14.11.19, Malo, Relics and Writing

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Jay Zysk

The Medieval Review 14.11.19

Malo, Robyn. Relics and Writing in Late Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 298. ISBN: 9781442645639 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jay Zysk
University of South Florida

By urging us to consider the textual construction of saints' relics, Robyn Malo's Relics and Writing in Late Medieval England offers an original and revealing contribution to studies of late medieval literature and religious culture. This provocatively original book reroutes a critical field long associated with the physicality of divine matter toward an investigation of the representational strategies that shape thinking about the saints, their shrines and relics, and the devotional praxes they organize. Whereas the work of Peter Brown, Caroline Walker Bynum, Patrick Geary, and others focuses on the physical materiality of relics and holy remains--pieces of bone and skin, vials of sacred blood, pieces of clothing and other contact relics--Malo offers a refreshing new take on these questions through what she calls "relic discourse," which comprises a broad network of texts, objects, and rhetorical strategies that both mediate and constitute the power of a relic and the legitimacy of its cult.

Overall, Relics and Writing exhibits deep learning, careful and comprehensive research, and deft critical acumen. It covers a range of texts including relic lists and inventories, writings on relics by Guibert of Nogent, Thiofrid of Echternach, and John Wyclif, and the literary works of John Lydgate, Henry Bradshaw, Thomas Malory, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Malo's thick descriptions of religious history are always matched with keen textual analysis. Furthermore, while the book trenchantly critiques the habit of reading relics through the lenses of embodiment theory and material culture, Malo avoids overstated polemic; to the contrary, she is generous in stating her departures and interventions with respect to the aforementioned critics and consistently allows her skilled interpretation of the material to convey the importance of her contribution.

Chapter one, "Representing Relics," situates "relic discourse" in the context of the signifying relationship between relic and reliquary. This initial chapter puts forth three major claims. First, relics must be known through the "practices of enshrinement" (28); this illustrates the point that, however critics have emphasized the physical contact between relics and pilgrims, the laity did not often have ready access to--or even an opportunity to see--saints' remains. Shrines, reliquaries, screens, and feretories actually hid the remains, which means that "writing filled the gap created by the occlusion of these major relics" (31). Second, contrary to the notion that relics constituted the fullness of a saint's praesentia regardless of their size, Malo works from relic lists and inventories (such as those of Durham Cathedral) to argue for "a hierarchy of devotional objects" (41) in which full-body relics were superior to bone fragments and any part of the body was superior to an image or contact relic. Thirdly, Malo examines the pervasive metaphor of "treasure" in the writings of Guibert of Nogent and Thiofrid of Echternach. Guibert rejects elaborate shrines because he finds that their gross materialism not only distracts from their divine referent but also leads to the manufacture of false relics; by contrast, Thiofrid sees monuments and shrines as necessary to differentiate the remains of saints' bodies from ordinary bodies, and even suggests that "to comprehend a relic's power, one need only look at a shrine" (52).

In chapter two, "The Commonplaces of Relic Discourse," Malo continues to work through the slippage between relic and shrine, particularly the shrine's capacity to stand in metaphorically for the relic and, by extension, the saint itself. "Translation and enshrinement," she argues, are analogous to figurative language insofar as they present the signified (the relic) in terms of something else (the shrine)" (66). In an analysis of John Lydgate The Life of St. Gilbert, Malo also details the ways in which relics circulated secretly, often under the cover of darkness, which means that their meanings were created through texts that attempted to use narrative to offset skepticism about the empirical proof of a saint's presence. Simeon of Durham, for example, offers a written account of the exhumation of Saint Cuthbert; in putting into words the body that cannot be seen, Simeon "substitutes writing for viewing" such that "disinterring the saint at night ultimately means subordinating the body to language" (62-63). This chapter also contains one of the book's most fascinating discussions: the curious figure of the "relic custodian," who could, by protecting shrines, controlling their access, and narrating the merits of their saints, "take on a significant authority in shaping the legend of a future saint" (94). His authority is derived principally through his authorized power to interpret the relics for the laity: "The custodian is frequently the character who most easily manipulates how others perceive his relics; and he usually has more intimate access to the relic than any other character" (98). The most engrossing account in the chapter is that of Gilbert of Chevening, the relic custodian of the shrine of Saint Thomas Cantilupe in Hereford, who was largely responsible for creating the saint's devotional cult. By narrating accounts of miracles he attributes to Saint Thomas, Gilbert ensures Thomas's confirmation as the patron saint of Hereford; in like manner, the custodian Thomas of Monmouth does the same for William of Norwich, presenting relics that he claims were given him by William in a holy vision (96-97). Nobody can tell for certain whether the accounts are true; in both cases, it is language alone that allows the relic custodian to "generate, rather than merely affirm, praesentia" (98).

