Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
23.05.02 Powell, Gender, Reading, and Truth in the Twelfth Century

23.05.02 Powell, Gender, Reading, and Truth in the Twelfth Century

Morgan Powell’s Gender, Reading, and Truth in the Twelfth Century: The Woman in the Mirror is a meticulously written and highly sophisticated book that argues for a re-evaluation and new understanding of the act of reading and of the meaning of a female reader (including in the form of an iconographic representation in manuscripts and as a textual motif) in the long twelfth century. Eschewing binaries such as literate/illiterate, vernacular/Latin, oral/written, male/female, and even text/picture, Powell’s approach offers a much more complex and ultimately convincing approach to understanding the rise of vernacular literature and the role women--or rather “the woman”--played in the twelfth century.

Framed by an introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into eight chapters, evenly allocated to two parts, “Reading as Sponsa et Mater” (Part I) and “Reading the Widowed Bride” (Part II). These section headings foreground the seminal role of the female: the first recalls religious identities of both bride and mother of the divine, the second alludes to a role that is represented in secular romance (Powell’s analysis includes, for example, Herzeloyde and Sigune from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Laudine in Chretien de Troyes’s Yvain.)However, although these headings may initially evoke the religious/secular divide, the reader will find that Powell’s work eloquently shows that the act of “reading as woman,” while having its origins in the Annunciate Mary, ultimately dissolves itself from Scripture and exegetical texts and instead becomes “an experience in which we rediscover our own weakness, our which we discover ourselves in the other...” (275). This creation of empathy in the reader is fundamental to Powell’s understanding of the process of reading (“as woman”) both religious and secular works: the reading happens

“around a model of the experience of truth as presence that derived

its legitimacy from the position of the woman as embodied bride.

By identifying the reception of text with this identification between

audience and bride, the narrator of vernacular poetry communicates

that his performance of the text is a present manifestation of the

life of the bride, an assimilation of truth to personal experience

that mirrors Mary’s conception of the Word” (275).

The notion of the reading woman, then, that is so prevalent in the twelfth century and that has been associated with the rise of vernacular literature, cannot be understood separately from religious literature, nor can it be identified (or not only identified) as referring to historical female patrons of literature. Instead, this notion is a way of conveying a type of reading process, which can be performed by anyone, a process which is identified as female, due to its seminal connection to Mary’s act of reading at the Annunciation.

In “Reading as Sponsa et Mater,” Powell explores various medieval understandings and interpretations of what it means to read; a key text for Powell is Rupert of Deutz’s commentary on the Song of Songs, De incarnatione Domini. Rupert’s text reads the Song of Songs as focused on Mary’s conception and bearing of the Word, with the “erotic images of the Song as the key to feeling and knowing as she did” (67). Powell identifies a double experience here: 1) the awakening of Mary herself, first as prophetissa (at the Annunciation), then as mater (the incarnation of the Word) and ultimately as mater ecclesiarum (when she becomes the source of church doctrine), and 2) the awakening of Rupert, the “reader-exegete.” Mary’s reading is completed in the body (“her life fulfils and manifests the scriptural images of the Song and other prophetic texts” (67)); Rupert’s reading is completed through Mary’s body: “by reading her life as embodied truth [and] by repeating her own revelatory act of reading in the body” (67). Powell shows how Rupert shapes this “awakening” to the writing of his commentary, a type of incarnation of the Word that can be seen as analogous to Mary’s act of incarnation of God’s Word (67). Important here is that Rupert is both reading and performing imitation, but it is an imitatio not based on mimicking Mary’s virtues but rather one that “is a quest to know and fuse with Mary’s experience in all its psycho-sexual specificity, the process whereby he discovers how to be she, in which he relives her historia” (67). Powell continues his analysis, ultimately showing how Rupert enables his reader to be “inside the drama of the biblical text; they [Rupert’s readers/auditors] are female characters and witnesses, as well as Mary’s pupils and ‘readers’” (69). The biblical text is understood through Mary’s words and Mary’s experience, through historia.

