18.09.34, Spencer-Hall, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens

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Jessica Barr

The Medieval Review 18.09.34

Spencer-Hall, Alicia. Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. Knowledge Communities. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. pp. 304. ISBN: 978-94-6298-227-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jessica Barr
University of Massachusetts Amherst
jessica.g.barr@gmail.com

Medieval Saints and Modern Screens is a lively and engrossing book that brings theories from contemporary media studies together with medieval women mystics, particularly from the Liégeois corpus. Each chapter focuses on a different form of "screen" media, arguing for similarities between these media and medieval women's visions and hagiographies. While the payoff of this comparison is not always clearly articulated, the book yields startling and provocative insights that add to our understanding of both terms of the comparison.

Spencer-Hall puts medieval hagiographies--a subject which can seem inescapably alien to students and other modern readers encountering them for the first time--into an active and productive conversation with the present. In doing so, she compellingly portrays hagiography as popular and accessible. Early in the book, she argues that hagiography, like film, is reflective of "the 'popular mentality' of medieval Catholics...[and] this 'popular mentality' is not reducible to an inherent medieval-ness." Instead, it is "constituted by altogether human, trans-chronological pre-occupations" (47). Throughout her study, she illustrates these preoccupations in myriad, multifaceted ways by exploring contemporary media and their similarities--however tenuous at first glance--to the Lives of holy women, in particular the thirteenth-century mulieres religiosae of Liège.

I will begin with the conclusion, because that is where I found the implications of her study to be most forcefully spelled out. Her methodology itself is in many ways the critical contribution of this study. By bringing together two such disparate-seeming topics and demonstrating how they can mutually inform one another, Spencer-Hall argues that "the medieval era is not sealed off from the modern period, inert and static in the past." Her analysis demonstrates a way of "bridg[ing]...the two periods," as she "unveil[s] and thereby de-exoticise[s] the medieval 'Other'" (253). And, in fact, reading medieval mystics in light of cinematic and media theory, or modern media in light of medieval mystics and hagiography, highlights surprising continuities between these two periods in terms of perception, self-hood, and spiritual yearning. Of course, medieval mystics' desire for transcendence is not precisely the same as a modern Second Life user's engagement with an online "world," nor can Margery Kempe's striving for sainthood be rendered precisely in terms of Kim Kardashian West's management of her own media image. Yet Spencer-Hall successfully attends to the contextual differences between these two fields, so that she largely manages to avoid anachronism.

A substantial introduction lays out the terms of and justification for her methodology, as well as providing overviews of the later chapters. Both cinema and visionary rapture, she argues, bring the viewer/mystic out of themselves; [1] at the same time, these experiences are fully embodied, as the moviegoer "feels" the on-screen action in their body and the mystic's own body is deeply involved in the visionary experience. Another aspect of this experience is what Spencer-Hall calls the "agape-ic encounter," through which "the scopic act can be an experience of complete mutuality between the individual who looks and that which is looked at" (15). This mutuality, she argues, is in evidence both in cinematic viewing and in the divine vision. While it was never entirely clear to me how the filmic gaze is reciprocated (perhaps because I am less familiar with film studies than medieval mysticism), the concept of the agape-ic encounter is useful when Spencer-Hall explores the somatic side of vision and when she seeks to move beyond the concept of one-way viewing dynamics framed as the "male gaze" in earlier film criticism. The experience of agape in both cinematic and visionary viewership occurs "by looking at an object which exerts itself simultaneously as a subject, that returns a look that makes plain one's own object-hood" (16). This formulation works better in the case of medieval mystics--who do, in fact, meet Christ's gaze, and see themselves as objects of creation in doing so--than in film studies, where the metaphor seems somewhat strained. Recognizing this imbalance, Spencer-Hall uses "agape-ic" instead of "agape" to emphasize that the cinematic experience is not precisely an experience of agape; rather, it "feel[s] religious-ish, or mystical-ish," not religious or mystical per se.

The parallel between film and mystical experience is complicated and at times hard to follow. In the Introduction, the meaning of the film metaphor shifts: Sometimes the holy woman is the film, and sometimes it is God, who is also the projectionist (as the shaping force of visionary activity) and the projected light. The metaphor is also used to indicate the commonality of beguine visionary experience, as mystics are said to have seen the same "film" in different screening situations (42). On the one had, this shifting identity of the "film" captures the mediating function of the holy woman, whose own witnessing of the divine is then witnessed by her contemporaries, whose accounts are then "witnessed" by the readers of the hagiography. But film itself does not operate precisely like this, which muddies the terms of the comparison somewhat.

Similarly, in the second chapter, the metaphor of the "screen" is used to cover rather a lot of ground. The screen can be the page (137), the saint's body (138), the text (132), or the vision itself (122); this multivalence can be confusing, and suggests that the metaphor might be doing too much work. At the same time, however, such multivalence proves useful in explaining the duality of the medieval mystic. The screen at once "enables the otherwise ephemeral to be seen" and "separates space, mediating and obfuscating what lies behind it" (252): This is precisely the role, at times paradoxical, of the holy woman's body.

These are minor points in a substantial and complex book, and one could argue that even the confusion that her metaphors raise in the reader's (or this reader's) mind constitute avenues for unpacking the intricate nuances of visionary experience and hagiographic writing. Indeed, the book's four core chapters repeatedly push the reader to find new ways of thinking through both medieval and modern vision space.

