgibbons argues that although the Lay Folks' Catechism (translated in 1357 from Archbishop Thoresby's Latin Injunctions), initially seems a simply written work of basic religious instruction for laypeople, a close look at Gaytryge's translation strategy reveals that he viewed vernacular instruction as an opportunity to enhance laypeople's religious autonomy. Whereas Thoresby, the author of the Latin Injunctions, had a limited concept of spiritual instruction and emphasized the necessity for simplicity and clarity above all, Gaytryge's translation includes changes in the order of the original text and subtle rhetorical shifts that place a new emphasis on laypeoples' capacity to experience God more directly. Although it is uncertain whether fourteenth-century lay readers would have fully appreciated this effort to empower them, Fitzgibbons proves that the Lay Folks' Catechism deserves to be considered a work of vernacular theology. And she offers a suggestive rationale for why the work proved so appealing to later heterodox readers, including some Lollards who appropriated the Lay Folks' Catechism in the fifteenth century.

Fiona Somerset's densely argued, rewarding essay "Excitative Speech: Theories of Emotive Response from Richard FitzRalph to Margery Kempe" argues that the antimendicant bishop Richard FitzRalph's theory of the "dangers and benefits of emotionally provocative language," articulated in 1357 as part of his Defensio Curatorum, contains important implications for vernacular literary production in later medieval England. By "excitative speech," FitzRalph meant speech intended to move the speaker and hearers toward devotion. Pointing to St. Bernard's use of the biblical "well of tears" image as a technique for stirring emotion in himself and his audience, FitzRalph argued that the statement used to excite devotion did not need to be "strictly true" as long as it was "useful" (64). Somerset shows that FitzRalph's theory influenced many later writers and led to a more generalized cultural conversation about the effects of excitative speech. A keen listener to sermons, the laywoman Margery Kempe became a kind of theorist of excitable speech and herself deployed the image of the "well of tears" to authorize her own copious crying and to link that weeping to her larger social and spiritual project of interceding for others' souls. By tracing this theory of excitative speech from FitzRalph to Kempe, Somerset draws much-needed attention to the ways in which learned discourses worked in surprising ways to influence and authorize vernacular literature.

The next section of four essays treats works of French vernacular theology. The first and last in the section (Chapters Four and Seven), consider the cultural work of biblical translation for members of the French nobility during the high and late Middle Ages, respectively. While Morgan Powell's "Translating Scripture for Ma dame de Champagne: The Old French 'Paraphrase' of Psalm 44 (Eructavit)" focuses on the implications of psalm translation for the larger "phenomenology of early vernacular literature" (84), Lori J. Walters' "The Royal Vernacular: Poet and Patron in Christine de Pizan's Charles V and the Sept Psaumes Allégorisées" considers the ideological and political work of translation. Powell argues that in translating Psalm 44 (widely read as the heavenly epithalamion of Christ and Holy Church) for Marie de Champagne, the clerical translator transformed scripture by combining the modes of instruction and courtly performance. The translator himself took on the role of David, while placing the countess in the role of bride/queen of heaven, thus connecting the Eructavit to the familiar world of courtly romance and using the voice of vernacular poetry "to a more exalted end" (93). Powell's nuanced account of this translation demonstrates the complementarity of performative and didactic modes in accommodating clerical and courtly interests. Moreover, he surveys manuscript transmission to argue for the widespread appeal of this literary model to readers well beyond Marie's court.

Lori J. Walters locates Christine de Pizan's 1409 allegorization of the seven penitential psalms in the context of King Charles V's fifteenth-century Bible translation campaign. This translation campaign furthered the "ideological promotion of the vernacular" (147) that had begun in the thirteenth century with Lous IX's sponsorship of the Grande chroniques de France, a vernacular prose history of the French royal house. Walters argues that in allegorizing the seven penitential psalms for her patron, Charles the Noble, Christine used this privileged "royal vernacular" to construct a composite authorial voice that would speak with authority and humility to Charles the Noble and would assimilate him to King David. Christine thereby prompted Charles to draw parallels between the story of King David and his own fifteenth-century moment, encouraging Charles to resolve severe divisions within France as well as within the Catholic Church. According to Walters, just as the Grande chroniques de France worked ideologically to construct the French nation through language, the sept psaumes, by rendering David's speech in French, made French the vehicle for prophecy, casting the French nation as God's chosen people. Although this long essay might have benefited from a more streamlined approach that brought its different strands together sooner, Walters rewards the reader's efforts with her conclusion, which makes a bold argument about the centrality of vernacular theology to France's dynastic project.