I have started with such a detailed example because it shows in a nutshell both the importance and the unimportance of gender: Mary’s gender is of paramount importance for the Biblical event, but to read as Mary reads does not depend on the actual reader’s gender. Reading, for Rupert, but also, Powell shows, for Hildegard of Bingen, was a process in which one was led to identify with the sponsa and the mater, a process which relied on experiencing the gnosis.

Powell’s readings of texts are meticulous, but perhaps an even more stimulating aspect of his work is how he brings together texts with their manuscript illustrations and connects both with the audience/reader of the manuscript. For example, Powell’s fourth chapter takes as its object the St. Alban’s Psalter, well known both because of its prefatory cycle of forty full-page illustrations and because it contains the oldest extant manuscript of the vernacular French Chanson de Saint Alexis. Powell’s treatment of the Psalter is nuanced and rich, and cannot be reduced here, but one observation he makes in analyzing the selection for the prefatory cycle is the importance and position of Mary, positing that “The cycle displays the story of Christ’s salvation of humanity, but it does so such that a woman’s body is front and centre at every possible opportunity” (136). Powell shows how this history of God’s word on earth is “shaped no less into a history of Mary’s body as the meeting place of divinity and humanity” (136). Powell goes on to read the Pentecost illustration--which depicts Mary in the center and larger than the surrounding apostles--as a visual representation of this idea, suggesting that the visual emphasis on Mary indicates Mary’s earlier knowledge (through her conception at the Annunciation) of what the apostles only learn at Pentecost. Powell delves more deeply here, but one of the main ideas to emerge from this chapter is how the pictorial narrative of the cycle is presented as a “reflex of Mary’s incarnatory reading” (137). The body of Mary is the medium through which humanity knows Jesus, but more importantly, the process of her reading, which is not merely one of decoding letters on a page, is one in which the contemporary reader can participate.

Drawing on various textual and pictorial elements in the Psalter, including the so-called “Christina initial,” which, though not the work of artists of the psalm initials, nonetheless, as Powell shows, resonates with a number of other features in the cycle--specifically with the cycle’s figure of Mary--Powell continues to emphasize the privileged position of the female. For example, in the “Christina initial,” the female in the initial, Christina, is the only one to reach through the initial’s vertical divide to physically touch the figure of Christ, standing on the other side (138-39; fig. 4.1). The point is not, however, that the reader of the psalter must be a woman in order to access the divine, but rather, that the reader must read as a woman because woman has a particular, corporeal access to the divine: “The picture cycle...was created for a reader-as-woman. That reader, however, need not always, nor even in the first instance, have been a woman. If he was not, then he will have had a woman as reading model in mind; this picture cycle was the means for him to be her; his access to her privilege to the presence of the living Word...” (157)

In the second part of the book, “Reading the Widowed Bride,” the importance of empathy as the key to “reading as woman” is one of the focal points. To take just one aspect, Powell focuses on the suffering of widows (in Wolfram’s Parzival and Chretien’s Yvain) to show how the protagonist, and also the audience, learns how to respond to a story by orienting himself (Yvain, Parzival) or itself (the audience) to the suffering of the woman: “...knowing resides in the initiation into another’s pain, an act of reading that penetrates the heart of the beheld and thereby wounds the heart of the beholder” (331). The importance of this absorption of the audience/reader through their act of reading into the pain of the woman, which is mediated by the protagonist’s reading of her, lies in the “constitution of a true knowing from heart to heart, a negation of bodily difference through the reciprocal manifestation of inner truth” (335). Again, understanding how to achieve this knowledge rests in the ability to read as woman--to read as Mary. Mary and her act of reading are the vehicle through which we can understand vernacular texts--both religious and secular.

Gender, Reading, and Truth in the Twelfth Century: The Woman in the Mirror is Morgan Powell’s first book; it is much more than an immediate re-working of a dissertation. Powell’s dissertation is foundational, but the current book builds on years of post-dissertation research, publication, and thought. Powell’s book is meticulously researched and densely written, demanding a slow, careful reader and bearing witness to the merit of a slow, careful writer. In his introduction, Powell reflects on his work as “part of a larger move towards translinguistic and transcultural study of the Middle Ages...”(3-4). Powell has provided a significant contribution to such a study, his book deserves a spot on the shelves of medievalists and media historians alike.