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11.06.02, Craun, Ethics and Power in Medieval English Reformist Writing

11.06.02, Craun, Ethics and Power in Medieval English Reformist Writing

In this absorbing and erudite study, Edwin Craun explores a rich but neglected tradition of pastoral writing on fraternal correction, focusing on England during the two centuries after the Fourth Lateran Council. Working with a wide range of texts, many available only in manuscript form, he discusses fraternal correction both as it was conventionally practiced--as charitable admonition meant to reform the behavior of individuals--and as a mode of clerical discourse that was adapted by reformist writers for the purpose of authorizing broad critiques of ecclesiastical power. In contrast to accounts that see late medieval England as a period in which clerical authority was gradually consolidated through the pastoral initiatives of 1215, Craun's study shows how fraternal correction offered a framework for lay people to reprove their disciplinary superiors, and, by extension, groups and institutions identified with dominant religion.

The opening chapter introduces fraternal correction as a moral practice, tying its development to the widespread adoption of the Augustinian Rule within twelfth-century monastic communities. The topic of correcting sin migrated into a wider sphere of academic debate in the early thirteenth century through the influence of moral theologians (preeminently Aquinas), canon lawyers, and conciliar legislation intent on reforming the conduct of "lay people and clerics alike" (57). This material was then incorporated into fourteenth- century pastoral texts such as alphabetized compendia and summae for confessors; those containing entries on correction central to Craun's study include Ranulph Higden's pastoral manual Speculum curatorum, John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, Omne bonum (attributed to James le Palmer), Johann von Freiburg's Summa confessorum, and Bartolomeo da San Concordio's Summa de casibus conscientie. Pastoral instruction in the correction of sin also took the form of sermons and scriptural exegesis on Matthew 18:15-22 and Luke 6:36-42, the biblical texts in which the practice was grounded. These biblical verses provided the themes ("Si autem peccaverit in te frater tuus" and "Estote misercordis," respectively) for a range of relevant sermons, including those from the expanded version of the Northern Homily Cycle and the standard cycle of sermones dominicales, and show up again in William of Nottingham's commentary on the Gospel harmony Unum ex quatuor, another significant source of guidance about corrective speech. Although these various texts were all but inaccessible to non-clerical readers, Craun contends that "their influence was pervasive in late medieval England," a claim he substantiates in later chapters that turn from moral theology to reformist writing (22).

Craun restricts his treatment of pastoral writing to material circulating before 1375 in order to construct "a benchmark against which to gauge how reformist writers, later ones as well as Wyclif and Langland, transformed fraternal correction into a tool for ecclesiastical and social reform" (6). Organizing the sources in this way, he argues, affirms Michael Haren's judgment that "'the pre- Wycliffite church contained, at its middle levels certainly, a ferment of self criticism'" (21). The methodological perils of such an approach are obvious, and a scholar less grounded in this earlier archive might have been tempted to project reformist writing against a stable and inert backdrop. Instead, Craun treats the reader to a discussion of pastoral texts in all of their expansive complexity. A salutary aspect of this chapter is the author's effort to move past a Bakhtinian account of pastoral writing which views it merely as a form of monologic discourse (82n73, 2n8, citing Le Goff's influential work as a case in point). Discussions of fraternal correction in these texts thread their way through contrary alternatives and apparent contradictions; they not only outline competing moral choices but also embed the habits of ethical reasoning necessary to amend one's life and the lives of others. Even readers already well acquainted with pastoral manuscripts from before 1375 will find much in Craun's discussion that is new and interesting (while continuing to lament that more of this archive has not been made available in modern critical editions).

Throughout these early chapters, the implications for how we understand reformist writing later in the book are apparent, especially with respect to Wycliffism. Craun's engagement with pastoral materials, his attention to their ethical sophistication and discursive ambiguity, counters the longstanding tendency among literary scholars to present Wycliffism as a privileged locus of medieval subjectivity, and in this regard the book underlines the value of approaches, such as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's own study of reformist writing, that situate "heresy" within wider networks of literary and cultural production. [1] And while Craun does not say so explicitly, we are reminded as well that Wycliffites were not alone in foregrounding questions of spiritual and social hierarchy. Fraternal correction as it was envisioned and enabled by pastoral texts insists "subjects are bound by the law of charity to admonish superiors, including their own, about anything that needs correcting in their conduct" (29). Here again the author deftly juxtaposes historically specific ideas of reform without forcing them into a deterministic relation. He notes that discourse on fraternal correction does not extend to "criticism of corporate or institutional evils" (39), and that sin could "subvert" lay people who attempted to correct clerical authorities (46). Still, the latter process cut both ways; the idea that sinful priests and other clerics might lack the moral authority to reprove lay people frames Craun's analysis, in the next two chapters, of Piers Plowman and Wycliffite texts.

Craun's discussion of Piers Plowman in the third chapter bolsters his claims about reformist writing by demonstrating how Langland adapts the discourse on fraternal correction to suit his vision of a socially-situated ethics. His reading singles out the tense dialectic between Clergie and Lewte in pass_s 10 and 11 of the B-version. The "main figure" in this analysis is Lewte, who, in rejecting Clergie's attempt to define correction as a clerical response to individual sin, redirects the poem's reformist energies towards outward ethical commitment (61). Craun finds several echoes throughout this sequence of entries on correctio by pastoral writers such as Bromyard and Nicolas de Byard, strengthening his assertion about the centrality of such material within reformist contexts. At the same time, he traces the progress of a dreamer who goes from being a "silent observer," keenly aware of his inferior status, to a speaker who exemplifies Lewte's argument that "lewed men" are obliged to practice the public correction of their disciplinary superiors (61, 77). The skillful interweaving of evidence in this chapter gives the reader many reasons to accept Craun's interpretation.