Barbara Newman's excellent essay "The Mirror and the Rose: Marguerite Porete's Encounter with the Dieu d'Amours" takes readers out of the safe realm of authorized translation to show that Marguerite Porete fearlessly adapted courtly modes to push theological and literary boundaries. Newman argues for "secular and mystical intertextuality" between Porete's controversial Mirouer des Simples Ames (burned as heretical with Porete in 1310) and the scandalous secular text, the Roman de la Rose. Newman shows that Porete's understanding of the relation of the Soul to Love as one of "intense and mutual mirroring" (113) that leads finally to the Soul's absorption into Love, or what Porete called the soul's "annihilation," echoes certain aspects of the Roman's own mirror episodes (the Fountain of Narcissus and the Mirror of Providence). Newman also illuminates Porete's mystical adaptations of the Roman's controversial sexual imagery. Whereas the gender of the much-desired Rose is depicted as fragmented and the Lady is denied a unified subjectivity, the androgyny of Porete's God, Dame Amour, works to efface sexual difference and emphasize "identity between Lover and Beloved" (115). Newman shows that Porete's adoption of the central romance conflict between Love and Reason and her argument that the love of God extinguishes fleshly sin came uncomfortably close, in the view of her critics, to the unpopular "libertine view of Nature" propounded by the figure of Genius in the Roman (117).

Maureen Boulton's "Digullville's Pèlerinage de Jésus Christ: A Poem of Courtly Devotion," also considers the influence of the Roman de la Rose. Boulton argues that that Degulleville's three fourteenth-century pilgrimage poems comprise a coherent devotional trilogy, unified not only by a logical spiritual progession but also by literary techniques borrowed from the Roman de la Rose. Focusing in particular on the Pèlerinage de Jésus Christ, the third and least-studied of these poems, Boulton argues that in addition to the dream vision conceit, narratorial interventions such as addresses to the characters and emotional outbursts at poignant moments enable the author to move beyond didacticism into the realm of "affective devotion." Degullville's technique of emphasizing the relationship of the dreamer-narrator to the characters invites readers' "participation through emotional response to the narrative" (139). Boulton understands this work as a turning point in the life-of-Christ genre and a poem that anticipates the later French translation of Latin works of affective devotion. Although Boulton's distinction between "didactic" and "affective" seems a bit artificial, her close attention to literary techniques makes her article a useful contribution to the ongoing conversation about the cultural work of devotional narratives.

The third section, on German and Flemish, spans the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Here again there is much thematic overlap among the chapters: notably, both Chapters Eight and Nine relate vernacular theology to questions of gender and pastoral control. Chapter Eight is Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen's "Can God Speak in the Vernacular? On Beatrice of Nazareth's Flemish Exposition of the Love for God." Pedersen contends that texts by and about religious women should be read not as biographies or direct accounts of mystical experience, but rather as literary expressions of theology. Pedersen's opening critique of scholars including Caroline Bynum, Barbara Newman, and Peter Dinzelbacher seems unecessary for the purpose of making this point, and one wonders why it is not possible to understand vitae and mystical writings as accounts of experience (albeit highly stylized ones) and works of theology. Pedersen proceeds to argue that the Flemish mulieres religiosae were not merely "objects" but "subjects" of a "missionary strategy" that included the increased production of sermons and confessional handbooks (189). According to Pedersen, the anonymous male-authored Latin vita of the Cistercian nun Beatrice of Nazareth depicts Beatrice as oscillating between displays of weak female fleshliness and spiritual strength. In contrast, Beatrice's own Seven manieren van heiliger Minnen, which provided some of the more theologically sophisticated material for her male-authored vita, is a thoroughly Cistercian treatise on the love of God in which Beatrice never relates her imagery to her gender. Pedersen considers the absorption of Beatrice's vernacular treatise into the Latin vita to be a telling sign of clerical ambivalence toward women and the vernacular. Although the vernacular was considered a useful teaching tool for laici and women, when Beatrice and other mulieres religiosae used the vernacular to write theology, their work was coopted by the male establishment. Pedersen's final formulation of women's vitae as a form of women's "narrative pedagogy and theology" (199) offers a useful way to see these texts as products of women's lives despite the intervention of male authors.

Chapter 9, Ulrike Wiethaus's "Thieves and Carnivals: Gender in Dominican Literature of the Fourteenth Century," takes up related issues in Germany, making two arguments against the grain of received wisdom about women and the vernacular. First, she argues, women did not just use the vernacular but also appropriated Latin for liturgical and devotional purposes. Second, she contends that in the hands of male writers, in this case Heinrich Seuse (Henry Suso), the association of women with the vernacular could be used to constrain women's spiritual autonomy and literary activity. According to Wiethaus, the vernacular theology of Heinrich Seuse exists in complex relation to the writings of his spiritual daughter, the Dominican nun Elsbeth Stagel, who had herself written a vernacular acccount of Seuse's life based on her conversations with him. Wiethaus shows that Seuse, in his German autobiography, The Life of the Servant, used his own life "as a corrective model for Dominican nuns' spiritual lives" (217), enacting in his text the gradual turning away from a stereotypically feminine emphasis on self-mortification and the endurance of suffering toward a mode of greater theological abstraction. In The Life of the Servant, Seuse narrates his own burning of Elsbeth Stagel's book, so that his autobiography literally rises from the ashes of her account as he explicitly casts her voice and writings as inferior to his own. As a counterpoint to Seuse's ritualized cancellation of Stagel's work, Wiethaus cites the vernacular Revelations of Margeret Ebner, which highlights the ways in which Ebner and her Dominican sisters appropriated Latin for liturgical use and as a trigger for ecstatic experiences. Wiethaus' article is carefully constructed and convincing. Although she insists at the outset of her essay that she will resist judging in favor of male or female spirituality, she does ultimately cast a more positive light on Ebner's somatic, community-oriented devotional life.

