17.01.23, McDermott, Tropologies

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Eleanor Johnson

The Medieval Review 17.01.23

McDermott, Ryan. Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England, c. 1350–1600. ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016. pp. 446. ISBN: 978-0-268-03540-2 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Eleanor Johnson
 Columbia University

Ryan McDermott has written a book of astonishing ambition and scope--a book that makes one think bigger and bolder about the stakes of one's own research. In addition to its ambition, McDermott's book is also bracingly smart, deeply learned, and highly useful. McDermott's core argument is that tropological writing and reading--understood not as the unidimensional imparting to or extracting from a work a particular moral message, but instead as a kind of ethical procedure--can and should be construed as a fundamental compositional and lectional practice for late medieval and early modern religious writers in England.

Although much of McDermott's book struck me as powerful and illuminating, it is his theoretical apparatus, articulated early on in his treatment of "tropological theory," that I expect will prove the most exciting and useful to the widest number of scholars. According to McDermott, "tropological reading and action convert allegorized history back into lived history," so as to "perform a vital circulatory function" (2). As he dilates upon this twin concept of conversion and circulation, what becomes clear is that tropological writing and reading enable allegorical works to become, in effect, reliteralized, or concreted, or particularized, so as to be actionable in the everyday life of writers and readers as new ethical behaviors. Because tropological reading and writing find in biblical sources various allegorical inspirations for making their own calls to action, McDermott calls tropology "invention" in a Latinate sense; because tropological reading and writing also spur late medieval poets to create new works that bring readers closer to God, McDermott calls the "invention" in a more nearly modern sense, in that they inspire great creativity as methodologies of poetic making. This dual inventiveness of these tropological poems in the vernacular reminds us to "treat works of narrative poetry and drama as powerful theological thought machines in their own right" (10), in McDermott's view, a view that puts him in good company with scholars such as Nicholas Watson, Sarah Beckwith, David Aers, Steven Justice, Nicolette Zeeman, and others.

Because this book is of such large scope, both in terms of the texts it treats and the centuries it spans, I will give relatively brief treatments of the chapters, and then return to what I think are some of the most important takeaways of McDermott's scholarship.

McDermott's first main chapter conducts an excellent overview of tropological theory prior to the medieval writers he's mainly concerned with, and then turns toPiers Plowman. For McDermott, Langland's poem "develop[s] a supple tropological theory that envisions how loving reading can lead to individual and communal flourishing" (49). Although I often tend to see Langland's ethics as somewhat darker, gloomier, and more dubious than that, McDermott's argument made me think seriously about the possibility of a truly optimistic Langland--not a cheerful one, by any means--who can and does envision the ethical lifeways of the world as both navigable and beneficial to the spiritual seeker.

The second chapter turns to theGlossa ordinaria and Patience. The comparison of these two texts' treatments of the Jonah story reveals that there is a "productive oscillation" between figural and literal readings at work (103), which results in the collapse of historical distance between biblical events and allegorical reading, resulting in the possibility of ethical action in the here-and-now. Put simply, "literal, moral, and allegorical exegesis can function in tandem" (116). What makes Patience truly captivating, though, is how it uses its own historical or literal quarry tactically: the poem amplifies the concrete realness and particularities of Jonah's own situation so as to allow the reader to see how divine grace comes to Jonah "only when Jonah makes it his own and goes his own way" (145).

The third chapter turns again to a decisively optimistic Piers Plowman, this time providing a complex tropological reading of the figure of Peace from the four daughters of God passage. Peace, tropologically, is able to reduce the distance between allegorical and literal again--here discussed as model and copy--so as to produce actionable ethical instruction for readers in their own contexts. The "positive momentum" that Peace helps to create toward Conscience's ultimately "hopeful quest" (188) sets up McDermott's fourth chapter, which argues that writing Piers "can constitute a work of mercy and therefore count as sacramental satisfaction" (195). In the end, Piers dynamic of satisfaction is "open-ended" (219), providing an alternative to more rote and rigid models of penitence in the period.

The fifth chapter leaps forward to the early modern period, to the theology of three paired writers: Calvin and Luther, then More and Tyndale, and finally Erasmus and Nicholas Udall. This vast chapter traces out the aftereffects and afterlives of the tropological reading and writings of the earlier chapters, while also successfully painting a tableau of early modern religious culture in England that turns tropological writing and reading--sometimes through drama--to the end of reform.

The final chapter turns to make a bold reinterpretation of the theological and cultural functioning of the York mystery plays. For McDermott, rather than being strictly "sacramental theater," the York plays offer up a kind of "Eucharistic counter-experience" (297). It does so in large part by elaborating a mirror topos in the plays, which becomes a focal point for the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical meanings at work in the play.

The readings in each chapter are, by and large, compelling, though, as I indicated above, what I suspect will be truly useful to other scholars is the complex and provocative critical apparatus that McDermott "invents" (borrowing his term, to signal both a find and a creative act) in the period. Thinking and reading tropologically in his sense provides a real bridge between allegorical and literal levels. It also models a way of thinking morally with, within, and across medieval texts without thinking immediately of a moral. In the end, McDermott's book is about how morality operates within medieval texts, rather than what any text's particular morality actually is.

The main difficulty I had with the book is that, at many points, McDermott's own argument gets clotted up with engagements with other scholars and theorists that are both too frequent and too thorough. As a result, McDermott's own voice is sometimes hard to follow, and the boundary that separates his innovative theory from those of others is hard to track.

Having said that, I want to restate that this is a bold and inventive book, one that will seriously affect the way scholars of medieval literature think about scriptural reading as a model of contemporary hermeneutics. Although McDermott covers numerous texts, I suspect that the impact of his book will be most strongly felt among Langlandians.

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