Middle English Mouths

Late Medieval Medical, Religious and Literary Traditions

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Katie L. Walter
Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     2019.
     268 pages.
     $80.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781108552424.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Katie L. Walker’s Middle English Mouths: Late Medieval Medical, Religious and Literary Traditions is a wonderfully precise, insightful, and valuable study of the importance of the human mouth in late medieval texts and contexts. Though the mouth is quite understudied in scholarship on the period, after reading Walker’s book one begins to notice them everywhere in the literature and theology. Indeed, the author proves that the mouth is the site for rethinking many aspects of medieval culture, including the notion of self-knowledge and interiority, sin and confession, and what it means to be human. This is an excellent book that offers a powerful argument, a thorough methodology, and a variety of illuminating readings of medieval literature, science, and theology.

Walker’s book is organized into five chapters, all of which draw on a variety of Latin and vernacular archives. She returns frequently to canonical works of vernacular theology, pastoral literature, and devotional works such as Piers Plowman, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Lydgate, and Chaucer. The author also turns to sermon collections, scientific and theological treatises, and medical texts to discuss the interstices of discourses that mouths produce.

According to Walker, mouths are legible in these texts in two literary traditions—the religious and the medical—and these discourses are connected by the overarching conception of kynde, a Middle English word with a constellation of meanings but translated roughly as “the natural” and glossed throughout as needed. The author’s elaborations on this word and its connections to the traditions of experientia, scientia, and sapientia build accretively throughout the book’s chapters. Through her masterful analysis of these texts and concepts, Walker shows that mouths can provide historians with histories of human experience, knowledge, and understanding as well as Christian body-soul systems, ethics, and spirituality.

Despite the powerfully symbolic meanings that mouths convey, Walker also emphasizes the materiality of the mouth and the ways that its materiality literally shapes meaning. This is the true strength of her argument and the moments it is most exciting. Walker finds that the anatomy and physicality of mouths not only provide glosses for spiritual processes but are actually the bases of them. Indeed, Walker convincingly argues throughout the book that the understanding of interior spirituality in the Middle Ages needs to be expanded to include a sense of embodiment, not just in the form of somatic awareness but in its most material forms: veins, breath, organs, limbs, fluids.

Walker identifies the mouth as the site of ensouled matter, providing spiritual readers with a bodily grounding in ethics, cognition, and knowledge acquisition. By interchanging with the main body-soul systems, the mouth is shown to be at the center of many spiritual processes. This finding not only forces one to rethink, again and always, the body-soul dichotomy but also requires a reconsideration of vision as holding “the privileged place at the top of the body’s hierarchy” (74). Indeed, taste and touch—sensations, experiences, and physical processes—might be just as important, if not more so, to the interface (literally and figuratively) of the human with the divine.

Middle English Mouths begins with a helpful introduction and first chapter on “Natural Knowledge,” which together frame Walker’s argument and provide a useful overview of the mouth’s physiology according to the natural philosophers on which medieval authors depended. Walker usefully reframes the body as a category linked to, indicating, and imbricating the soul rather than being distinct from it, as well as offering a reminder of its own mundanity and everyday fluctuations. Bodies are not abjected or reviled as impure fleshiness, nor valued only as martyred or suffering; rather, Walker is committed to celebrating the “everyday body” (a term coined by Felicity Riddy). This matter-of-fact physicality recuperates the category of experience and allows Walker to give much-needed attention to embodiment as a fluctuating state of being continually enmeshed with spiritual experience, rather than in contested tension with it.

The second chapter examines this very enmeshment, reexamining the “upright” body as a physical and moral state. Walker finds that the idealized trope of the upright-walking man (and all the meanings it is said by natural philosophers to carry) is indeed rather complicated when one considers not only the cyclical nature of the body—its moments between positions through age, illness, the senses, and so on—but also the theological positions suggested by authors such as William Langland and Julian of Norwich.

The third chapter, “Tasting, Eating and Knowing,” shows the ways that tooth development is linked early on with epistemology and pedagogy, the governance of the mouth containing both the possibility for ethical human conduct and sinful human fallenness. Chapter 4, “The Epistemology of Kissing,” outlines the powerfully transformative power of kissing in texts of both theology and science. As an organ of both breath and eating, taste and touch, mastication and spiritus (the ethereal substances linking body and soul), the mouth’s contact in the form of a kiss creates possibilities for material and moral transformation. Walker’s fifth chapter, “Surgical Habits,” explores the ethics of speech through the experience of medical care in late medieval England, namely, premodern dentistry performed by barber-surgeons; these interventions are framed as not only medical necessities but also connected to discourses of ethics, spiritual discipline, and confession.

Middle English Mouths is a fascinating and beautifully written read, proving beyond a doubt the significance of the mouth to late medieval spirituality and recuperating a vision of the everyday body, a necessary corrective to the obsessions with abjection and suffering in much medieval scholarship. This book presents a much more matter-of-fact and stunningly evocative argument for bodies as sensory and spiritual, unbound by binarism and continually in flux. Walker’s writing is accessible and balanced, and many of these chapters could be usefully assigned even to advanced undergraduate classes; yet this book’s impact on advanced studies of the medieval body, theology, and materiality should be highly commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ellis Light is a doctoral candidate at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katie L. Walter is Senior Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at the University of Sussex.

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