09.11.15, Chaganti, The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary

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Robyn Malo

The Medieval Review 09.11.15

Chaganti, Seeta. The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. 245. ISBN: 9780230604668.

Reviewed by:
Robyn Malo
Purdue University

In The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance, Seeta Chaganti offers an extended study--indeed, the only literary study--of how reliquaries and shrines formed the basis for what she calls the "poetics of enshrinement." Such a poetics emerges, according to Chaganti, from how reliquaries depend on both inscription (literally, for Chaganti, writing) and performance (liturgical or otherwise). Her work is crucial to thinking about how reliquaries and material culture in general shape poetic practice; and given the ubiquity of relics in late medieval religious culture and practice, such a study is long overdue.

In the Introduction, Chaganti outlines the link between reliquaries, inscription, and performance, and in Chapter One, Chaganti goes on to argue that considering reliquaries as both performance and also inscriptional objects reveals an "aesthetics of enclosure" (27). This aesthetic serves as the foundation for many of the readings that follow--particularly of Saint Erkenwald (Chapter Two) and Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale (Chapter Five). Chaganti's argument rests on the premise that reliquaries, as both inscriptional and performative, provide a material basis for understanding poetic form, which, for Chaganti, is similarly inscriptional, performative, and enclosing. Her point is interesting, as is her discussion about how such objects--like metaphors--call our attention to the relationship between the contained and containing, the interior and exterior. Chaganti's book thus engages with and offers an important extension of Cynthia Hahn's observation that reliquaries engage metaphorically with the objects they contain.

This study is thus concerned with how reliquaries, like metaphor (and indeed, poetry in general), figure forth what Chaganti calls the "absent presence" (51). Chapters Two and Three, on the alliterative Erkenwald and the N-Town Assumption, respectively, both explore how the poetics of enshrinement creates the absent presence of Erkenwald himself and of the Virgin Mary. In Chapter Three, which this reader found to be the most convincing and pleasing chapter of the book, Chaganti shows how the play itself serves as a reliquary--and as such, how it figures forth Mary's presence. For Chaganti, the play functions like a reliquary, in that it (figuratively) enshrines Mary's body and, like a reliquary or image, creates meaning even in the absence of the relic or artifact. As she puts it, the play "engages the poetics of enshrinement by creating a dialectical interaction between the play's spectacular elements and the inscriptional aspects of its poetry" (77). In Chapter Four, Chaganti explores how the process of visualization subtends her idea of the absent presence. She argues that Pearl's performative and inscriptional aspects demonstrate not only the similarities between poetry and devotional objects, but also that inscriptionality can fold "in upon itself to produce a kind of vision that unfolds outward from itself" (122).

Chaganti's reading of the Pardoner's Tale in Chapter Five turns on the intersection between the material object, poetic language, and vision, which featured centrally in Chapter Four. Chaganti claims that the Pardoner's performance is inscriptional, and that the objects he carries provide a clue for understanding how the poetics of enshrinement function in the Tale. Though Chaganti does not discuss these objects in detail, this chapter makes three important contributions to scholarship on the Pardoner. First, she begins by asking how the poetics of enshrinement work when the "inscriptional element [is] seemingly occluded" (132). This question draws our attention to what the Pardoner hides about his occupation as well as about his sexuality--and to what such occlusion can tell us about how metaphor operates. This observation sets up the second contribution of this chapter, Chaganti's discussion of the Old Man in the Pardoner's Tale as enclosing and enclosed, and hence as a figure for metaphor itself. Finally, Chaganti reads the Host's insult as "embody[ing] the transformative and transitional act required in figurative expression" (147). In other words, when the Host wishes the Pardoner's balls were enshrined in "an hogges toord," he refers indirectly to the bodily digestive process that, like metaphor, turns one thing into something else. This reading offers a convincing take on the infamous exchange between the Pardoner and Harry Bailly. The chapter in fact provides a way to conceive of the stakes of this book: how the poetics of enshrinement provides a model for understanding the act of poetic creation as a moment of mental enshrinement.

The Conclusion features close readings of two lyric poems, the inset lyric in the Book of the Duchess (164-66), and a lyric from Cambridge Magdalene College MS Pepys 1236 (158-62). The claim she makes based on these poems is, as she allows, an "encompassing" one: that the poetics of enshrinement "constructs lyric voice itself in both medieval and postmedieval contexts" (163). While Chaganti's readings of these poems are often compelling, it is difficult to see how two lyrics can stand in as representative examples for an entire (and, as Chaganti acknowledges, widespread and complex) genre. The book ends with a consideration of the relevance of an "historicized" poetics of enshrinement to contemporary lyric poetry (167-69).

Given the wide-ranging nature of this topic, it would be impossible to cover every angle in a single monograph--and Chaganti rightly calls our attention to the centrality of relics in late medieval English culture and literature and to what reliquaries have in common with poetry. Chaganti's contribution to the field is all the more important, for in contrast to the many well-known studies of continental relics by scholars such as Peter Brown, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Patrick Geary, there are very few (and rarely cited) book-length studies of the medieval English cult of relics, none of which focuses on literature and one of which remains unpublished (Ben Nilson [1998], David Rollason [1989], Islwyn Geoffrey Thomas [1974], J. Charles Wall [1905]). There are thus significant gaps in the bibliography, for of these four studies, Chaganti cites only one, Nilson's Cathedral Shrines. So, too, in recent years, many scholars have been working on English shrine architecture and devotional contexts--John Blair, Sarah Blick, John Crook, and David A. Stocker, for example, none of whose work on specific medieval English shrines and reliquaries is cited in The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary. This material would have provided a useful (and more contextually relevant) supplement to the better-known studies (often of earlier or continental material) Chaganti references.

All that said, there is no question that, for far too long, literary scholars in particular have passed over reliquaries, which, as Chaganti suggests, have a good deal in common with poetic composition. Indeed, the major and crucial intervention of this book is to remind the reader that reliquaries functioned poetically. Chaganti's study is at its best in its use of theory to explore poetic form and in some of its deft and insightful close readings and case studies, particularly in Chapter Three on the N-Town Assumption and Chapter Five on Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. The book offers a model for imagining what the relationship between material and literary culture might have been. Such a model allows us to imagine reliquaries as part of a useable past--as material objects that emerge from poetics, perhaps, as much as the other way around. Given that The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary is ultimately about poetic language and representation--about the reliquary of the mind, as Chaganti entitles Chapter Five--such a figurative payoff only makes sense.

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Robyn Malo

Purdue University