14.11.13, Rice, ed., Middle English Religious Writing in Practice

Main Article Content

Shannon Gayk

The Medieval Review 14.11.13

Rice, Nicole. Middle English Religious Writing in Practice: Texts, Readers, and Transformations. Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 21. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. vi, 272. ISBN: 9782503541020 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Shannon Gayk
Indiana University-Bloomington

As this impressive collection of essays makes clear, the study of Middle English religious writing has increasingly turned from what have traditionally been considered 'canonical' religious texts, such as the complex and ambitious English theologies of Piers Plowman and Julian of Norwich, to the large corpus of less-studied devotional and catechetical works that circulated widely in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In this changing critical landscape, it is the text in use that is of most interest, and thus both the material contexts in which texts circulate and the diverse audiences that read them have begun to receive fresh and well-deserved scholarly scrutiny. This collection contributes significantly to this project of refocus and recuperation. Building on its editor's own work on the appropriation of clerical practices and modes of piety by lay readers in Lay Piety and Clerical Discipline (2009), the essays here offer sustained and careful studies of reception, use, and audience. The volume also joins recent work like Nancy Bradley Warren's The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualties, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures, 1350-1700 (2010) in exploring the rich circulation of continental devotional texts in England. Focusing in various ways on readerly practice, the eight essays in this volume shed new light on the diverse material and social contexts in which religious texts circulated.

To this end, the book is divided into three sections. The first examines the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English reception of three fourteenth-century continental holy women: Catherine of Sienna, Marguerite Porete, and Bridget of Sweden. The second explores how religious writings were used in surprising ways by lay and clerical audiences. And the final section brings together the concerns of the first two, focusing on the reception and circulation of religious books in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is, in a sense, a book about translation broadly understood, not only from Latin to the vernacular, but also from the continent to England, from manuscript to print, from medieval to reformation, and from religious communities to lay audiences and back.

In the three essays of the first section, continental holy women loom large. Jennifer N. Brown's "From the Charterhouse to the Printing House" examines the translation and transmission in England of three texts related to Catherine of Siena: the Orcherd of Syon, Raymond of Captua's life of Catherine, and a translation of a letter by Stephen of Siena. Charting Catherine's legacy over nearly three centuries in England, Brown shows how, as Catherine is translated across genres and media for both monastic and lay readers, she assumes a range of meanings, becoming "a symbol of female mystical devotion, a mother figure, the image of a literate and learned religious woman, and ultimately a symbol of Catholic resistance to the Reformation" (18). Next, in a feat of critical archeology, Michael Sargent surveys the reception history of Marguerite of Porete's Mirouer, convincingly arguing that the Mirouer's role in the circulation of the heresy of the free spirit in England has been much exaggerated by late twentieth-century scholars. In fact, he argues, manuscript evidence suggests that the Middle English version of Marguerite's text did not circulate widely (and indeed, perhaps did so only in Carthusian houses) and that while later medieval readers of the work may have found it "esoteric, even dangerous," they did not see it as advancing heresy, but rather copied and read it alongside other theologically challenging, but decidedly orthodox contemplative texts such as The Cloud of Unknowingand The Chastising of God's Children. The final essay in this section, Martha Driver's "Poetry as Prayer: John Audelay's 'Salutation to St. Bridget,'" examines the reception of a third continental holy woman in English verse, examining how Audelay's meditative poem blurs the genres of poetry and prayer, especially in its anaphoric appropriation of "hail." These anaphoras, Driver explains, both evoke liturgical contexts (such as Marian antiphons) and magical formulas, and in so doing suggest how vernacular poetry might play a key role in ritual and devotional practice.

