In this research monograph Claire M. Waters seeks to bring into view a corpus of material that is of essential importance to medieval English literature, but which arguably has been somewhat neglected by the scholarship in that field: pastoral writings in Anglo-Norman French, mainly from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The texts she discusses include the well-known--William of Waddington's Manuel des pechiez, a selection of fabliaux, Gautier de Coinci's Miracles de Nostre Dame--but also a number which may be less familiar, such as Pierre d'Abernon's Lumere as lais, Robert of Gretham's Miroir, the Evangile de Nicodème, and Robert Grosseteste's Chasteau d'Amour. All are texts, however, that circulated relatively widely (appearing in at least ten manuscripts, and many many more in the case of the Miracles), and which can, she suggests, be linked to a kind of "middling" lay readership. In her readings of these texts, Waters seeks to draw out how they figure the encounter between teacher and pupil, arguing throughout that we should see a more positive, open and fluid relationship, where reflection on death and future judgment works to soften the assumed hierarchy between the two. As she sees it, the texts, by "practicing the humility and loving engagement, and exploiting the status reversals, that are fundamental to Christian belief and Christian teaching," provide us with a different--and perhaps better--model for understanding medieval Christianity than some readings which are more focussed on the hierarchical and coercive (xiv).
The introduction sets out the landscape of enquiry and the conceptual tools to hand. These texts of instruction are less focussed on disciplining the laity than, in an act of what she nicely calls "inadvertent radicalism" (1), empowering them as learners. "Teachers and learners are collaborators in this project [of salvation], equally dependent on one another's goodwill and spiritual labour to succeed" (3), with the vernacular texts explicitly putting their potential lay readership onto a common ground with their clerical teachers. We should not see the project of lay instruction as all about inculcating "sin and fear" (here versus Jean Delumeau's magisterial thesis on "western guilt culture"),  but something more hopeful and positive regarding the possibility of salvation. Key here is a focus on lay "learnedness," the clergie of the title (although in fact a term which doesn't appear much if at all in the texts cited), which Waters wants to associate with a "'middling' category of vernacular literacy" (9).
In chapter 1, Waters focusses on instructional texts presented in dialogue form--particularly Pierre d'Abernon's Lumere as lais--and others where a strongly implicit sense of audience is present--such as Robert of Gretham's Miroir. Her argument throughout is that "such dialogues are not simply an authoritarian monologism in disguise but serve to maintain the sense of exchange that serious and effective teaching has to incorporate" (19). In part this is because future Judgment will fall upon both student and teacher--the latter being responsible at least in part for the student's possibility of learning how to gain salvation, but the student therefore also tied to the teacher's own fate. Something of the manuscript context of these works is explored, noting that some exist in small vade mecum codexes, likely to have been carried by priests and therefore disseminated more widely. Waters notes that the early twelfth-century writings of Honorius Augustodunensis--particularly his Elucidarium--provided a foundation for later vernacular works, but that in contrast to the "distance" with which Honorius views a lay audience, the later vernacular translations do not assume such a gulf. A key passage in Robert of Gretham's Miroir addresses the fact that whilst Holy Scripture initially seems "dark and difficult" ("obscure e dure"), "whoever applies himself in order to see the spiritual meaning" (Mais qui i mettrat sun purpens / Pur veer l'espirital sens) will gain its fruits. Lay readers are thus "given the tools they need to understand not only its letter but its spirit, to being to gain the skills of clergie" (34).
Chapter 2 continues to play out this interpretation of the pedagogic project of the vernacular texts, and frames things in regard to the future fact of death and judgment, the point at which every person (sic, 61) comes face to face with God. Death is thus a highly "teachable moment" (64) in which the outcome of that teaching is revealed, but the status of the knowledge between pupil (imagined as having now gone beyond the veil) and (living) teacher reversed. Waters shows us various narratives of the dead returning to instruct the living, reminding us very effectively how often the frame is explicitly pedagogic--a student returning to report on the afterlife to his former magister--or between scholars. The image of uncertainty of knowledge regarding the afterlife, and a plenitude of knowledge coming after death, is seen also as an ultimate pedagogic choice: whether to stand with Bernard of Clairvaux who thought that many mysteries were unsuitable for discussion and instruction, particularly to the many; or be with Peter Abelard, who sought to unlock the mysteries of heaven. (Swept up in the drama of the good versus the bad teacher, Waters finds herself presenting Abelard--Parisian high Latinate intellectual par excellence--as the model of open access education, whereas Bernard--superstar preacher to the masses--is the Ivy League snob).
Chapter 3 focuses on L'Evangile de Nicodème which Waters sees as an attempt to grapple with the dual nature of Christ "an attempt to understand, imaginatively, the implications of those natures and their salvific force" (94). The manuscript contexts of the Evangile frequently place it alongside other works of lay instruction, and Waters makes a good case for it being seen in this same pedagogic setting, but in contrast to the works she has discussed so far, it works via story rather than using stories to support instruction. Central to the chapter and the topic is the figure of the Good Thief, one who is "simultaneously a good man and a bad one," a paradox that "echoes that of Jesus' own two natures" (98). Also key is the Harrowing of Hell, a part of the Christ story that the Evangile expands considerably. In the former Waters sees the possibility of salvation for all, and its wider pedagogic implications (nobody is beyond salvation, and hence instruction is worthwhile for all); in the latter, in its desire to understand more about the next world, a "desire of the faithful for fuller knowledge" (111).
