The Medieval Review 16.05.11


Kelly, Stephen, and Ryan Perry, eds. Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England and Europe. Medieval Church Studies, 31. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. 663. ISBN: 978-2503549354 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Elizabeth Schirmer
New Mexico State University
eschirme@nmsu.edu

This rich collection of essays grew out of the online "Geographies of Orthodoxy" project (http://www.qub.ac.uk/geographies-of-orthodoxy/) and an affiliated conference at Queen's University Belfast in 2010, both of which were devoted to mapping the pseudo-Bonaventuran tradition of vitae Christi in England and beyond. The work collected here on medieval lives of Christ and their uses across media--textual, visual, dramatic, liturgical, etc.--redraws and repopulates the religious landscape of late-medieval England, with welcome side trips to the Continent. The editors' stated purpose is to demonstrate the vitality, complexity, and diversity of late-medieval orthodoxy. Challenging its characterization as "imaginatively sterile and repressive" (1), which they blame in large part on the rise of lollard studies, Kelly and Perry describe orthodoxy as "processual...a reformist aspiration rather than a fixed doctrinal certainty" (14-15). As corollary the collection seeks to re-center the fifteenth century as an object of study, bringing it out from under the shadows cast by periodizing narratives in order to understand it (in John van Engen's phrase) "from within" (4). Both moves, a resistance to polarizing frameworks of lollard vs. orthodox, and a call for new lenses through which to view the English fifteenth century, have been made more than once of late; but this collection accomplishes both in ways that point forward to new questions and new approaches.

The collection opens with Peter Tóth and Dávid Falvay's groundbreaking argument that the Meditationes Vitae Christi, attributed in the Middle Ages to Bonaventure and by more recent scholars to Johannes de Caulibus, was in fact written by one Jacobus de Sancto Geminiano, the leader of a rebellion of the Franciscan Spirituals in Tuscany in the early fourteenth century. In addition to proposing a more radical provenance for a work that, in the form of Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, was later transformed into a staple of post-Arundelian orthodoxy, Tóth and Falvay offer crucial insights into the complexity of its transmission: the MVC actively invites readers to rewrite its own meditations to suit their particular needs, generating a plethora of quasi-independent versions. Michael Sargent, in his concluding response essay, recounts how this distinctive feature of the genre has led him to seek new models of textual editing: replacing the tree-shape of traditional stemmatics with a rhizomic model and calling for digital editions mouvantes, which would allow the reader to view a given text through the lens of any number of individual versions (617).

The quality of fluidity and adaptability to individual circumstances--what Sargent describes as the "alluvial flow" of the MVC (623)--is everywhere apparent in this volume. Maureen Boulton offers a welcome introduction to lives of Christ in fifteenth-century France, long overshadowed in the scholarship by the English tradition. Magumi Taguchi and Barbara Zimbalist discuss lesser-known English versions that downplay the MVC's hallmark method of imaginative engagement with Christ's life: Taguchi notes the unusual focus on "present and worldly health" (508) in a passion meditation probably made for a male religious house (MS Pepys 2125), while Zimbalist considers the emphasis on speech acts in a Life of the Virgin Mary and Christ (Dublin, Trinity College MS 423). Both attest to the "generic ambiguity" and "narrative multivalence" (518, 515) of the tradition as a whole. Moving beyond the pseudo-Bonaventuran (or perhaps I should say Jacoban) tradition, Sarah MacMillan traces a spectrum of Middle English models for engaging with the life of Christ, with the Prickynge of Loue striking a balance between Nicholas Love's detailed instructions for personal, primarily emotional engagement and the representation of Elizabeth Spalbeck's own bodily performance of the passion in her Life; the Prickynge, MacMillan argues, develops a model of "compassionate thought" that incorporates mental, physical, and emotional states (326).

Love's Mirror itself receives much welcome revisionary attention in this volume. Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis' study of two early manuscripts, produced before the Mirror was conscripted into anti-lollard service, finds a pastorally minded Love inviting women into spiritual community with each other and into the "meditational landscape" of salvation history (484). Sarah James, in turn, argues that the reception of Love's text was by no means constrained by the "barren antagonism" of recent scholarship (605) but instead reflects practices of "hospitable reading" that extend beyond texts to traditions and forms (604). James considers two Cambridge manuscripts, St John's College G. 25 and CUL Hh.1.11, each of which creates a new textual form of "short Passion and Eucharist sequence" out of doctrinally mixed sources, including Love's Mirror and the gospel harmony Oon of Foure, respectively (603). This use of the Mirror compares interestingly with its reception by Margery Kempe, whose "overactive...'devoute ymagination'," Elizabeth Scarborough posits, might have sabotaged her own and her clerical amanuenses' efforts to construct her as female visionary and reformer on the model of Bridget of Sweden (368).

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton argues that many late-medieval English women were much more deeply engaged with Continental mysticism than Scarborough's Kempe. Seeking, like James, to decenter lollard studies, Kerby-Fulton characterizes the fifteenth century as an "era of converts" across Europe and a "golden age of women's theology" in England (576, 571). Her study of the earliest annotations on Julian of Norwich's Short Text discovers an appetite for mystical language and theological daring that makes the lollards look tame by comparison. This view of the English fifteenth century gains support from Heather A. Reid and Paul J. Patterson, both of whom trace networks of textual transmission with women at their center. Reid argues persuasively that Elizabeth Berkeley commissioned the translation of the Middle English Story of Asneth, further identifying John Walton as the translator and John Shirley as the owner of the sole surviving manuscript. Patterson, in turn, explores issues of translation, access, and authority in and around Syon Abbey, arguing that the Mirror of our Lady and the Speculum Devotorum, an encyclopedic life of Christ that Patterson himself has just finished editing, develop "linguistic registers" and "hermeneutic frameworks" for textual transformation between and beyond monastic communities (458).

