The Medieval Review 16.09.39

Innes-Parker, Catherine, ed. The Wooing of Our Lord and The Wooing Group Prayers. Broadview Editions. Tonawanda, NY: Broadview Press, 2015. pp. . $22.95 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-55111-382-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Kari Kalve
Earlham College

Facing-page translations can enhance the scope for exploration and play of meanings in a text, since the reader may engage with both the translated text and a printed version of the original, thus adding to rather than subtracting from the range of connotations she can explore. The generic "she" in that last sentence indicates my own specificity but also acknowledges the gender of the readers imagined by most of the medieval texts in The Wooing of Our Lord and The Wooing Group Prayers, though they also would have been and will be read by differently gendered readers. The welcome a facing-page format offers to the contemporary reader to engage in the scholarly activity of interpretation and translation replicates the way, as Catherine Innes-Parker notes in her introduction, the Wooing Group "makes the practice of meditation accessible to those outside the monastic context in which it originated" (67). Just as the medieval affective text draws on "the reader's life experiences" (68), so a facing page translation allows a reader even more flexibility--no matter how familiar with Middle English--to find room for her own connotations and to read in her own historical context as well as that of the medieval prototype. Readings can be simultaneously more productive and more accurate when based in a text with such evocative textual and explanatory notes, introduction, appendices, and thoughtful editing and translation.

This beautiful book makes the Wooing Group texts available to a much larger audience, both in Modern and Middle English. The facing-page translation makes this a particularly valuable classroom edition of The Wohunge of ure lauerd and its connected prayers, and classrooms appear to be the text's intended setting. This text is also useful for medievalists and other scholars with a range of familiarity with medieval English. The book is of course missing the apparatus of a scholarly edition, but with the Middle English Dictionary readily available, and Innes-Parker's detailed and scholarly explanatory notes, this can be a useful starting text for those interested in learning more about the Wooing Group and its place connecting several medieval literary traditions. It had not occurred to me to dream about a facing page translation of The Wooing Group; now that I have read it I cannot wait to integrate it into a number of English literature classes, including Sexual and Spiritual Love in the Middle Ages, Spaces of Reading, and Gender and Reading. The translation is clear, elegant, and accurate and the notes open the texts to nuanced, multivalent readings.

Every medievalist will quibble with some aspects of the translation and some editorial choices, but with the openness provided by the accompanying Middle English and Innes-Parker's thoughtful textual notes, these choices offer in almost every case an opportunity for further consideration rather than a final decision. For example, the second explanatory note to The Wooing of Our Lord explores several spiritual and physical connotations of "healing" in Middle English, thus drawing the reader quickly into a layered understanding of the poem and alerting the reader to the connections between "healand" and "haliwei" in the Middle English text. The ideas from this note expand in the third explanatory note, which explores "the imagery of sweetness and honey" in biblical and devotional texts (113), consequently revealing even more richness to the first seventeen words of the modern translation. The explanatory footnotes for these texts often present multiple meanings of the medieval words, often connecting the physical and the spiritual, demonstrating how these texts use tangible homely imagery to explore intense emotional and spiritual states.

Formatting The Wooing of Our Lord, A Most Excellent Prayer to God Almighty, A Prayer to Saint Mary, and A Hymn to Our Lord as poetry rather than prose may be a controversial choice, but I enjoy seeing how Innes-Parker uses the scribal punctuation as a guide for line breaks and I appreciate the opportunity to explore the question of medieval poetic and prose techniques with students and colleagues. These texts, often termed rhythmic prose, do not have strict formal patterns, so Innes-Parker's translation can adhere primarily to "the tone and meaning of the text" (161) rather than stretching for a rigid poetic form. The other prayer translated in this volume, A Good Prayer to Our Lady, is presented in its manuscript in the style of a lai, with irregularities that help authorize the translator's choice to focus more on meaning than on poetic form, though the translation is still markedly poetic.

This quotation from The Wooing of Our Lord demonstrates the line structure as well as the tensions and balances of the text, the vividly physical and the reflective and intimate devotion. After stating that Jesus left the riches of heaven for poverty on earth "for me," the narrator contemplates:

Poor, you were wrapped in rags and tattered cloths and coldly sheltered in a beast's manger.
But as you grew older,
you were even poorer.
For in childhood you had the breast for your food,
and your mother ready when you desired her breast.
But when you were older,
you, who feed the birds in flight,
the fish in the water,
and the folk on earth,
you suffered may hot hunger-pangs for want of food, as clerks truly read in the gospel.
And you, who made heaven and earth and all this world,
had nowhere in all this world where you might rest your own head.
But both young and older you always had the means to cover your bones.
Yet at the end of your life, when you so grievously hung on the cross for me,
you had nothing in all this world with which you might cover and conceal
your blissful, bloody body (97).

The translation here stays quite close to the Middle English while sounding contemporary, direct, and intimate. The contrasts of poverty and generosity, of rags and blissful nakedness, of lowness and height, and of intimate closeness and broad reaching community give a taste of the intellectual liveliness of these texts.

The introduction is written for knowledgeable readers with a few explanatory footnotes for those new to medieval contemplative literature. The sections are "Manuscripts," "Choice of Texts," "Literary Form and Style," "Date and History of Composition," "Authorship," "The Wooing Group Prayers and the Development of Affective Devotion," "The Texts of the Nero Manuscript," "Literary and Devotional Context: The Anchoritic Texts," "The Anchoritic Audience," "The Anchorhold as Symbol," "Inner and Outer: Anchorhold/Body/Heart," "Passion Meditation and Affective Devotion," "The Divine Spouse," "The Wooing Group Prayers as Support for the Devotional Life," "The Wooing Group Prayers as Mystical Texts," and "The Genre of Passion Meditation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries." It would be nice to have a guide to pronunciation for those who want to listen to the sounds of the Middle English, but as with any topic not in the introduction, a teacher or a little research can provide that information. The appendices include an alternate edition of A Prayer to Saint Mary, three later texts which develop the themes and imagery from the Wooing Group, and a "Hypothetical Stemma Codicae of the Wooing Group.

The only thing I wish were different about this book is the awkward positioning of the notes. The textual notes follow each Middle English text on the left, even-numbered pages, and the explanatory notes follow each Modern English text on the right, odd-numbered pages. There is a logic to this, but because there are so many more explanatory notes than textual notes, the book has many empty pages, and reading the text and the notes together entails some physical and mental agility. There is no ideal way to represent notes and text, but I find it easier to have the notes follow all of the texts, first textual, and then explanatory. I have not seen the electronic edition of this text offered by Broadview, but it presumably uses hypertext for notes.

Despite the challenging notes location, the book is a delight to read and to hold. The texts are short but full, and this translation and edition adds to rather than detracts from that fullness. Reading this edition has led me to new ideas about the transmission of alliteration in English; connections between inside and outside; contemplative and mystical practices; reading, authority, and gender; emotions; and the uses of the romance tradition. I expect my students will bring their own interests to these texts and find far more topics to engage.

Copyright (c) 2016 Kari Kalve

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