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21.02.14 Ashe/Hanna (eds.), Medieval and Early Modern Religious Cultures

The Medieval Review

21.02.14 Ashe/Hanna (eds.), Medieval and Early Modern Religious Cultures


This volume collects twelve studies of medieval English literature and thought by colleagues and students of Vincent Gillespie, J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford. The collected essays variously reflect the honoree's capacious scholarly interests in the religion and literature of England over four centuries, with due attention to the many settings for religious writing and reading: from the anchorhold, to the abbey, to the print shop. Throughout his career, Gillespie has preferred the contributed essay as the format for his scholarship on spiritual writing in Middle English, as well as medieval literary theory, Chaucer, and early print. This volume helpfully provides with a complete list of Gillespie's far-flung contributions to edited collections, companions, and Festschriften. Many are now classics, whether they be magisterial surveys (like "The Study of Classical Authors: From the Twelfth Century to c. 1450"), or more light-footed, experimental exercises (like "Postcards from the Edge"). He has exerted further influence on the field as an editor, as with The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism (with Samuel Fanous, 2011) and in the same year, After Arundel (with Kantik Ghosh). His sturdiest contribution to date may well be his edition and comprehensive study of the books and readers of Syon Abbey, a volume in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (2001). In a preface, Laura Ashe offers this collection as an aspirational effort hoping to match the "vast knowledge, understanding, and literary sensitivity" on display in Gillespie's publications which have "haunted and shaped the field" (viii).

The three essays in Part I cover "the thirteenth century...in many ways, the ground for Vincent's earliest work on pastoral manuals and vernacular miscellanies" (viii). Annie Sutherland traces an image in the thirteenth-century anchoritic text, Þe Wohunge of ure Lauerde, of Christ's birth in a "house without walls." Sutherland proposes some sources for this wall-less house (in Peter Comestor, Edmund of Abingdon's Speculum Religiosorum among others), and suggests the ways that enclosed anchorites might have read the unenclosed space of the Nativity against their own physical and spiritual exposure to the world. Nicholas Watson's essay relocates the composition of the said Speculum Religiosorum to Salisbury and the vibrant community of scribes and scholars at the cathedral, and away from the previously supposed Merton Priory or his deathbed at Pontigny. Consequentially, Watson argues that Edmund wrote for secular clergy, who live the vita activa and minister to the laity (this despite its address to "religious," a group which might have excluded them). As a piece of early-thirteenth-century pastoralia, his Speculum is better understood as a text anticipating the "late-medieval explosion of material written for and about the secular clergy and their spiritual aspirations that Vincent Gillespie has done much to illuminate" (25). Daniel Orton follows ably in Gillespie's tracks with an essay on Roger Bacon as a theorist and ardent defender of poetry, and of literary study, amid a scholastic climate growing more hostile to both. The essay moves nimbly across Bacon's sprawling opera and out across thirteenth-century intellectual culture to situate Bacon's argument for the poetry's "radical power" amongst the writings of his Dominican antagonists, self-proclaimed philosopher-poets, and Bacon's fellow medieval humanists in Italy (whose later appreciation of poetry has attracted more attention for their humanism).

The three articles in Part II, "Monumental Contributions: The Later Fourteenth Century," are all meticulous textual studies of various kinds. Anne Hudson's is a tightly focused study of the Wycliffite translation of the Bible as witnessed in Oxford, New College MS 67. Hudson demonstrates how this translation's approach to certain grammatical quandaries faced by Middle English translators retains some characteristic constructions of the Early Version while taking on the innovations of the Later Version, complicating any neat dichotomy between them. The essay concludes, somewhat noncommittally, that the manuscript "derives from the central translational endeavor" of the Wycliffite Bible; an appendix then prints four versions of Acts 7: a Vulgate version, and Early, Later, and New College MS renditions in Middle English. Michael Sargent provides a comprehensive introduction to the textual situation of Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection in manuscript, with special attention to the circulation of its two chapters as distinct parts, as well as in Thomas Fishlake's Latin translation. Barry Windeatt collects and collates the many British narratives of Mary's Assumption from the Anglo-Norman Brut to the pageant interpolated into the N-Town Plays. He covers a great deal of divergent hagiographic and homiletic responses on this episode of "doubtful authority."

Part III attends to the fifteenth century. Ian Johnson considers how Nicholas Love and Reginald Pecock "mediated" between sources, traditions, and their own authorial programs in their Middle English writings. He explicates passages of Love's Mirror against its Pseudo-Bonaventurean and Gospel antecedents. Johnson then explicates Pecock's Reule of Crysten Religioun as a text which mediates a rational discipline of prayer and meditation to its lay readers, which his Donet remediates (an argument which might have been enriched with some engagement with Kirsty Campbell's similar one in The Call to Read). Susan Powell recovers how Santa Zita, a thirteenth-century maiden-saint of Lucca, became Saint Sithe, venerated in England as a finder of lost keys and miraculous resuscitator of a drowned boy. This veneration happened in Latin vitae, hymns and prayers, a fragmentary Middle English life, and a poem of John Lydgate (complemented by Powell's characteristically careful attention to manuscript evidence from a fifteenth-century Latin compilation made in England, but now held in Lucca). Denis Renevey then extends his research into the devotion to the Holy Name in England along three new lines. The first is the personal devotion of Thomas of Rotherham, quondam chancellor of Cambridge and then Archbishop of York, whose foundations and legacies venerate the Holy Name with enthusiasm. Lady Margaret Beaufort is the next devotee, who garners special attention as the owner of Westminster Abbey MS 29, with its many Latin and English prayers lauding the Name. Finally, Renevey proposes Margaret as a sponsor of Caxton's 1491 printing of Mirk's Festial, with a newly supplied Sermon on the Holy Name.

