The Medieval Review 15.05.05

Ritchey, Sara. Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. pp. x, 235. $55.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780801452536 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Anne F. Harris
DePauw University

Holy Matter traces a "doctrine of re-creation" in various monastic and conventual settings from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. This set of beliefs, discerned by the author in a series of close textual readings, argues that the world that human beings experience is re-made through the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and that, through the efforts of prayer and meditation, it can be perceived as such. The book's subtitle, Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity, alerts us to shifts (especially in times of monastic reform) within the strategies of perception put forward by monks, nuns, and friars eager to see a divine imprint on the environment around them. The dynamic tension of matter and metaphor throughout the book presents occasions for debates necessary to the analysis of materiality and signification on-going in medieval studies today.

The introduction presents the principles of analyzing the ordo recreationis, a material world redeemed by divine presence. Informed by Barbara Newman's concept of "imaginative theology," the book argues that the highly imagistic meditational treatises under study articulated both the existence of a re-created world and the means to perceive it. With the provocative assertion that "Nature was not a religious concern" (4), a distinction is made between Nature and Creation that seeks to do away with a theorized concept of "nature" in devotion. Rather than an analysis of the concept of Nature, the book offers a study of the matter of creation, specifically those arboreal and floral manifestations which availed themselves so readily to treatises devoted to perceiving divine presence on earth. "[E]nvironmentality, object oriented ontology, and natural theology" (viii), as well as other contemporary theoretical approaches to matter found in actor-network theory and eco-materialism, are bracketed aside, and indeed, the author is in very little conversation with recent forays in medieval eco-criticism--a missed opportunity since there is great potential for productive exchange in the book's explorations of matter and its agency in shaping human perception and devotion. The conceptual analysis of the book is thus not devoted to nature or the natural, but rather to "the insistent presence of the material" (22).

Chapter 1, "The Mirror of Holy Virginity," is devoted to both the experience and the perception of nuns living in enclosures that framed the material world so as to make it available for meditation. The twelfth-century Speculum virginum, a dialogic text between the nun Theodora and her mentor Peregrinus, expands the possibilities of female devotion so that the nuns' virginity is not only a state of physical or spiritual purity but also becomes an active means to reclaiming the sanctity of the phenomenal world. Virginal bodies living in conventual enclosure were, in wondrous paradox, "fertile fields, capable of restoring Eden" (33). For this labor to take place, however, the nuns' perception had to be attuned to the material world as a manifestation of the divine. The lush, floral imagery of the Song of Songs provides multiple invitations to the senses and heightens these to perceive God in the order of creation. In the complexity of the Speculum virginum's use of the Song of Songs, the nun both is and perceives the garden enclosed. Through the text, the virginal body of the nun could become both medium and message for a material world sanctified by a divine presence revealed in trees and flowers.

Chapter 2, "Viriditas and Virginitas," focuses on the liturgical performances of two twelfth-century texts by Hildegard of Bingen: the Ordo virtutum, a liturgical drama featuring sixteen virtues within an arboreal framework, and the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum, a collection of songs replete with arboreal, floral, and birthing imagery. A connection between viriditas and virginitas in Hildegard's oeuvre renders the nuns' performances agents of the incarnation: the virginal bodies of the actants bring forth the viridity of a world reconfigured by divine presence. The analysis of the Ordo presents an exciting opportunity to visualize Hildegard of Bingen's stage directions and the materialization of allegorized virtues through the nuns' performances. Arranging the nuns upon a dais in brightly colored robes so that they form a tree of allegories signals a vivid embodiment of arboreal imagery. The texts heard in the nuns' singing and the images created by their bodies combine to shift the Ordo from the realm of re-presentation to that of divine presence. This immediacy is found in performances of the Symphonia as well, and, here again, that the songs are performed by virginal bodies is crucial. The nuns' embodiment of song, and their singing of texts describing the blossoming of seeds to proclaim the Incarnation, was transformative of their environment, "making their cloister verdant through liturgical performance" (77). Herrad of Hohenbourg's Hortus deliciarum is introduced to demonstrate how uses of natural imagery can differ. Where Hildegard's use of arboreal and floral imagery is to make the divine present here and now, for Herrad the divine can only be present in the afterlife. Not all trees and flowers are available to the "doctrine of re-creation." Sometimes, as for Herrad, a metaphorical tree is just a metaphorical tree.

