The Medieval Review 14.03.18


Dailey, Patricia. Promised Bodies: Time, Language, and Corporeality in Medieval Women's Mystical Texts. Gender, Theory, and Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 260. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-231-16120-6.



Reviewed by:


Claire Taylor Jones
University of Notre Dame
cjones23@nd.edu

Although Promised Bodies deals primarily with Hadewijch, a thirteenth-century Dutch mystic who has received less attention than she deserves, Patricia Dailey challenges a long tradition of presuppositions about women mystics in ways that will prove relevant for any scholar in the field of medieval devotion. Dailey proclaims a threefold purpose: to reconsider medieval embodiment in terms of inner and outer bodies, to explore the relationship of embodiment to textuality, and to reassess the role of gender as a category when thinking about medieval embodiment.

Dailey's presentation of the medieval conception of inner and outer bodies is very compelling and her exploration of embodiment and textuality provocative. The Introduction and Chapter 1 are devoted to establishing that the Middle Ages witnessed a philosophical tradition drawing primarily on Paul and Augustine that represented certain faculties of the soul as a second, inner, spiritual body that possessed a complicated and unstable relationship to the outer, material body. In particular, Augustine's Trinitarian model of the human soul as imago Dei inflected the development of the understanding of inner and outer bodies. Furthermore, Augustine maps the inner body onto various faculties of the soul by means of metaphors like "the sight of thought" (37). Representing aspects of the soul as belonging to an inner body allow the reverse to occur through a charitable interpretation of the outer body as analogous to the inner. Dailey emphasizes the driving role of love in patterning the outer body according to the inner through interpretation of scripture and of mystical experience. She argues that the goal of virtuous living was to transform one's material existence into a glorified and perfect body by bringing it into harmony with an inner form that was consonant with Christ. This inner body hosts the promise of unity (both with material and with God), while the outer body is a medium to be loved, read, and scripted into a future perfection in which this promise will "become legible and enacted in life" (51).

Dailey argues that the apparently immediate and sensuous language of women mystics must be reassessed in the light of this medieval understanding that the human possessed two bodies: the outer, material body and an inner, spiritual one. Her premise is that religious women participated, albeit in a different way, in the same scriptural and exegetical tradition as the religious men in their time period and cultural milieu. The shared understanding of the body is obscured when we approach men's and women's texts as different a priori. In the course of her investigation, she downplays issues of gender in order to highlight the similar dynamics of embodiment and the relationship of bodily performance to textuality in both male- and female-authored texts. As she writes, "if one fails to read the body with a spiritual orientation [...], one only sees matter and not the reflection of the Trinity that it serves" (48). This failure is the reason modern scholars evaluate women's texts as immediate and bodily; we are missing that the body represented in women's visionary and mystical writing is not the outer, but the inner body. While Dailey succeeds in demonstrating that the estimation of bodily language in women's writing as immediate and sensual rests on an incomplete understanding of medieval conceptions of embodiment, she does little to reintegrate a sensitivity to issues of gender into her analysis.

Chapters 2 through 4 focus largely on various writings of Hadewijch, although Dailey does include digressions on other women mystics and Hadewijch's contemporaries quite frequently. In Chapter 2 she examines Hadewijch's visions in order to show how the inner and outer bodies are linked to forms of textuality through narration and the performance of exegesis. As I have already noted, Dailey claims that the body that appears in a vision represents the inner body, which has access to spiritual perception but only itself becomes manifest when narrated in the context of the vision. This inner body, insofar as it represents a promise of unity and proves accessible only through narration, is therefore co-substantial with language. Prophecy and vision are both "hosted" by the inner body and, like that body, are mirrored in language--which is co-substantial with the body as promise. Dailey's explanation of this thesis is fairly confusing, partially because she relegates to the endnotes her somewhat surprising definition of language as any sign system, including non-verbal expression. It seems to me that what she believes links the inner body to language is a structure of deferral in which both the inner body's promise of unachievable unity and the inadequacy of the narrated vision would be forms of Derridean différance. Dailey, however, merely repeats the statement that the inner body and language are co-substantial without explaining what this means or entails.

The signifying function of the inner body does not exhaust the metaphor of textuality. The narration conducted in and by the inner senses also interprets the ineffable experience of the vision as a message for the outer person and for other people. Hadewijch's process of narration frames each vision with reference to a particular feast day or liturgical hour and thereby situates the irruption of divine time into liturgical or historical time. This act of narration creates a bridge that connects the outer and inner bodies and divine and human time, by allowing the text to host the promise of unity that the vision is meant to transmit. Visions do not represent an ideal and immediate encounter with the Godhead, but serve as a pedagogical tool for the signifying text of the body to learn to conform to Christ. As a whole work, the visions proceed pedagogically, guiding the reader up the ladder of perfection. The message they transmit will ultimately need to be fulfilled in external activity, werke or works, which will produce or enact the conformity of the outer body to the inner.

