Ethics and Invention in England, c. 1350-1600

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Ryan McDermott
ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , April
     446 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ryan McDermott offers an impressive new study on biblical interpretation with Tropologies. He pushes us to consider, to an extent heretofore not done, the importance of the tropological mode of biblical interpretation, which is an approach to finding ethical meaning in biblical passages (even or especially those without explicit moral messages), not only for the late medieval and early modern periods, but also in present day biblical studies. In addition to various asides throughout the book, McDermott makes the contemporary element of his argument apparent in chapter 6 where he engages in his own theological interpretation in relation to a religious play—itself an act of biblical exegesis—performed in medieval and early modern York. For a reader, however, to be able to fully embrace a number of McDermott’s positions—such as on grace and the necessary historical framework for ethical meaning that inform his stances toward (contemporary) biblical interpretation—she must also embrace his Christian commitments. Tropologies then will likely ruffle the feathers of many biblical studies scholars.

As part of his ambitious first book, McDermott aims to make literature a core source for the history of interpretation. William Langland’s fourteenth-century allegorical poem Piers Plowman takes pride of place among his illustrative examples about how to read literature and drama as exegesis. Interestingly, the “invention” referenced in the book’s subtitle and used throughout the book is one that works simultaneously as discovery and creation in the same act, a way of viewing invention that, I suspect, may be beneficial to discourses in religious studies that employ invention as a critical term (3).

Tropology is one of the three “spiritual senses” of scriptural interpretation—the others being typology or allegory and anagogy—that, in conjunction with the literal sense, form the common fourfold approach to medieval exegesis. In the introduction and first chapter, McDermott makes the (somewhat implicit) case that this approach to scripture is basically the right way to engage with the Bible both for doing the history of interpretation and for current exegetical practices (for example, 26, 374). In these opening sections of the book, he also wants to call attention to the importance of tropology, which he views, rightly in my opinion, as having been marginalized in favor of studies of some of the other senses (mainly the literal, according to his account). “Without tropological interpretation and action, the Bible would be not only a dead letter but dead spirit as well,” McDermott insists and thus, “through the habits of tropology, living people keep the literal and spiritual meanings of scripture in circulation through practices of contemplation and action” (2).

For McDermott, “tropology is not discourse about ethical concepts or images,” being instead “a practice by which readers are led by the hand (manuductio) from history through doctrine (the allegorical sense) to action, converting the perverted will in the process, and lighting the path to the future consummation of the good (the anagogical sense)” (3, emphasis in original). Tropology, then, is a particular approach to ethics that demands an engagement with the Bible as sacred scripture (13-21, 32-35). The ethical sense of tropology operates not at the level of “questions of right and wrong” per se, but rather in proper “participation in the life of God” (189). Literature is an excellent, if partial, archive of past tropological exegesis since by means of tropology “writers . . . turn words, especially the words of sacred scripture, into works—books as well as deeds” (3). In chapter 1, McDermott carefully elaborates on this understanding of tropological theory. 

The following chapters of the book develop specific aspects of McDermott’s theorizing of tropology. In chapter 3, for instance, McDermott articulates a particularly interesting theory of invention. He argues that there is a form invention related to troplogy that is not predicated on competition. In other words, invention does not necessarily need to be based on novelty and supersession. As an alternative, McDermott advances a form of invention that has new works aim not to “displac[e] their models, [but] instead seek to harmonize with them” (150). In another compelling example, chapter 5 draws attention to how tropology, although not named as such by Protestants, serves as a bridge between medieval Catholic and early modern Protestant biblical cultures. This observation establishes another point of continuity between these cultures that buttresses recent efforts by scholars to rethink the relationship of these two periods and populations.

Some aspects, however, of how McDermott theorizes tropology are not entirely clear. Tropology’s relationship to allegory is an especially pressing case in point. In his introduction, McDermott states that allegory “teaches the doctrines of Christian faith” as manifested in the New Testament (via typological fulfillments of the Old Testament), while “tropological reading and action convert allegorized history back into lived history” (2; see also 12, 99, 315). Yet later McDermott broadens out the scope of allegory to encompass the entire “history of salvation” (72, see also 75, 92, 109). Adding to the confusion is McDermott’s claim that “tropology never happens all by itself, because it is part of the allegorical mode” (128). Is tropology then a subset of allegory or a distinct mode of interpretation? Is allegory restricted to New Testament fulfillments of types found in the Hebrew scriptures or does it reach across the full expanse of salvation history, including the lives of post-biblical Christians? These unresolved questions limit the value of chapter 2, which focuses heavily on the literal-historical and allegorical senses of scripture in (somewhat opaque) relation to tropology.

Finally, given that Tropologies should be of interest not just to scholars who focus on medieval England, this reviewer wishes that McDermott had made more of an effort to consistently gloss the extensive Middle English passages or had provided modern English translations for them. I fear that this failure to open up his evidence more fully to his readers will unnecessarily limit the impact of this important contribution to conversations around the history and practice of biblical interpretation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William E. Smith III is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan McDermott is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.


Ryan McDermott

I’m grateful for William E. Smith III’s thoughtful and appreciative review of Tropologies. However, I feel I must defend my biblical studies colleagues against Smith’s preemptive constraint on their historical imaginations. Assuming that he knows my “Christian commitments,” Smith claims that a reader who does not share those commitments could not “fully embrace a number of [my] positions.” Such confessional scholarship concerning the history of biblical interpretation “will likely ruffle the feathers of many biblical scholars.” I agree with Smith that a substantial contingent of the SBL membership opposes confessional scholarship, understood as research the results of which depend in part for their coherence and validity on intellectual assent to certain points of Christian doctrine. But Smith misreads what I’m up to in this book.

Tropologies is a work of literary, religious, and exegetical history, one that invites readers to inhabit the theological imaginations of a doctrinally diverse range of Christians across a long, variegated span of intellectual history. As I argue at the end of chapter 4, “a history that does not enter sympathetically into [the theological] self-understanding [of dead Christians] is capable of measuring greater or lesser degrees of change in social practices and intellectual discourses, but not of seeing continuity in the way the communities it studies see it” (235). (See also my brief history of theological literary studies here.

Chapter 6, which Smith characterizes as my “own theological interpretation [of scripture] in relation to a religious play,” in fact entertains at least three conflicting theologies of Eucharist and Last Judgment, one informed by patristic and Roman Catholic thought, the others by Lutheran and Calvinist theologies. The chapter is an exercise in imagining how adherents to each of these traditions might have made theological sense of the York Play between 1560 and 1569 (the brief window of time after the magisterial Reformation made significant inroads in York and before the Play was shut down). Because biblical studies scholars—even those who oppose the contemporary practice of theological exegesis—appreciate the importance of reception history, my guess is that they will find this book particularly useful, and they will know how to keep their feathers from being ruffled by Bonaventure or Luther or de Lubac. As for my own commitments, I’m a confessing Catholic who aspires to achieve non-Christian historian Caroline Walker Bynum’s “goal of historical interpretation[:] Never condescending to his material or reducing it to social function or ideology . . . he . . . compels us to encounter a set of traditions to which we are still deeply and problematically indebted” (from Bynum's review of Karl F. Morrison, Understanding Conversion, in Church History 63:4 [1994]: 609-10).


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