The Medieval Review


Suerbaum, Almut, George Southcombe, and Benjamin Thompson, eds. Polemic: Language as Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Discourse. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. pp. 302. ISBN: 978-1-47242-506-5. (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Maija Birenbaum
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
birenbam@uww.edu

The essays in this collection, covering a broad variety of medieval and early modern writings, seeks to understand the complex relationship between word and action, the interwoven threads of violent language and its implementation. While polemic is often seen as containing "real" violence by providing a relatively safe linguistic outlet for aggression, such powerful persuasive language also has the potential to instigate rather than to contain that violence. This potential is particularly dangerous in texts addressing religious difference, such as the religious disputations of the twelfth century.

The book's authors stress the problematic nature of the term "polemic," particularly when analyzing writings through the haze of chronological distance. Indeed, one of the problems the authors address in this volume is the mistaken tendency for scholars to view polemic as a modern form of discourse, one invented in the Reformation. The essays in this book thus aim to refocus the analysis of polemic to demonstrate that its use across the artificially divided temporal space between the Middle Ages and the early modern era demonstrates continuity rather than change.

Each of the contributing authors grapples with the theoretical problem of defining polemic, as the term seems to resist a fixed meaning and to depend largely on the context in which it is used. Through a series of interdisciplinary essays spanning a period of approximately 300 years, the book argues that in order to understand polemical speech and the relationship between such discourse and real social interaction, we must "understand the mechanisms through which such polemic operates" and view polemic as a mode of discourse that was used across a wide generic range and that filled a variety of literary and political functions (1).

The volume is divided into three sections, beginning with analyses of texts in which the polemic is primarily literary, or internal, and moving toward the examination of polemic's social applications, real-world consequences of linguistic violence.

Part I: Textual Strategies: Rhetoric Between Invective And Lament The essays in the first section of the volume examine works in which polemic serves more of a textual than a social function. Francesca Southerden's essay provides a rare look at Petrarch's polemical rather than poetic persona. Using Petrarch's two searing critiques of the corruption of the Avignon papacy, both intentionally published after the poet's death, Southerden examines what she convincingly describes as Petrarch's dual persona in these works. Even as the poet denounces Avignon as a site of sin and transgression, his political position in Avignon forces him to identify with the very site of his censure and thus his critique is addressed both outward and inward. Alistair Matthews examines a very different type of writing, the medieval German poem Lohengrin, to demonstrate how polemic can act as a rhetorical strategy even within poetry. The opening strophes of the poem manipulate the audience--those whom the poet addresses--into a distinct position in contrast to those spoken about negatively in the poem. Sean Curran's contribution explores a thirteenth-century polyphonic chant to show how harmonic devices enhance the anticlerical rhetoric of the poetry. While the motet calls up in the singers' minds vivid sensory images of monstrous corruption, the image lacks form and remains unidentifiable; this ambiguity allows the singers to recognize the corruption addressed in the song as internal as well as external and thus to fight their own sinful impulses. In the last of the first cluster of essays, Emma Garland discusses hagiographical narratives in which female saints use their rhetorical skill to prolong their martyrdom by employing what Garland refers to as "anti-rhetoric," a deliberate manipulation of language that impairs rather than facilitates the saints' communication with their antagonists.

Part Two: Social Practice: Articulation of Dissent and Normative Practice The essays in the second section of the volume discuss works in which the polemic moves out of the purely literary to attain a performative social role; while the linguistic violence remains contained within the text, its performative nature threatens to burst the seams of its containment. Monica Otter's "Dissing the Teacher: Classroom Polemics in the Early and High Middle Ages" examines "school polemics," works of semi-playful hostility in which the textual give and take between master and pupil mimics the Socratic dialogue of medieval schools as well as the very real abuse of classroom beatings. Almut Suerbaum's contribution examines how the thirteenth-century Franciscan Berthold of Regensburg's vernacular sermons use the rhetoric of exclusion to foster a cohesive Christian identity; the "Other" against whom the good Christian is defined, however, is not an identifiable group but a compound figure whose negative features encompass not only religious difference but also gender. Anne Sutherland views late medieval English biblical translations as fundamentally polemical writings due to their controversial nature. C. M. MacRobert's essay, also focusing on the controversy of biblical translation, looks east to the Orthodox rather than the Latin Church, examining linguistic issues in the sixteenth-century work of Maximus the Greek.

Part Three: Historical Narratives: Reformation, Renovation, Restoration The three final essays in the volume address the social application of polemic in the Reformation. However, rather than presenting these later writings as representing a change from medieval strategies, as other scholars have done, the authors stress the influence of medieval polemic on Reformation strategies of linguistic violence. Benjamin Thompson's essay discusses the polemical strategies of the late medieval English Church and examines how those strategies were appropriated for use against the Church by its critics and challengers as well as by the laity and by secular rulers. Natalia Nowakowska analyzes Bishop Andrzej Krzycki of Poland's anti-Lutheran polemic, in which he not only seeks to mark heresy as criminal but also to define Roman Catholicism as the true universal church by identifying it with early apostolic Christianity. In the volume's final essay, George Southcombe explores the way the English church of the seventeenth-century adapted the Aristotelian tradition of balancing extremes into a polemical stance of moderation.

As a whole, the rich variety of essays in this volume renders it a valuable and timely contribution to the study of polemic.



Copyright (c) 2017 Maija Birenbaum



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