Having established the protocols of relic discourse--translation, metaphor, narrative construction, and the signifying capacities of the reliquary and shrine--Malo moves to a triad of chapters that together consider "the trouble with relic discourse" (99) as demonstrated by pilgrims who do not obtain the spiritual rewards they expect as well as dangerous relic custodians who willfully deceive the faithful. Chapter three, "English Grail Legends and the Holy Blood," focuses on the representation of blood relics in the alliterative Joseph of Arimathie, Henry Lovelich's The History of the Holy Grail, and Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. These texts engage with relic discourse yet also put pressure on its animating premise: "that if a supplicant is only good enough, he or she will earn a miracle" (124). Here, those people who occupy a position of power are the ones who obtain the spiritual reward; in this case, social hierarchy is almost more important than spiritual piety. In Joseph of Arimathie, for example, Christ specifies that Joseph and Josaphe can view, touch, and know Him through his relic whenever they please; Malory's Lancelot, by contrast, gains no such authorization and instead "emphasizes the difference between the penitential pilgrim and the relic custodian or member of the clerical elite, whose status as much as virtue enables him to interact with, and even serve as, a mediator for relics" (123). This chapter is most interesting on account of this turn toward the class hierarchies and religious politics embedded in relic discourse.

Chapters four and five offer a strong conclusion to the book by turning to Chaucer and Wyclif, respectively. In chapter four, on Chaucer's Pardoner and Troilus and Criseyde, Malo examines how the Pardoner is a "parodic relic custodian" (127) who deceives the faithful with his portable treasure trove of false relics. Whereas Gilbert of Chevening and Thomas of Monmouth wrote narratives about saint's miracles for the purposes of popular piety, the Pardoner "uses rhetoric to conceal his counterfeit relics" (137) and thus emerges as "the perfect vehicle for probing how rhetoric and representative language (as well as representative objects, like shrines) can deceive" (129). Malo also argues that the "tresor" at the center of the Pardoner's Tale figures "the literary elision of shrine and relic" that we already saw in earlier chapters (140) and relates it to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The rioters in the tale are attracted to the glamor and beauty of the coins, which Chaucer describes as "faire and brighte" as well as "precious"--"precisely the kinds of adjectives employed to describe saints, relics, and their shrines" (145). Malo concludes with the figuration of Criseyde as relic and shrine, Troilus as supplicant, and Pandarus as a version of the relic custodian in a fresh, imaginative reading of Troilus and Criseyde that pushes against the tendency to assimilate the poem's religious language to the discourse of courtly love and instead suggests that it is of a piece with relic discourse.

Lastly, Malo turns to Wycliffite texts--namely the Lanterne of Light and Pierce the Plowman's Crede--in chapter five to argue that Wycliffites do not condemn relics outright but rather criticize the elaborate shrines and monuments that contain them. She is keen to correct the notion that "every Wycliffite objection to the social practices surrounding relics implies, by necessary extension, a criticism of relics" (164) and goes so far as to detail instances, such as the execution of Richard Wyche, in which Wycliffites kissed the burial ground and took some of his ashes as relics of the body. The crux of the matter for Wyclif was not so much the relic as object but the interpretation of its aims and uses: "Wyclif believes that relcis can be treated appropriately as long as God, and not hte material thing, is worshipped" (168). In other words, the right interpretation of a relic and its signifying relationship to God is what is at stake; this strand of thought is also replayed in sixteenth-century writings on relics by the likes of William Tyndale and Jean Calvin. For Wycliffites, not only did relics potentially distract from God, but their elaborate reliquaries also smoothed over "the common fate that all bodies share: death, decay, burial in the earth, and the hope of resurrection" (180) with gold and jewels. The exorbitant cost of such ornament, combined with the profiteering that so defined the relics trade, ultimately illustrates how "the social practices of relic cults indirectly harmed members of the very community the relic and its cult were supposed to help: the poor and the sick" (182).

In a coda chapter on "The Cultural Work of Relic Discourse," Malo reiterates the pivotal connection between relics and language. Not only is the power of relics mediated through narrative, but the converse is also true: "Relics and relic discourse are interesting precisely because they draw our attention to falsehood, artifice--to assumption, to what remains unsaid" (185). In the final account, relics are far from the detritus of sanctified bodies; rather, they offer a way to investigate the inconsistencies within linguistic representation itself.

Relics and Writing in Late Medieval England is necessary reading for all who are interested in late medieval devotional culture, the intersection of politics and religion in the period, material culture, and the history of representation. Moreover, it should inspire many more studies like it--studies that attend both to the literary construction of religious objects (and doctrines) and, conversely, to the ways in which religious discourses shape an understanding of literary representation in the period. Malo's book provides a fine model for this kind of scholarship, and it reminds us that the sum of relic discourse is infinitely greater than that of sanctified body parts.

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Author Biography

Jay Zysk

University of South Florida