14.03.17, Corbellini, ed., Cultures of Religious Reading in the Late Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Isabel Davis

The Medieval Review 14.03.17

Corbellini, Sabrina. Cultures of Religious Reading in the Late Middle Ages: Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 25. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. vi, 307. ISBN: 978-2-503-54569-1.

Reviewed by:
Isabel Davis

Cultures of Religious Reading is a volume of conference proceedings from an event with a similar name held at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (Sept 2010). Whilst conference proceedings can sometimes be very mixed, this volume is relatively tightly organized around a number of shared topics and questions. The florid subtitle of this volume does not exactly reflect those topics and questions, which are more hard-nosed (but just as interesting): the role of books in defining orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the responsiveness of the European book market to readers' demands, the relationships between religious and lay readerships, the changes brought by printing and vernacularity, and other sociological approaches to book buying and reading on the eve of the Reformation. If there is an over-arching argument to the book it is that old presumptions about late medieval reading culture ought to be rigorously rethought and complicated in relation to individual test cases. The articles model this approach, offering specialist case studies which look variously at particular books; particular readers; particular authors or a corpus of work; and the transmission of particular texts. Geographically these pieces stretch from England, in the west, to Lithuania, in the east and (as might be expected given the institutions invested in the initial conference) several places in between. The earliest study treats the thirteenth century, but the majority of these articles are focused on the fifteenth century. These are orchestrated in an Introduction from the editor, Sabrina Corbellini, who sets out some of the core contexts for religious book history in this period.

The book is divided into four sections, which group the essays into themes, but readers will find more connection between the sections than this perhaps suggests. The first section is the largest, and sets out to complicate the relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen considers the work of two mystics, Beatrice of Nazareth and Margarete Porete, asking particularly about women and how they were able to survive dangerous heretic-hunting times. The article works by comparing the fortunes of these works especially in their afterlives, considering the way in which they produced a socially-convenient feminine role for women mystics. Sabrina Corbellini's essay promises "A New Approach to Late Medieval Religious Reading" and moves the volume to Italy. This chapter successfully examines the network of relationships between merchant-scribes, lay writers and copiers of religious texts; its "new approach" is to argue for the fifteenth-century laity as "an agent in the distribution of religious reading material"(41)--as writers, scribes, bricoleurs and readers, but also builders and users of libraries, lenders and borrowers of books. John J. Thompson's article, "Reading with a Passion," looks at the meditative accounts of Christ's life (particularly The Privity of the Passion and Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ) making a strong case for taking a "greater account of the evidence from early book history" to answer questions about "appetites for some religious material among a wide range of scattered fifteenth-century vernacular audiences" (57). Thompson considers St. Cecelia, as she is depicted by Nicholas Love, as a model reader--and particularly a female reader--wholly set upon reading and rereading "just one text and just one programme of spiritual comfort and direction." How far did readers imitate this model? In what ways are these readers, and the reading strategies they are offered, implicated in the Wycliffite controversies surrounding Bible translation? Thompson's answer to these questions is woven into an account of an important project which he and colleagues conducted at Queens University, Belfast (http://www.qub.ac.uk/geographies-of-orthodoxy) which has found and stresses "a diversity of perspectives, practices, and localities" (68), and challenges monolithic and teleological assumptions about reading practices in the period just before the Protestant revolution. The final essay in this section by Eyal Poleg, on the paratextual materials in Wycliffite Bibles, is also concerned to trouble too stark a relationship between orthodoxy and heresy. An interesting comparison with earlier, Latin Bibles "of an impeccable orthodox nature" (74) shows as many similarities as differences. Special focuses on particular Biblical books--Psalms, Song of Songs and 2 Samuel--further atomizes the problem, considering the importance of practical issues such as readers' mnemonic techniques or scribal page management. Poleg's conclusion is that Wycliffite Bibles appealed beyond the confines of Lollardy, finding an orthodox readership within a diffuse and complex fifteenth-century religious book market.