In "The Erosion of a Monopoly: German Religious Literature in the Fifteenth Century," Werner Williams-Krapp takes a broader view of the possibilities and perceived dangers of the vernacular at the end of the medieval period. Observing that the fifteenth century witnessed unprecedented levels of writing and reading in the vernacular, he argues that institutional improvements in the religious education of the laity had created a greater demand for more challenging spiritual reading, and the clerical turn toward a pastoral "theology of piety" resulted in a widespread commitment to vernacular religious instruction. Surveying the major genres of edifying literature (catechetical writings, sermons for reading, exemplary narrative, and contemplative literature), Williams-Krapp stresses that all of these genres were intended to offer the most basic information and to maintain distinctions between clergy and the simplices. However, as his title and his progression from the simpler to the more complex literary forms suggest, Williams-Krapp contends that this profusion of religious material in the vernacular resulted in a "democratization of knowledge" that, in combination with the rise of humanism and the advent of printing, created the conditions for the kinds of considered anticlerical arguments that would set the Reformation in motion. By drawing attention to borrowings between countries (such as the German adaptation of Jean Gerson's works), this article particularly encourages efforts to view pastoral education in comparative perspectives.

Chapter Eleven, Ronald E. Surtz's "Female Patronage of Vernacular Religious Works in Fifteenth-Century Castile: Aristocratic Women and Their Confessors," complements several previous chapters, particularly Chapters Four and Seven on the translation of biblical material for French courtly patrons, and Eight and Nine on questions of gender and power, Latin and vernacular. Surtz's case studies include Queen Isabella of Castile's commission of a revised sermon and treatise on John the Evangelist and Leonor Pimentel's commission of devotional narratives from her Dominican confessor. Surtz shows that under the guise of praise, these confessors attempted to assert control over their powerful female patrons by emphasizing that as confessants, as women, and even as rulers, they owed submission to God's will (embodied in the confessor through the text). In a particularly striking case of authorial/confessorial manipulation, Leonor Pimentel's confessor Juan Lopez wrote a Mariological treatise for his patroness in which he assumed the voice of the Virgin Mary to guide the Countess. Surtz argues that in this treatise, Lopez, "the friar en travesti" as the Virgin Mary, alternately requires his female reader to assume a position of complete passivity and abjection toward Mary and shows the Virgin proclaiming her own subjection to male authority. Like Wiethaus, Surtz shows persuasively that the combination of male confessor, female reader, and vernacular theology rarely issued in women's emancipation from traditional gender ideologies.

Elizabeth Teresa Howe's essay, "Cisneros and the Translation of Women's Spirituality," argues that the early sixteenth-century clerical and monastic reform campaign overseen by Cardinal Cisneros had far-reaching implications for female spirituality in early modern Spain. In order to promote piety among clergy and laypeople, the Cardinal sponsored a translation program that made available works including the Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony and material related to the Italian saints Angela of Foligno and Catherine of Siena. Howe shows that Cardinal Cisneros became the particular patron of two visionary women, Sor María de Santo Domingo and Madre Juana de la Cruz, who embraced the meditative and affective practices of the devotio moderna and took inspiration from figures including Angela and Catherine. Cisneros gave support to these two women and in the case of Sor Maria enabled the publication of her teachings. By making a library of spiritual guides available to Spanish readers and supporting these early visionaries, Cisneros laid the groundwork for a new generation of native Spanish religious women, most notably Teresa of Avila and her Carmelite sisters. Although Howe does not romanticize the Cardinal's activities, her focus on a male advisor who actively encouraged and protected his spiritual charges does offer a refreshing change from the controlling confessors of the previous chapter.

Carole A. Slade's essay "'Este gran Dios de las cavallerías' [This Great God of Chivalric Deeds]: St. Teresa's Performances of the Novels of Chivalry," returns to the question of how popular literature and religious devotion might be brought into productive relation. Slade argues that St. Teresa of Avila, who is frequently represented holding a book, developed her monastic vocation through her changing relationship to the norms of chivalric romance. At a time when the ecclesiastical establishment censured romances such as Amadís de Gaul, Teresa's early secular development was heavily (if guiltily) influenced by these works of fiction, as she attempted to "perform" the feminine roles depicted in them. Increasingly disillusioned with the constraints placed upon romance heroines, Teresa found a compromise between romance ideals and the spiritual life as she gradually "translated her enactment of the novels of chivalry into the spiritual realm" (306). Slade shows that imagery from chivalric novels permeates Teresa's descriptions of her inner life: with the translation of earthly to spiritual, Teresa became able to perform both female and male roles, alternately using nuptial and martial imagery to express her devotion to God. Like Newman's essay, this article is a fine study of how images from controversial secular literature enabled women to write innovative forms of theology in the vernacular.

In summary, The Vernacular Spirit is a rich collection of challenging essays that will, I hope, encourage medievalists to look across disciplinary borders and facilitate exchange between scholars of English, French, German, and Spanish.

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Nicole Rice