Chapter 1 concerns visuality and temporality. Both divine visions and photographic technologies, Spencer-Hall argues, "confuse our understanding of linear time" (60) and raise questions about the truth of the image. Introducing altered photographs and the problematics of photography's truth-claims more generally allows her to address the truth-claims of hagiography. A saint's Life, like a Photoshopped image, "still shows somethingreal, even though that 'real thing' may have little to do with the original scopic object.... The point is less about what the photograph [and hagiography] shows (i.e. historical fact), but what it does (i.e. authentically preserve a real trace)" (69). Moreover, the photograph, like both Lives and visions, preserves a moment in time ahistorically, removing it from the flow of chronological time. From the temporality of photography, Spencer-Hall shifts to consider the temporality of film. The final section of this chapter analyzes the movie Dark Knight, reading in its function as a memorial to the actor Heath Ledger a parallel to medieval hagiography. Dark Knight itself also explores temporalities, she argues, showing the "ethically murky" and "unrealistic" consequences of modern disavowals of "the moral dimension of time, expressed in the medieval framework of liturgical and purgatorial time" (102).

In chapter 2, Spencer-Hall explores visuality in relation to tactility. She argues that medieval visuality can be better understood if we also consider modern theories of embodied spectatorship, which "posit that visual and tactile perception are central to our experiences in the movie theatre" (109). The haptic dimension of visuality, she contends, has been under-recognized, and by yoking medieval theories of intromission and extromission together with theorizations of the embodied effects of movie-going, a richer understanding of the tactility of sight--and its effects upon the reader/viewer's body--emerges. The author coins the term "coresthesia," a fusion of corpus, synesthesia, and coenesthesia, "to describe the specific effects of interaction with the medieval manuscript, or corpus" (143). Through these embodied effects, reading becomes an intimate relationship with the manuscript as an object, the text, and other readers.

While the second chapter focuses principally on the women of the liégeois corpus, chapter 3 includes a heavier dose of pop culture in its exploration of celebrity culture. Entitled "The Xtian Factor, or How to Manufacture a Medieval Saint," this chapter compares the strategies of celebrity production employed by, variously, Jacques of Vitry in his biography of Marie of Oignies, Margery Kempe in her own Book, and Kim Kardashian West. Jacques successfully creates Marie as a medieval celebrity, all the while promoting his own celebrity as a hagiographer--very like how Kim Kardashian West promoted herself through her relationship with Paris Hilton. Yet Kardashian West is no A-lister like Marie, and Margery Kempe, whose citations of Marie of Oignies and Bridget of Sweden echo Kardashian West's use of Hilton to promote her own "brand," equally fails to rise to the heights of fame. Her self-reliance in engineering her own hagiography, like Kardashian West's control over her own media image, grants her a certain amount of notoriety, but she never rises above the level of a fan; in fact, Spencer-Hall sees Kempe as falling short of even Kardashian West's celebrity status. In short, Kempe tries too hard, and her actual celebrity is more modern than medieval, as academics celebrate her subversive, proto-feminist activity.

I do take issue with a rhetorical move that is made in this chapter, however, and that is the derisive language used to characterize Kempe. The comparison between Kardashian West and Kempe is reasonable--even illuminating--and certainly quite funny, but Spencer-Hall's folksy language here has the effect of seeming to disparage her. For example, Kempe is "a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe" (175), "the Ur-example of 'ugly crying'" whose "whine-athons" make her Book"the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV" (174). As entertaining as these lines are (and Spencer-Hall is a fine writer), they are needlessly dismissive and perhaps symptomatic of working too hard to connect the medieval text and modern pop culture. (And it should be noted that, in my very defensiveness about Kempe, I reveal myself to be an acafan of the mystic--an academic fan--which is precisely the identity that Spencer-Hall encourages us to claim in the latter part of this chapter.)

In the final chapter, Spencer-Hall explores the online environment Second Life (SL) as a parallel to the medieval mystic's experience of vision space. The focus here is much more on the modern than the medieval, analyzing how Christian Residents use SL in their religious practice. As part of her research for this chapter, Spencer-Hall interviewed twenty-four Christians who actively engage in religious praxis through SL. Both SL and medieval visions, she argues, enable a kind of "communion of saints" that extends beyond geographic boundaries (although SL does not enable the atemporal communion possible in a vision); both show the interrelationship between the avatar/soul and the human body; and both navigate a tension between traditional hierarchies and personal freedom. This comparison, and Spencer-Hall's original research into SL Residents' religious expression, provides intriguing insights into the digital environment and users' understandings of their online activity.

On the whole, this book is well-researched and solidly grounded in both medieval women's hagiography and several branches of modern medial studies--no mean feat in itself. The value of this study lies less in her original insights into medieval hagiography than in her development of a new language for analyzing the mystical experience and the questions about these women that this vocabulary allows us to raise. The book will be of particular interest to scholars interested in the application of modern media studies to medieval contexts, and it should also prove useful to scholars who teach medieval hagiography, as it offers wonderful hooks for drawing students into these (frequently difficult) texts.

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Notes:

1. I follow, here, Spencer-Hall's practice of referring to the generalized viewer, reader, or mystic with the gender-neutral pronoun "they."

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