Chapter 3, "Clare of Assisi and the Tree of Crucifixion," explores the arboreal imagery presented by Clare of Assisi in her fourth and final letter to Agnes of Prague dated 1253, and introduces a discussion of the material conditions and spiritual benefits of Franciscan poverty. Clare complicates the meditative use of the tree, demonstrated in the Speculum virginum and performed in Hildegard of Bingen's liturgical compositions, by placing a mirror among its branches and associating it materially and devotionally with the tree of the Crucifixion. The mirror becomes a site of projection for the totality of Christ, and one of reflection for that of the nuns. Clare's first three letters to Agnes set the stage for the emphasis on one aspect of the mirror: Christ's poverty. Here, the book takes a turn in its pursuit of holy matter, as the material conditions of poverty intertwined with the bridal imagery of the Song of Songs to become the devotional means through which the nuns will experience divine presence on earth. At times, the devotional trajectory that the author establishes for Clare, with its fervent pursuits of poverty and mystical consummation, can feel far removed from arboreal imagery and matter, and the tree can appear to be little more than a frame for a mirror whose metaphor reached decidedly beyond the material world. The author positions Bonaventure's Tractatus qui lignum vitae dicitur from c. 1260 and Pacino di Bonaguida's Tree of the Cross painting from c. 1310 next in an argument to establish the prevalence of trees in Franciscan devotion, but Clare's mystical tree and numinous mirror beg the question of how matter and materiality are constituted within such complex metaphor.

Chapter 4, "The Franciscan Bough," expands the previous chapters' focus on nuns' experiences of the phenomenal world as revelatory of divine presence to engage in those of Franciscan friars of the fourteenth century. At stake is an understanding of both St. Francis's relationship to elements in the material world as manifestations of the divine, and of the body (specifically the wounds) of the saint itself as holy matter. Early in the chapter, through examples pulled from Celano's Vita prima and Bonaventure's Legenda maior, the author distinguishes St. Francis's interest in floral and arboreal phenomena from an interest in "nature" as an isolated concept. Instead, St. Francis is noted for his "appreciation of the material world as holy matter, as capable of yielding the presence of God" (129). The evocative agricultural language of "yielding" indicates the symbiotic relationship of the material world and the human imagination in Franciscan thought, and pointedly does not use a concept of "nature" to explain the presence of flowers and trees therein. When discussing the preponderance of arboreal structures in Franciscan meditations that explore the saint's human and holy matter, however, the statement that "trees came to naturalize the supernatural union of contraries" (137) becomes confusing. After the careful bracketing out of "nature" that the author has enacted, what does it mean for elements of the phenomenal world "to naturalize" the encounter between the human and the holy? Perhaps the answer is as simple as "to materialize," but this and other uses of "nature" and "natural" throughout the book call for a further examination of terminology. The close work with Ubertino of Casale's Arbor vitae crucifixae Jesu Christi and Bartholomew of Pisa's Liber de conformitate vitae beati Francisci ad vitam domini Jesu argues that St. Francis's wounds assert divine presence within the realm of the material, perceptual world, and that St. Francis, as an alter Christus, brings the holy into the human. Trees will once again be the organizing principles of these meditative texts and will thus prove crucial to the transformative aspect of Franciscan spirituality. Imitation, transformation, and assimilation all press on the meditant to become one with the divine beloved. For no one is this call more literal than for Alheit of Trochau, a young nun of the Dominican convent of Engelthal, who might be characterized as the original tree-hugger. "It seems to me," she is reported to have claimed while walking through the cloister garden, "that each tree is our Lord Jesus Christ" (157). Without the intermediary of metaphor, Alheit embraces every tree as a direct manifestation of Christ. Herein lies one of the challenges of the book: at times (as with Alheit) metaphor collapses into matter, at others (as with Clare in the previous chapter) matter is overtaken by metaphor. The author's analysis of both under the rubric of holy matter will create an invitation to expand the boundaries of matter and metaphor for some readers, and a frustration in a lack of definition of terms for others.