The second section of this book, on "Print and Public," considers incunabula from a variety of perspectives. Koen Goudriaan's chapter on "The Church and the Market" asks crucial questions about the relationship between laity and clergy in the distribution of vernacular religious texts particularly in the Low Countries, finding the products of the early press a particularly useful test case. Goudriaan also finds that previous grand narratives about the onset of the Reformation have not always helped to get a clear picture of the book trade. Goudriaan's own argument is two-sided, paying special attention to the multi-media nature of early books and the "reading" cultures around them, and to the influence and energies of the Franciscan movement in realizing "the potentialities of the new medium" (116). Mart Van Duijn's article takes the Delft Bible as its special focus because (as Van Duijn argues) of its important role in the shaping of Dutch religious identity. As well as unpicking some of the nineteenth and twentieth century premises upon which study of this cultural artefact has hitherto been founded, Van Duijn offers a new, more comprehensive social history of this book, taking into account many more copies, in order to find a dynamic relationship between printers and their public. Kristian Jensen's intriguing article "Reading Augustine in the Fifteenth Century" has some important cautionary reminders for students of this period. In particular he asks us to check that a supposed corpus, in this case the works of St. Augustine, are exactly the same now as in the late medieval past, and exactly the same in one place as another. The manuscript and early print evidence from different parts of Europe--which is here assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively--demonstrates that Augustine was read differently in Cologne as in Basel and that, over all, a completely different idea of St. Augustine prevailed in the fifteenth century to the one we might expect and to the one that historians have argued applied particular traction to Reformation theologies.

The "Socio-Cultural Contexts of Production, Acquisition, and Reading of Vernacular Religious Books" concerns the third section of this volume. In this section, Suzan Folkerts uses Middle Dutch New Testament manuscripts to consider the pressure that readers (and this study is particularly focussed on lay readers) exerted over the books they consumed. She concludes that readers, as much as scribes, understood these texts to be "flexible," "to which things could be added and from which they could also be deleted" (190). Further, she finds a rich history of book exchange between religious and lay people, and argues that Bible translation and transmission was a lay story as much as an ecclesiastical one. In one of the narrower contributions to the volume, Werner Williams-Krapp tracks the fortunes of the Legends of St. James, through German and Dutch Legendaries, comparing and contrasting text with text, as well as text with image. He concludes by noting the marked similarities between the Dutch and German hagiographic traditions and the Legenda aurea; he also speculates, on the basis of the visual evidence, about the existence of an oral tradition, kept alive by pilgrims perhaps particularly on the routes to Santiago de Compstela (which feature in the vita itself). Anna Adamska's article centres on the lives of two Polish Queens, Hedwig of Anjou (1374-1399) and Zofia HoszaƄska (c. 1405-1461), asking what was royal literacy in this period? She asks refreshingly directly: "Did kings and queens, who owned impressive collections of books, really read them as we do?" Adamska sensibly offers a complex definition of key terms: such as literacy and reading, to discover a palpable gap between the plenteous evidence for these queens' "official piety" and the sparser evidence for their actual reading habits.

In the final section of this book, "Religious and Sacred Texts in the Vernacular: Methodological Aspects of a Social History of Reading," there are just two articles by Margriet Hoogvliet and Andrew Taylor. Hoogvliet offers a useful survey of sociological approaches to book history, illustrated lightly with reference to French devotional literature. She foregrounds new methodological approaches and research techniques to argue that the image of individual medieval readers--monks and nobles--in their private cells or studies is an outmoded one. The final essay in the volume considers the curious case of Margaret of York and her books. Wisely remembering that "Margaret's inner life will always remain elusive," Taylor focuses, instead, on the representation of Margaret's piety in the images within her own books. Although Margaret was the daughter of Cecily Neville, reputed for her piety, the portraits of her in her own devotional books are decidedly and interestingly ambivalent. How much control Margaret may have exerted over these depictions is Taylor's moot point and an interestingly unresolved place to leave this thoughtful collection.

I hope these brief abstracts will have shown that these articles do work well as a collection, although readers will inevitably prefer some to others (for me, the articles that stand out are those by Corbellini, Thompson, Poleg, Jenson, and Taylor). Given that others will have their own tastes and preferences, it may be of interest to readers that articles can be purchased individually as pdfs from the Brepols site (an interesting publication development which mitigates the expense of these otherwise library-only volumes). Corbellini is clear that this volume is no "final word" and together these articles look towards the future, making a good case that new directions in religious culture should be driven by book history. As a group they preserve some of the feel of a lively conference: the sense of contributors coming together from a range of different projects and creating a fertile network. Indeed, the book and the event from which it grew are the products of a European Research Council grant-funded project, Holy Writ and Lay Readers, for which Corbellini is the principal investigator; many of the contributions here were produced under its auspices. The volume gives a good sense of the energies and potentialities within the project and of Corbellini's spirited orchestration of it. Just like the protean groups of readers her contributors study from the past, Corbellini has drawn together a diverse group for whom books have been a principal medium of cultural exchange.

Article Details

Author Biography

Isabel Davis