The second section includes two essays that consider the movements of religious texts across clerical and lay readerships. First, Mary Agnes Edsall offers a compelling study of the intersections of mercantile piety and monastic forms of life in a single devotional anthology, the Fyler Manuscript (San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 744), which includes autograph works by Hoccleve but also anonymous Middle English treatises on the Decalogue, the works of corporal mercy, and other devout poems. Edsall shows how this manuscript both "typifies the processes of creative adaptation of religious texts and teachings for an urban, upwardly mobile merchant elite" and also demonstrates the continued influence of much earlier modes of spirituality on later religious texts and practices (116). Edsall's essay forms a fitting pair with Nicole Rice's study of two manuscript anthologies that suggest how affective devotional texts for lay audiences might have moved in the opposite direction when they were put to use in clerical contexts. Focusing on Cambridge, Jesus College, MS Q.D.4 and Cambridge University Library MS Ii.4.9--both devotional anthologies containing the fourteenth-century allegories for lay readers, The Abbey of the Holy Ghostand The Charter of the Abbey--Rice demonstrates the sometimes surprisingly close relationship between clerical and lay religious devotional interests and reading practices. Not only did priests use these lay texts for their own personal devotions, but they also seemed to put the texts to use in their public ministries, assisting the priest's "duplex vita: a life combining pastoral discipline with the development of personal contemplative practices" (160).

The volume's third section offers three studies of how religious texts were received and rewritten by later authors and how they generated new models of Christian community in the fifteenth century. First, Moira Fitzgibbons demonstrates that Dives and Pauper revises and expands upon the fourteenth-century catechetical work, Pore Caitif. Although the links between these two texts have been long acknowledged, Fitzgibbons shows that the influence is in the opposite direction than has often been assumed. Once she has done so, she focuses on the how both texts associate storytelling with women, both being preoccupied with dangerously frivolous ornamentation (clothing, narrative, etc.). Yet, she suggests, Dives and Pauper"talked back" to Pore Caitif's largely negative representation of women and storytelling (and especially exemplary narratives), ultimately reincorporating both into modes of orthodox Christian practice. Next, Stephen Kelly and Ryan Perry examine the contents of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 23, showing how manuscripts such as this one complicate our understanding of fifteenth-century devotional reading communities. This manuscript, they suggest, reveals "an appetite for debate about the constitution of Christian community that extends beyond both identifiably heterodox reading communities and...the preacher's pulpit" (217). After surveying the didactic and devotional contents of the manuscript, the authors conclude with a short reading of a unique sermon within the manuscript that both employs radical vocabulary and orthodox ecclesiology. Helpfully, this essay includes a detailed list of the contents of the manuscript. Although the unedited sermon has recently been translated and included in Wycliffite Spirituality (2013), a transcription here would have been very useful. The final essay, Margaret Connolly's study of a single family's possession and reading of fifteenth-century religious materials, considers how medieval religious texts continued to be used in complex ways in the years following the English reformations. Examining a single family's practical and readerly engagements through their set of medieval religious manuscripts--both books of hours and works of vernacular devotional prose--Connolly elegantly demonstrates how religious reading in Reformation England might encompass both "ultra-orthodox" medieval texts (like Nicholas Love's Mirror) and more reformist ones. Thus, like the earlier essays in this section, Connolly demonstrates that attending to the reception of vernacular religious writing, whether it originates in monasteries, pulpits, or lay reformist groups, helps us understand both the mobility of religious writing and also the desire for it amongst a range of readers.

I should also note the extremely helpful design and critical apparatus of the volume. In addition to extensive footnotes, each essay is followed by a separate bibliography. Further, some of the essays (Sargent, Edsall, and Fitzgibbons) include appendices, providing additional information about manuscripts and texts in clearly-designed charts and lists. The volume's two comprehensive indices--an index of manuscripts and a thorough general index--further contribute to its accessibility and usefulness. As I hope this overview has suggested, this is an especially rich and intellectually-rewarding collection of essays. Taken together, these essays make it clear that the Reformation in England did not mark as clear a rupture with medieval spirituality or its texts as has sometimes been assumed. The sense one has of late medieval and early modern religious culture upon finishing this book is of its stunning vitality, embodied in the production and lived practice of devotional texts. From its studies of manuscripts, reading communities, and textual transmission to its helpful critical apparatus, this collection offers a model for how collaborative scholarship can deepen our understanding of the complex meanings and uses of medieval devotional writings, not only for their original audiences but also for their later readers.

Article Details

Author Biography

Shannon Gayk

Indiana University-Bloomington