Chapter 5, "An Estranged Wilderness," engages the shift in fourteenth and fifteenth-century Carthusian meditations as the monastic order's locales moved closer to cities. The "wilderness" of the Early Desert Fathers was easier to conjure up, and materially realize, for Carthusians in the countryside than in the more regimented lands around urban developments. As in previous chapters, the author seeks to examine the potential for the material world to make the divine manifest. But where trees and flowers were easier to understand materially in their shapes, contours, and revelations, "wilderness" remains a more amorphous category. The author argues that Carthusians designed a "gardening mandate" (163) to compensate for this loss of wilderness, but without a clearer conception of wilderness, the material conditions so important to the book are difficult to realize. An elision between "wilderness" and "forest" is problematic because forests were hardly untamed terrains in the Middle Ages, instead being regulated by laws, governed by keepers, and often populated by hamlets. [1] With more definition, but relegated to "[m]erely a metaphor" (172), the Carthusian cell is presented as a substitute, or "proxy," wilderness that asks a great deal of the imagination of the meditant. Again, the relationship between matter and metaphor is difficult to discern, but its flux and volatility may be the point. The call for speculation and the mediation of the divine through material images found in the Exemplar of the Dominican Henry Suso is amplified in the Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Jesu Christi and in the anonymous Carthusian Desert of Religion. As the idea of "wilderness" expands outwards from trees and flowers, so, too, do these texts extend their scope of creation to divine being. The ordo creationis becomes a "blueprint of God's imagination" (181) and, with a perception properly prepared by the ideas of both Carthusian texts, this wonder can be scaled down to the monastic cell, even with its limited access to a bounded garden. When the author of the Desert of Religion speaks of his treatise "made groveand in treys here" (189) he evokes the potential of trees properly perceived, perhaps those of his own monastic setting, to make (the ideas of) his treatise grow there. On this issue of the immediacy of place for the devotion of holy matter, the examination of the material conditions based on archaeological excavations of the English Carthusian charterhouses of Hinton and Mount Grace made me wish that more work with the physical environment of the texts and authors studied had been done throughout the book.

In Holy Matter, Sara Ritchey makes a welcome case for reclaiming the material presence and devotional power of trees, flowers, and gardens that have too often been erased or deemed incidental in analyses of metaphors within monastic and conventual settings. These phenomenal elements created opportunities for the medieval devotee to understand and experience, as the author aptly puts it, "the ontological status of metaphor, and of the material world from which metaphor is spun" (195). The array and differences of the late medieval texts and devotional experiences presented in the book indicate that this ontological status was in perpetual flux, and that matter and metaphor existed in a complex, mutually formative, dynamic. Though the book separates out the "holy matter" of trees and flowers from the "Christian materiality" of blood relics and animated statues early on, a productive dialogue would ensue from an engagement with Caroline Walker Bynum's work, especially to further explore the volatility of the relationship between matter and metaphor in the Middle Ages. [2] Ritchey's detailed analyses of multiple perceptions of the phenomenal world, from Alheit of Trochau's literal tree-hugging to the Carthusian cloister's proxy wilderness, and her rich exploration of devotional responses to the material world, make this book a valuable contribution to the continuing efforts in medieval studies to discern how matter was understood and experienced in the Middle Ages. [3]



1. See for example, William Perry Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006); John Aberth, An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature (London: Routledge, 2013); and Richard Hoffman, An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

2. Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

3. In particular, I would highlight the fruitful intersection of Holy Matter with the recent anthology edited by Pippa Salonius and Andrea Worm, The Tree; Symbol, Allegory, and Mnemonic Device in Medieval Art and Thought (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014).

Copyright (c) 2015 Anne F. Harris

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