Once we shed the framing dichotomies of the lollard controversy, a wealth of other frameworks for understanding late-medieval devotional culture become available to view. In two superb essays, Daniel McCann establishes the medical function of lives of Christ and Valerie Allen explores Nicholas Love's philosophy of mind. McCann's study of the trope of Christus medicus establishes a medieval understanding of salus as both health and salvation, and of Christ as salvator in both intertwined senses of the word. Augustine's "Logos-therapeutics," in which the reading of the Word becomes a therapeutic regimen for realigning the soul, underwrites monastic practices of lectio divina and reemerges in Middle English representations of Christ's body as both universal pharmacy and healing text (343). Allen, in turn, locates Love's text within the "long history of knowing," analyzing his distinctive "lexicon of mental acts" to unpack a dense nexus of cognition and volition, inwardness and compassion (553). Allen argues, finally, that Love's experiential vis imaginativa paradoxically anticipates philosophical empiricism.

As they expand their focus beyond the pseudo-Bonaventuran tradition, the essays in this volume also transcend the boundaries of texts. Two fine articles, one by Rachel Canty and David Griffith on wall paintings and manuscript illumination in Oxford and the surrounding area, and one by Sheila Sweetinburgh on a painted pillar in the parish church at Faversham, emphasize the "dynamic interplay between image and text" in late-medieval religious experience, the way that reading and seeing work together to harness prayer, stimulate devotion, and stir the mind and heart (268). Both essays also trace iconographic developments attendant upon increased lay involvement in parish churches and textual cultures alike. Notable are the parallels drawn between the stories of Mary and Christ, and between infancy narratives and the passion, such as those traced by Mary Dzon in her extensive study of stories in which the good thief later crucified with Jesus appears among a band of robbers that beset the holy family on their flight into Egypt. Tracing these backstories of the good thief from folklore and pilgrims' stories through Aelred of Rievaulx's De institutione inclusarum and into a variety of Middle English texts and images, Dzon emphasizes the "overlap between learned and popular religious cultures," exploring a "web of associations" between physical and spiritual healing, Christ's infancy and passion, the baby Jesus' effluvia and the sacrament of baptism (193, 228). Denise Despres offers a complementary reading of Aelred's interest in adolescence, both Christ's and his own, as a liminal period crucial to spiritual maturation but teetering always on the brink of rebellion; for men, she argues, the hot and moist humors of adolescence lay important groundwork for spiritual friendship, while women remain "forever imprisoned in [their] flux" (123).

As these essays demonstrate, medieval devotional culture cannot be shoe-horned into modern academic disciplines. The lives of Christ presented in this volume belie any effort to separate the literary from the art-historical, Kerby-Fulton's "daring theology" from popular devotion practices. Eleanor McCullough's study of the "Hours of the Cross," a fourteenth-century Latin hymn whose various Middle English versions appear in devotional miscellanies, primers, and books of hours, reveals the permeability of categories like text and image, personal devotion and public liturgy, the affective and the theological. To understand how medieval readers used a text like this one, we must be attuned to "localized devotional culture[s]" that span media and modes of engagement (393). These are cultures in which, as Pamela King puts it, the relationship between visual art, drama, and meditative prose is not linear or hierarchical but rather "circular," "permeable," and "ekphrastic." King offers a revolutionary account of the origins of medieval drama: revising Dobson's "big bang" theory, she proposes that the drama might have originated as theatrical spectacle, without any textual component, and then "accreted" its dialogue later--perhaps in response to the catechetical agenda of the Council of Constance (538, 549). Marlene Villalobos Hennessy also considers the relationship between reading and performance, but from a different angle: she argues that, in a text like the Revelation of the Hundred Pater Nosters, reading as practice transcends the book as a material object, becoming an embodied practice of mimesis available to all.

It is this sort of thing, I presume, that Michael Sargent has in mind when he talks about the "world of reading" sketched here--a world in which reading is the act of a "whole person" "embodied" in a particular "surround," a practice that can be applied equally to drama, art, liturgy, music, and "all of life" (631). While compelling, Sargent's formulation begs a question that echoes through much recent work on medieval religious culture: if reading is no longer understood as the decoding, interpretation, and digestion (ruminatio) of textual objects, then what, exactly, is it? The prevalence of English literary studies in this anthology and the field as a whole ensures that reading and textuality remain central concerns, as they seem genuinely to have been in late-medieval devotional cultures. As reading comes unmoored from texts, and other bodies and objects are textualized in turn, how might we best conceptualize this set of interrelated metaphors and practices? In raising questions such as these, Kelly and Perry's collection maps the way forward for work on medieval religious culture and fifteenth-century studies alike. While most immediately relevant to scholars working with late-medieval English texts, the paths cleared here open up new vistas across disciplines.



Copyright (c) 2016 Elizabeth Schirmer



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