Medieval and Early Modern Religious Cultures
Essays Honouring Vincent Gillespie on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday
- ISBN: 9781843845294
- Published By: Boydell & Brewer Publishers
- Published: April 2019
Book culture and religious culture are inextricably related in the medieval and early modern periods. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporaneous advents of the Reformation and the printing press. The editors of Medieval and Early Modern Religious Cultures, Laura Ashe and Ralph Hanna, trace these monumental changes in culture and technology from the 13th to the 16th centuries. This impressive scope reflects the wide interests of the book’s honoree, Vincent Gillespie. Though such a wide span makes the book eclectic, the focused scholarship of the individual essays provides a rigorous and insightful look into how the religious cultures of the era are revealed in the details of the books and records left behind.
The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the 13th century. The essays in the first section explore the subtle changes in rhetoric and address used to appeal to subsets of the medieval population, revealing new information about the works’ creators and audiences. To an enclosed anchorite, the image of Christ being born in a house with no walls signifies vulnerability and apophatic (knowledge of God gained through negation) strength of identity. A saint’s deliberation on how to balance wealth with virtue in his devotional writings suggests the secular clergy of Salisbury as his targeted audience. Roger Bacon’s insistence that poetry could be a vehicle for moral improvement connects the theories of the medieval scholastic university to the humanist movement of the early modern period.
The section on the 14th century creates middle ground and forms relationships from dichotomies found in religious beliefs and texts. A particular manuscript links the earlier and later translations of the Wycliffite Bible, providing clues to the process of translating scripture from Latin into the vernacular. The transmission of The Scale of Perfection and its translation into Latin demonstrate shifts in the attitudes toward contemplative practice, from the entirely spiritual affect of love toward the embodied sensory imagining of Christ’s life. Depictions of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in drama and sermons display the intersection of faith and doubt, simultaneously celebrating the miraculous and acknowledging the unknowable mystery of the soul’s relationship to the body.
In the penultimate section, on the 15th century, the authors investigate how human interventions into holy texts shape wider religious culture and practice. Nicholas Love and Reginald Peacock, monastic authors of devotional texts, carefully mediate the voices of scripture with their own to produce works that reflect the contemporary political and intellectual culture. English vitae (a literary genre that narrates the lives of saints) and devotional works about the Italian Saint Zita demonstrate the evolution of a saint’s reputation over time and geographical distance. The patronage of wealthy and politically important figures and the addition of a sermon in Caxton’s printing of John Mirk’s Festial significantly assisted the late medieval growth in devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus.
The last section, covering the 16th century, documents the legacy of medieval religious texts and cultures into the Reformation. Though guides to reading scripture in the vernacular attempted to adapt the monastic practice of lectio divina (a monastic contemplative exercise for reading scripture) to a wider Protestant audience, early modern readers seemed to have adopted a more eclectic approach to religious reading. An inventory of an early modern printer’s stock indicates that works of late medieval piety were readily available to the public, though demand for such stock may have decreased. Finally, John Leland’s citation of a medieval abbot from a lost manuscript provides a compelling mystery about medieval textual history which reveals his early interests in documenting the books of medieval England after the dissolution.
This anthology builds on Gillespie’s varied interests and significant contributions to the field by providing a series of fascinating case studies about the religious textual culture of the medieval and early modern periods. While the varied nature of the individual essays adds some diffuseness to the book, taken together they provide a valuable look into the evolution of public and private devotional culture. Rather than making a stark divide between the medieval and early modern, this book finds continuity amid the monumental changes occurring in the period covered. This work stands as a flattering testament to its honoree’s influence and a useful collection for scholars of textual and religious cultures.
Caitlin Branum Thrash is a PhD candidate and Humanities Center fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.Caitlin Branum ThrashDate Of Review:December 21, 2021