The fourth and fifth chapters move Wycliffite material to the fore. The author speculates that Langland "gutted" the B-text in response to Wyclif's public writing on fraternal correction (85). Citing material from the Libellus, De civili dominio, the sermons, De potestate pape, and Opus evangelicum, he explains how Wyclif "transformed fraternal correction into a disciplinary process, involving not only admonishment, but also punishment, and performed not only for the soul of the cleric, but also for the common good of the Church" (88). It is in connection to these claims, and the public controversies they generated, that Lewte's words in the B-text become unacceptably subversive, prompting Langland to undertake the revisions of the C-text.

Two questions present themselves here. First, readers may desire, as I did, a more explicit rationale for Craun's decision to approach Wyclif's disparate texts in terms of their place within a theological summa, and not only because scholars have questioned whether he had "any such systematically conceived and executed project in mind." [2] To conceptualize Wyclif's writings in this way quite properly recognizes their place within a scholastic milieu even as it risks neglecting the divergent and contradictory forces at work in the construction of late medieval intellectuality. Second, if, as Craun concedes, the C-text embraces poverty as a lay ideal, then it is not immediately clear why the redactor should feel the need to excise passages on fraternal correction, especially when Wyclif envisioned the process "as a tool to remove sinful clerics from office and so deprive them of their control over the Church's temporal goods" (89). Recent work on the C-text, much of which seeks to account for the heterodox associations of poverty and Christian discipleship, deserves more attention than it receives in these pages. To take the most notable example, Andrew Cole's Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer merits only a brief mention at the end of the chapter. But these minor criticisms scarcely diminish the significance of the author's project. Craun's commitment to working in different registers at once, and to pushing beyond models that posit continuity in the transmission of texts and ideas into the vernacular, yields many felicitous insights.

The fifth chapter details fraternal correction in the writings of Wyclif's followers, who, according to Craun, "present themselves as the true heirs of the movement of pastoral reform" (103). Their "defiant vernacularity," openly caustic and laced with invective, heralds a new commitment to exposing the ideologies of ecclesiastical power (104). Craun cleverly shows how invective both discredits sinful correctors, such as the Franciscan friar in Pierce the Ploughman's Crede, and enhances the moral authority of those who set aside traditional constraints on corrective speech, elaborated in Matthew 18, and deploy the voice of a Christ "given to denunciation" (110). Lest deviant speech open Wycliffites themselves up to criticism, however, the author of the tract Of Pseudo-Friars reverts to the argument that God ensures the charitable corrector "a properly ordered and directed will in correction" (111). Craun's readings of individual passages are subtle but never so fine-grained that they obscure what I take to be the chapter's central insight: the strategies by which Wycliffites authorize themselves to speak against abuses of pastoral power exempt them somewhat from the ethical reflexivity so evident in the book's other archives. The Wycliffites we encounter here fashion themselves in binary relation to sinful clerics and others who violate Christ's laws. The Glossed Gospels, to which Craun next turns his attention, are another case in point: the long commentary on Luke 6:36-42 narrows its focus from "'alle men'" to "clerics as teachers and disciplinary agents 'whiche leven ther owne sinnes unpunischid whanne they punischen the leeste sinnes of sugetis [subjects]'" (115). Taken together, these texts are enmeshed not only in ecclesiological politics but also the more ideologically vexed project of specifying "true" Christians, exemplified by the Wycliffite who "alone knows and lives by the scriptures and the example of Jesus and so can alone judge what is necessary for the salvation of others" (119).

The sixth and final chapter examines what is now a familiar text in discussions of late medieval heresy and reform: The Book of Margery Kempe. Craun opens by juxtaposing the Book with Mum and the Sothsegger, written almost thirty years later. As counterintuitive as this move seems, it underscores the equally counterintuitive point that ethical reproof--carried out in both of these texts by speakers who are deeply knowledgeable about its protocols and purposes--was widespread, indeed pervasive, in a Lancastrian climate of "vigilant ecclesiastical and political policing" (125). Yet even in this context Kempe stands out as an "impeccable corrector" in her will and intention, so that her very life attests to the "uncharitable reproof"--in pastoral theology, a sin approximating both slander and chiding, the author explains-- evident all around her (135, 136). Craun focuses especially on her interactions with Archbishop Arundel's inquisitors, one of whom accuses her of telling "'the werst talys of prestys that evyr I herde,'" and therefore of leveling reckless criticism as a Wycliffite would (140). While scholars may debate whether anticlericalism is a meaningful index of Wycliffite religiosity, Craun's reading of this episode shows how Kempe's measured response, which conforms to Bromyard's advice that one address "only an individual's sin," enables readers of the Book to identify her as an "orthodox fraternal corrector" (140).

The breadth of its archive, the novelty of its topic, and the careful placement of both in their changing late medieval contexts are sure to earn Craun's study an enduring and admired place in scholarship.



1. Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Later Medieval England. Notre Dame University Press, 2006.

2. Evans, G. R. John Wyclif: Myth and Reality. IVP Academic, 2006. p. 84.