15.05.16, Johnson, The Middle English Life of Christ

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Cynthia Turner Camp

The Medieval Review 15.05.16

Johnson, Ian. The Middle English Life of Christ: Academic Discourse, Translation, and Vernacular Theology. Medieval Church Studies, 30. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. viii, 195. ISBN: 9782503547480 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Turner Camp
University of Georgia

Ian Johnson's The Middle English Life of Christ: Academic Discourse, Translation, and Vernacular Theology triangulates three related intellectual strands: Middle English practices of translation, especially as they derive from the academic commentary tradition; vernacular theology; and the widely varied Middle English Lives of Christ. Although it owes much to A. J. Minnis's approach to translation and vernacularity, this book situates itself most strongly amidst recent publications and projects that reassess Middle English Lives of Christ. Notable among these scholarly enterprises are the essay collection The Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ: Exploring the Middle English Tradition (2013) and the online Geographies of Orthodoxy project (http://www.qub.ac.uk/geographies-of-orthodoxy/), both of which Johnson helped edit. Like these, Johnson seeks to raise the profile of the oft ignored, and oft denigrated, Middle English Lives of Christ, especially Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Life of Christ. He accomplishes this task through nuanced, even microscopic readings of these Lives of Christ against their source material, demonstrating the sophistication of these translation enterprises, their relationship to the preaching tradition, and the resulting complementary interplay between Latin and vernacular.

The opening chapter sets the groundwork for the study. It begins by summarizing the state of the relevant fields, providing an overview of the vernacular Lives of Christ as well as the different considerations of audience that translators faced. His detailed discussion of the distinctive challenges (and freedoms) posed by the adaptation and explication of Scripture, and how these translators used the scholastic commentary system, consolidates the criticism in both areas. The second half of the first chapter situates the book within a variety of critical landscapes. Here, Johnson establishes the two "modern orthodoxies" that the book questions. The first is the understanding of "medieval translation as a matter of Latin-vernacular competition and displacement"; the second is the interpretation of "vernacular theology" as that which "vied with, opposed, and transcended an oppressively latinate Church and its theology" (22). Johnson explains the relationship between these two "orthodoxies": when critics understand the Latin-vernacular relationship as competitive, that understanding feeds the impression that "vernacular theology" necessarily resists latinate, clerical culture. The book's argument, which focuses on these translators' craft, is set against these binaries.

In chapter two, Johnson surveys a range of Middle English Lives of Christ in terms of their translation practices and theory. He is concerned primarily with two aspects of these texts. First, he emphasizes how these translators of Holy Writ exhort their readers in the same vein that preachers encourage their parishioners. Second, Johnson considers how these translators engage with and "English" Latin scholastic translation theory. Orm's Ormulum, Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Life of Christ, the fifteenth-century Speculum devotorum, the Gospel harmony The Passion of Our Lord, and the late fourteenth-century Stanzaic Life of Christ all receive treatment. Johnson attends to these texts' prologues and translation methodologies, watching (as it were) their translators at work: their word selection, consultation of authorities, and addition of individual commentary. In particular, Johnson focuses closely on the terms these writers use of their translation projects. As a map of how translators talk about their craft, this chapter helpfully supplements the prologues and extracts collected in The Idea of the Vernacular (ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al., 1999).

The third chapter focuses exclusively on Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, a translation of the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi. In it, Johnson offers a sympathetic analysis of Love as a translator and marketer of vernacular theology for the widest possible Middle English audience. This chapter's strengths lie, as in chapter two, in his detailed close reading of Love's translation efforts--right down to the level of prepositional choices--and how those translation choices reveal Love's preacherly motivations. As Johnson admits (45), this sympathetic treatment will not fully recuperate Love from those disappointed in him for not being other than what he is. Nevertheless, the chapter demonstrates the value of a sensitive and attentive focus on Love's hortatory goals, for in it Johnson reveals the devotional plasticity of Love's text and his concern for his readers' spiritual edification.

The fourth and final chapter treats a less frequently studied Life of Christ composed in the early fifteenth century by a Carthusian monk of Sheen for (it seems) a Birgittine sister of Syon Abbey, the Speculum Devotorum or The Mirror to Devout People. Unlike Love's Mirror, the Carthusian Speculum draws widely from Gospel, commentary, and visionary texts. Johnson again walks us through the Carthusian author's prefacyon, examining the rhetorical devices (often reminiscent of Chaucerian tricks) the writer uses to bolster and frame his compliatio, before turning to the translator's specific interpretive and stylistic decisions. In particular, Johnson demonstrates how the Speculum author imagines translation and meditation to be co-extensive, how he presents his meditative techniques as applicable to other religious texts, and how he deals with hot devotional topics of the day such as the cult of the Holy Name and the authority of non-biblical traditions (such as Jesus's appearance to Mary after the Resurrection).

There is clearly a need for a sympathetic reception of the Middle English lives of Christ, especially Nicholas Love's Mirror; these multifaceted texts were central to late medieval England's spiritual landscape, which cannot be understood well until these works have been reassessed thoughtfully and with scholarly rigor. While The Middle English Life of Christ is an important step in that process, some readers may find that its rhetorical positioning limits its effectiveness. In situating itself so persistently against the two "modern orthodoxies" represented by Rita Copeland and Nicholas Watson--scholars whose work on translation practices and vernacular theology, respectively, is seminal but in no way unquestioned--The Middle English Life of Christ may protest too much. Its definition of the two "orthodoxies" comes close to caricaturing them in ways that disregard the nuance both fields have developed over the past twenty years. Additionally, by attributing to these "orthodoxies" an all-persuasive auctoritas they no longer (if ever) held, the book incidentally reinscribes the intellectual constructs it seeks to challenge. Moreover, by emphasizing the reactionary nature of its own causa finalis, The Middle English Life of Christ does a disservice to its strengths: close attention to textual detail and to the concrete, nitpicky practices of translation, interpretation, repackaging, and teaching.

These concerns about the book's rhetorical positioning notwithstanding, The Middle English Life of Christ is a valuable contribution to the literature on the lithe sophistication of fifteenth-century orthodoxies. It offers, in its minute attention to the broad implications of small linguistic changes, valuable examples of Middle English translation practice at work in a spiritually central body of work. In his concern with the devotional and theological impact of such textual practice, Johnson reveals the care with which these translators considered their readers' and auditors' spiritual needs, demonstrating their theological sensitivity and edificatory desires.

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