Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.05.15, Cotter-Lynch and Herzog, eds., Reading Memory and Identity

13.05.15, Cotter-Lynch and Herzog, eds., Reading Memory and Identity

As Helene Scheck points out in her contribution to this volume, "the process of memory, the very shaping of the mental landscape, is not purely rational and objective but is a rhetorical process experientially informed, emotionally charged, and culturally contingent" (21). Reading Memory and Identity attempts to unpack this process as it unfolds in medieval readers' experiences of a wide range of texts.

To judge from the frequency of its invocation by contributors, Mary Carruthers' The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (1990; 2nd edn. 2008) serves as the inspiration and springboard for the essays in this collection as much as do the primary texts. The editors summarize Carruthers' argument as "you are what you read. You are only considered to have read what you remember…reading and memory constitute individual and collective identities, for individuals shape their identities through ethical actions as expressions of memory--and communities fashion collective identities through common attitudes and ideas reflected in shared memory structures" (2). In her preface to the volume, Cheryl Glenn explains that the "vision of these editors moves beyond [Carruthers'] triangulations of memory, imagination, and investigate how medieval memorial arts...framed and made possible rhetorically savvy discursive representations of female holy identity" (xvi).

Cotter-Lynch and Herzog explain this vision in their introduction, which mostly defines what they mean by medieval memory network: "[C]onstructed with readily available materials--cultural commonplaces, tropes, examples, scriptures, and authorities...[they] informed the production of texts, communities, and personal identities...these inherited fragments of memory were reconfigured to the purposes of particular people, places, and cultures, even as the pieces themselves remained individually discernible" (1). The editors' main contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation about memory concerns conceptions of gender, both in terms of how women read (and wrote), and how texts helped define gender. They break these down further to emphasize

1. The "active, rather than passive, nature of remembering": it involves a decision about what to remember and how to do so. In the medieval approach to memory, utility was valued over accuracy; the editors cite the essays of Cotter-Lynch, Barbetti, Zimbalist, and Machado as examples of this point.

2. Memory as character-building, or "how individual identities were shaped through the formation and application of memory inventories." The editors cite Scheck, Hansen, and Johnson, all of whom also address how reading/memory is different for women than men.

3. Memory as a tool to be initiated into a community, or "how communities were formed and defined through shared memory networks." The editors cite the contributions of Barbetti, Cotter-Lynch, Herzog, Keene, Johnson, and Zimbalist as illustrating this idea.

4. Finally, the editors mention explicit "cases of the gender-specific application of the memory arts" as a segue to the main text of the collection.

In truth, the essays are only lightly unified by this theme, so that the collection might not at first cohere as tightly as the editors suggest in their introduction. Organized chronologically, the subjects considered by contributors range quite widely geographically and temporally, as well as in the degree to and approach by which each considers matters of memory and identity (e.g. many are, in effect, genre studies). Specifically:

Helene Scheck argues that the anomalous aspects of the Carolingian poem Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa suggests female authorship and by extension proposes a stronger-than-expected women's literary presence in this period. In imagining which of the women at the Charlemagne's court might have composed the text, her article reads like a scholarly whodunit, carefully detailing how the text describes each female member of the court (with comparisons of its unique portrayal of Liutgard to Dido) and assessing the likelihood of its most probable authors.

Cotter-Lynch's essay on the Carolingian "In Natale Sanctarum Feminarum" argues that the hymn's author, Notker of St. Gall, reworks the story of Perpetua to encourage some memories (and thus help shape a certain strain of readers' identities, establishing a shared community) and suppress others (ditto), particularly emphasizing Notker's affirmation of binary gender categories as opposed to the collapsing of gender that occurs in Perpetua's third-century vita.

Catherine Keene notices the high occurrence of dreams and visions in the mid-thirteenth-century miracle collection of Margaret of Scotland, contending that the compilers drew from local and church traditions in hopes of solidifying her legacy as a unifying figure.

Claire Barbetti argues that Hildegarde of Bingen connects the public and the private spheres of female existence with ekphrasis in Scivias. Her essay includes a useful overview of medieval ekphrasis to culturally situate what Hildegarde is doing.

Barbara Zimbalist explains that Clemence of Barking takes advantage of her twelfth-century readers' memory networks to reinforce moral and ethical lessons in her Life of St. Catherine, emphasizing the relationship between readers and hagiographer. Specifically, she contends that as a hagiographer, Clemence shapes the text and imagines its reading in a way that ultimately places herself in a role analogous to that of saint, rhetorically substituting oratio recta for the imitatio Christi that frequently appears in saints' lives so that her readers step easily into reading practice as devotional activity.

In a study of Portuguese translations of the Vitae partum, Ana Maria Machado compares the descriptions of unnamed women who are remembered/described as temptations to virtuous men with the named saintly women who feature in the text as repentant sinners.

Ella Johnson suggests that Gertrud of Helfta's Exercitia spiritualia's conflates gender markers in borrowing Biblical, monastic, and liturgical tropes to appeal to both male and female readers, stretching gender conventions in ways parallel to those reconfigured in the writing of contemporary female religious.

Elissa Hansen focuses on the way Julian of Norwich encourages and depends on readers' memory of the Virgin Mary (and desire for a contemporary mediatrix) to authorize her own church-sanctioned authority in her Revelations of Divine Love.

Brad Herzog analyzes the ways that Margery Kempe places herself in the position of a saint by borrowing the structure of a virgin martyr's legend for her narrative of her heresy trials, emphasizing the strategy's dependence on readers' memories.

Many readers will consider this variety of female subjects a plus, as it speaks to the broad appeal of the question of female memory and identity and offers a wealth of information for libraries or individuals. Two editorial decisions strengthen the cohesive appeal of this volume. One is that the editors clearly encouraged contributors to read and reference each other's work in progress, so that the essays appear in conversation with each other. While these intertextual acknowledgments sometimes feel forced, they also serve as a meta-functional memory aid that amid the quite disparate subjects and approaches is the unifying question of how memory shapes identity, and vice versa. (Those who like stats may be tempted, as I was, to keep a tally of which contributors have the highest intra-volume impact factor.) Second, quite useful to readers with a long-term interest in the subject, is the comprehensive bibliography at the end of the volume, which offers an overview of theoretical and historical scholarship on medieval memory and, more broadly, recent and classic work about the medieval holy women on whom this volume depends.