Scholarly studies of medieval exegesis of the Song of Songs have often commented on the fluidity of gender in the interpretations, pointing out that medieval commentators assigned gendered roles to the allegorical personae of the text in line with the nuptial understanding of the love poems between "Bridegroom" and "Bride," even when doing so could designate an obviously male interlocutor (such as a Cistercian monk) in the role of the female Bride. To modern readers, this has sometimes been a source of irony, or even discomfort, something that could tend to diminish the spiritual power of what are highly charged, even thrilling, religious texts. How can we take seriously treatises by confessedly celibate men who portray themselves as the female protagonists of passionate love stories with a God who is clearly understood to be gendered male? The problem is double: in the first place, what were these authors thinking and what made them think that way? And, even more perplexing is the question of what such spiritual extravaganzas could possibly mean to Christians of the twenty-first century, the big "so what?" question.
Engh's learned study starts with the assertion of the great Cistercian scholar Jean Lerclercq that, at least in the case of Bernard of Clairvaux, the most celebrated medieval Latin commentator on the Song of Songs, this gendering is entirely grammatical. To this view, Engh counters: "My argument rests on the assumption that gender significations are central to Bernard's bridal imagery. Indeed, I suggest that a male exegete performing the role of the bride enhances rather than empties gender categories of significance" (3). Turning to the theoretical literature on gender roles, Engh generally accepts the idea of the body as a site for cultural meaning, even though she does not agree with the forms of cultural constructionism and queer theory that eradicate the body as a stable base for social definition. Engh is very sensitive to the complexities of medieval gender identity; in fact, medieval hierarchies of embodied gender are central to her argument that "male-female duality in this language is not one of equality but is rather formed into a gendered hermeneutical hierarchy in which, ultimately, a fully Christomimetic man both assumes and negates femaleness" (5). In her conclusions, Engh describes the effect of this gender crossing as "an encompassing hermeneutical and ascetic process of transformation into an idealized maleness, into vir perfectus, which admits and even presupposes a male subject" (401-2). In short, Engh makes the very intriguing suggestion that the portrayal of a male as female in this devotional tradition serves to reinforce a certain medieval Christian definition of masculinity.
In spite of the voluminous literature on medieval Christian allegories on the Song of Songs, this is the only study I know of that fully grapples with the significance of the obviously gendered identities. This lack of scholarly attention may, perhaps, be due to the fact that the academic preparation for close reading of Latin allegorical texts does not always include sophisticated consideration of gender identity, much less understanding of the rhetorical function of gender. Engh is to be congratulated for taking this issue so seriously, and, especially, for making sense of it in its own context, not just as a vehicle for modern critical gender theory. For this reason alone, her book will be of interest to scholars far beyond the cozy world of experts on medieval exegesis, although scholars of the Bible in the Middle Ages will also find this interpretation enlightening and, I hope, challenging.
The structure of this book raises some interesting dichotomies: For one thing, at first glance, Engh's focus may seem rather narrow, since she analyses just the eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, which only comment on the text of the Song of Songs to the beginning of chapter three. However, the scope of the book is actually much more ample, since her reading depends on a broad understanding of medieval Christianity, including such ecclesiastical moments as the Gregorian Reforms and the rise of reformed monasticism. Because of this, I fully expect that her insights will be applicable to many medieval Latin spiritual texts. The central chapters of this book consider broad issues of gender definition in medieval Europe, such as the mixture of erotic and maternal imagery in the conception of the "Bride," and the idealized figure of the virgin mother, both issues which urgently need to be expanded in studies of medieval Christian theology, especially in issues of Christology and both learned and popular devotion to the Virgin Mary. Engh points to the rich intellectual possibilities of these theological problems before returning to her interpretation of the feminized male that figures so prominently in Bernard's writings. Thus this work opens up important primary source material to theoretical discussions of gender, femininity and masculinity in medieval Christian culture.
It will be especially interesting to see if Engh's methodology will be applied to female monastic writers of the Latin Christian tradition, such as Elisabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen. These authors wrote spiritual treatises from the same cultural context, and with as much fervid love language as their male counterparts like Bernard and Rupert (or Robert) of Deutz, but, obviously, without the same position of gender dominance from which male authors could speak. In subsequent centuries, especially in the world of vernacular devotion, women writers became the primary representatives of this nuptial vision of the love between God and human beings. This is a tradition that reached a peak of popularity and seriousness in the sixteenth century, and continued even into the nineteenth century; it has been widely studied in its own context, but usually with little reference to the equally fervent monastic literature of the twelfth century. Surely, since there is a direct line of intellectual influence, the two traditions cry out to be understood as a coherent whole, and perhaps Engh's method of understanding the centrality of gendered identities in Christian spiritual writings will offer a way of linking authors whose works have not yet been understood in continuity. And, perhaps, this could even be a first step for understanding some of the more enthusiastic and emotionally laden forms of twenty-first century Christianity in a coherent historical context that shares religious ideals and aspirations with the beautiful and poetic religious world of Bernard of Clairvaux.