Part IV follows medieval devotion and medieval books into the early modern period, through mid-Tudor convulsions of reform, dissolution, and counter-reform. Alexandra da Costa shows how an abundance of "familiar alimentary metaphors" (mastication, rumination, digestion) came to express arguments for reading Scripture and devotional texts in English (as spiritually nourishing fare) or against it (as too-strong meat or wine, indigestible by novice readers). The chapter samples from Love's Mirror, Erasmus's tractates on Scriptural translation, Tyndale's prefaces, and popular guides to domestic devotion to show how readers could be served by "different modes of reading...to draw sustenance from a varied diet of scriptural reading, compilation, paraphrase and meditation" (207). Tamara Atkin's chapter is partly a report on serious bibliographic sleuthing, with its inclusion of an 1553 inventory of printed stock leftover by the tenants of The George, where Wynkyn de Worde and a successions of Tudor printers kept shop (140 entries each itemized in an appendix). In proper Gillespian fashion, Atkin's bibliography supports a broader argument of cultural history, to show how this inventory might attest to an enduring market for works of conservative vernacular theology amidst the tumult of the Tudor period (hence the title, "Late-Medieval Piety in Early Modern England"). James P. Carley describes the various afterlives of one John, abbot of B., whose history of England drew the attention of John Leland (in a now-lost manuscript) and then John Bale (who cleaves him into two different Benedictines, one of Bury St. Edmunds and the other of Peterborough).

Gillespie remembers his undergraduate teacher, Malcolm Parkes, as one who "never tried to create ventriloquial simulacra of himself," with an "iron determination to allow the distinctive critical voice of the student to come through." [1] The contributions of Gillespie's advisees here--Atkin, da Costa, Orton, and Sutherland--all prove that he was a teacher with a similar cast of mind. Their essays stand out within this volume, as erudite and adept studies working in Gillespie's scholarly wake; yet each one finds some new angle and gives voice to it distinctively. Ashe jokes, in the preface, that the editors "resist[ed] the temptation to call the present volume After Gillespie" (x). That title would have had the advantage of highlighting the fine work of Gillespie's former and current students, done after his pattern. (Arguing against that title is the fact that Gillespie is not yet finished, with the proceedings of the 2017 "After Chichele" conference forthcoming, and a book on Syon Abbey on the way). As it is, however, the chosen title implies that the volume covers more expansive territory than it does; be advised that these "medieval and early modern religious cultures" under discussion are all English ones (with the possible exception of Bacon's international, academic culture studied by Orton). The book clearly imagines an audience of medievalists with Gillespie's interests and (some of) his training, so it rarely ever translates Middle English (Latin, almost always). Naturally, the volume is an intramural production dominated by Oxford graduates and faculty, working in a local style much indebted to Gillespie (with its inclination towards explication and material texts, and a healthy skepticism of critical theory, for better or worse). Ashe, Hanna, and the editorial team at D. S. Brewer have produced an exceptionally neat volume free of any typos or misprints worth mentioning. A most exacting reader might have asked for cross-reference and harmonization amongst the essays. (For example, Edmund of Abingdon in Sutherland's essay subsequently becomes Edmund Rich in Watson's, his Speculum Religiosorum Anglicized as Mirror). But any inconsistencies are very minor, and none approach the level of out-and-out error.

Ralph Hanna concludes the volume with a biographical sketch of his friend and Oxford colleague, following Gillespie from his Liverpool Catholic upbringing spent lamenting the shoddy goalkeeping of Everton Football Club through to his Oxford professorship. As soccer fans might know, the Everton keeper now minds the net for all of England on the national team; and so too does Gillespie share what were formerly personal preoccupations with a great many more medievalists now. Thanks to his work as an essayist, bibliographer, and advocate for English medieval studies from his position as Tolkien Professor, members of his field care much more (and know much more) about the Brigittines of Syon Abbey, or the literary qualities of Middle English religious writing, or high medieval literary theory. They may not all be Everton (or England) fans, but they are much more likely to check out a back issue of Analecta Cartusiana. This volume will satisfy any reader looking for more focused studies on intellectual questions which have preoccupied its honoree. Indeed, the Everton badge might suggest another fitting title for this successful effort to live up to Gillespie's standard: Nil Satis Nisi Optimum.

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Notes:

1. Kirsty Campbell, The Call to Read: Reginald Pecock's Books and Textual Communities (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

2. Vincent Gillespie, "Malcolm Beckwith Parkes," Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, XVII, 71-87, p. 79.