Chapter 4 turns to what Waters calls "eschatological fabliaux," namely those vernacular French tales in which we meet again the question of the fate of the soul at death, but are in the company of "jongleurs, whores, and peasants" rather than university scholars. These stories again ask whether "the last" will really "be first"--whether salvation really does extend to all? Waters suggests also that the stories told by the fabliaux "hint at uneasiness surrounding the idea of a fixed social or moral location, the fear that efforts to keep people in their places may not be sustainable" (143). In this, she seems them as unsettling the authoritative position of the litterati, by disrupting the certainty with which people are "categorized" (a term that she uses throughout the monograph) in the afterlife, as well as in this life. Thus in Le vilain qui conquist, a cunning peasant talks his way into Heaven, despite the fact that Peter initially tells him that "we don't care for peasants" (nous n'avons cure de vilain, perhaps better translated as "we don't have responsibility for [the souls of] peasants") by recalling the moral faults of Peter (who denied Christ), Thomas (who doubted Christ) and Paul (who initially persecuted Christ).
Finally, chapter 5 looks to the miracles of the Virgin Mary, as recorded by Gautier de Coinci, which again explore "the productive instability of status" (165) Waters has found in her readings of the other texts. The interventionist miracles that Mary supplies to a wide range of people provide a key message of hope--which is, Waters argues, also a message about education: that all can "learn," and through learning, potentially be saved. She does note (177) that the devotion they present is often about having learned only one thing, but learned it "very very well," namely saying the Ave Maria, or repetitively bowing before an image of the Virgin; this she suggests one can read via Michel Foucault's analysis of askesis, the training of the self for ethical/spiritual purposes. Overall, the miracle stories "to create likeness, a common ground of knowledge and practice" between the unlearned audience, the sinners who are saved within the tales, and the teacher who presents these narratives, "and in so doing, he hopes, saves himself" (207).
This is an interesting and important book. If the French texts are not perhaps quite as ignored as the introductory material suggests, they certainly could better inform debate among scholars of late medieval English literature--and indeed that is really where the Waters is directing her discussion. (She has not much engaged with other recent work on the fabliaux or the extensive work of Geneviève Hasenohr on French vernacular devotional literature,  for example; she is also curiously uninterested in the arguments previously made about nuns as a key audience for devotional writings in French). Her over-arching aim is to push back against an overly negative reading of medieval lay religion as disciplinary and driven by fear (a reading which, in her brief "Afterword," she confusingly associates with the quite separate arguments of R. I. Moore about the "persecuting society," and which she otherwise rests largely upon the aforementioned Delumeau thesis, without naming any more current scholars). In its stead, Waters wishes to emphasize a sense of instruction that is much more fluid, open, hopeful and--in a sense--egalitarian, because of the core message that Christianity presents of salvation for all--"no peasant left behind" as she notes, tongue only partly in cheek, in the Acknowledgements (289).
This approach produces useful and imaginative readings, and in its insistence on a degree of lay agency, and its attention to the "unintended consequences" of lay instruction, it's a very helpful perspective to have within our interpretive tool box. However, at various points what is a useful reading of certain texts is asked to expand rapidly into an account of "medieval Christianity" itself--at which point the book becomes rather less persuasive. Whilst Waters largely convinces in her efforts to read some texts as seeking to educate the lay reader, and thus work against the normal hierarchies of social and education status, in so doing she has to ignore some wider contexts--such as the large amount of concern that bishops had throughout the period 1100-1500 regarding who was allowed to preach and what they were allowed to preach--and certain knotty questions--such as the nature of the Eucharist, where most devotional works were very much more likely to emphasize that a lay audience must NOT question, ponder, consider or undertake any other kind of intellectually-engaged response, but just BELIEVE. Moreover, there is throughout a tendency to allow "instruction" to be treated as synonymous with "education"; whilst some of the materials she analyses lead in that direction, it is clear that others (as with the discussion of askesis above) are about learning a mode of behaviour, not a path to reflection, cogitation, or greater understanding.
Moreover, the desire to emphasize the breadth of the audience (where the treacherous term "middling" is deployed very freely to characterize what was most clearly an elite, indeed often noble, readership) and the willingness of the clerical teacher to place himself on a par with his lay audience, at points lead to special pleading and some rather unpersuasive readings. Turning briefly to the Miserere by the Renclus de Molliens, Waters quotes some lines (43) which reflect upon a key passage from Jeremiah, "the little ones have asked for bread." Ja mais mes pains nen iert entiers; / As povres, come lor rentiers, / Fraindrai mon pain d'ore en avant, writes the Renclus. Waters renders this as: "My bread will never be whole; / from now on I will break my bread / for the poor, as recipient of their dues," thus emphasizing not only the distribution of the bread of instruction to all, but the cleric's recognition of his mutual dependence on those who give him payment. But a more obvious reading for As povres, come lor rentiers would be "for the poor, just as for their landlords" [or, more likely, "those who exact dues from them"]--that is, a promise by the Renclus that he will extend his mission to all, not just the usual expected audience of the socially elite. This does not by any means explode Waters' larger arguments, but it is indicative of other moments in which the main thesis and perspective lead to over-reading or special pleading.
In sum, I find myself not in full agreement with the book's overall argument--and frustrated at times at what it ignores in order to pursue that argument--but appreciative nonetheless of the attempt that it makes to bring French pastoral instruction into dialogue with the scholarship of medieval English literature. And I remain in full agreement with the author that scholars of that literature will find it productive to engage with these texts, which so often form the bedrock from which later Middle English writings arose.
1. Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries, trans. E. Nicholson (New York: St Martin's Press, 1990); orig. Le péché et la peur (1983).
2. See the many articles now collected in G. Hasenohr, Textes de devotion et lectures spirituelles en langue romane (France, XIIe-XVIe siècle) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015).