Embodied works and their relation to the act of visionary exegesis form the focus of Chapter 3. In medieval Dutch, the term werk could refer to anything from manual labor to the effectiveness of divine grace to literary productivity. Dailey argues that Hadewijch's conception of work includes and actually combines each of these senses of the term into a multifaceted practice by which the working of divine grace in the inner person manifests in the performance of the outer body, which is directed by the scripting of the narrated vision. While it is impossible to know whether and what kind of labor Hadewijch herself performed, the beguine lifestyle encouraged worldly engagement in the form of tutoring, caring for the sick, etc. (92). Hadewijch rejects living according to a strict rule, because works should be directed not by external order but by the inner body's interpretation of the visionary text. The performance of the body inspired by this interpretation performs a writing or scripting of and onto the outer body. Works are initially directed by imitatio, but this imitation should lead to the union of the outer and inner person as the virtuous conduct of the outer allows it to approximate the perfection of the inner more and more closely. Doing godly works entailed aligning one's own will with the divine will and thus coming closer to the imago Dei within. For this reason, Hadewijch's understanding of godly works implies a self-annihilation in which the divine attribute of minne inhabits the inner body and directs the performance of the outer body.

Dailey ends the chapter with a consideration of the experience of pain in the outer body. She argues that Hadewijch understands pain as analogous to the visions, that is, as a message from the divine that must be decoded in order to be transmitted. In particular, the pain of the outer body signals its continued failure to conform to the perfection of the inner and to attain wholeness and unity. Nevertheless, since suffering is a message, the fact of suffering "aligns the body with a linguistic referent" (115) and thus marks its potential for perfection in the way it gestures toward the divine.

In the final chapter, Dailey turns from Hadewijch's prose writing to consider the songs, or Liederen. She argues that verse performs a unity which is only promised in the prose of the visions. This chapter is the weakest of the book, because Dailey tries to articulate claims based on formal analysis of the poems but generally fails to demonstrate that the poetic form generates any meaning. For example, she writes that Hadewijch's Letter 17 includes both a poem in rhyming couplets and an exegesis of her own poem's formal qualities. The poem constitutes a didactic list of exhortative adages presenting virtuous behaviors that Hadewijch then identifies in her commentary as being characteristic of the persons of the Godhead. What Dailey identifies as formal exegesis actually represents instruction on the allegorical reading of the content of several lines (134). Her only successful formal analysis is postponed till the very end of the chapter when she provides a reading of the obsessive repetition of the word minne in Mengeldicht 15. The union of spiritual and material that cannot happen for the body in this world is performed in the material of the song through the manipulation of sound. In the repetition of the sounds of the word minne, love, and its flexible use as noun and verb, the lover and beloved unite in the ambiguity of expression.

Dailey also makes an important observation regarding the character of the songs as songs. She observes that the I of the visions represents a narrated and narrating self that remains other to the reader. The songs, however, offer the possibility of repeated performance and thereby the adoption of the speaking I by the reader who performs the text. While the message of the narrative visions must be translated into virtuous activity, the songs thus transmit the divine message in a way that literally scripts the body of the reader in the moment of performance.

In the conclusion, Dailey summarizes her argument about the body's relationship to textuality by asserting that the mystic's narration of her vision performs an exegesis that must be fulfilled in bodily works. This performance in turn transforms the mystic's body into a text that can be read and interpreted by others to help them towards union. The act of exegesis mediates inner and outer through scripting and performance. "The reading of the text thus produces a writing, that is, the text informs embodiment so as to engender another visible and legible figure" (170, her emphasis). This insight concerning the relationship of performative embodiment to textual interpretation constitutes the single greatest contribution of Dailey's work.

Although Dailey's argument will prove important for the field of mysticism scholarship, the book displays a number of general weaknesses in addition to those already outlined. The most disruptive of these is unfortunately her writing. She exhibits a peculiar weakness in citing conclusions from other scholars without explaining the context of the other person's argument or its relation to her own. This negligence results in paragraphs of supporting evidence that seem to bear no relation to what surrounds them and thus fail to support anything at all. Her poor use of citations may be symptomatic of a greater difficulty with shaping the arc of an argument. The chapters appear somewhat meandering, since she tends towards restatement rather than development. Furthermore, she disperses arguments and analysis regarding each of the individual claims throughout the entire book, rather than gathering all evidence relevant to a certain point in a single chapter. Finally, her decisions regarding which pieces of information to include in the body of the text and which to place in the endnotes lend to the difficulty of understanding her arguments. Brief digressions about other contemporary mystics figure prominently and frequently within the text, but information essential to her argument--such as the fact that her use of the term "language" includes non-verbal signs--is relegated to the endnotes. On a related note, Dailey uses "textuality" as umbrella term that encompasses exegesis and interpretation, language, signs and symbolic reference, and even performativity. I agree that it is imperative that we begin to consider women's devotion as an exegetical project. However, sign and text are not synonymous and their roles in the shaping of embodiment must be distinguished, even if the processes are interrelated. Still, Dailey provides the groundwork for an important approach to women's mystical texts which I hope to see carried further.



Copyright (c) 2014 Claire Taylor Jones



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