Reading in the wilderness: private devotion and public performance in late medieval England

Jessica BRANTLEY, Reading in the wilderness: private devotion and public performance in late medieval England. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007. XIII- 344 p. ISBN 978-0-226-07132-9.

Recensent: Shannon GAYK
Publicatie: The Medieval Review 09.12.15 —
Datum van plaatsing: 18.12.2009
Adres recensent:

The late-fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany, British Library Additional Manuscript 37049 is surely one of the most remarkable — and least studied — Middle English illustrated manuscripts from the period. This relative neglect may stem from the fact that the manuscript does not fit neatly into our disciplinary divisions--its integration of images and texts requires a critic able to negotiate art history, literary studies, and religious history. However, an important first step toward remedying this critical neglect has been made by Jessica Brantley's recent monograph, Reading in the Wilderness: Private
Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England
. In her lucid study, Brantley approaches the manuscript's iconographic and textual programs together, reading the miscellany as a coherent devotional object unified by its visual program, its subject matter, and its sustained encouragement of performative reading.

Yet as Brantley's title suggests, Reading in the Wilderness is not simply a study of a unique manuscript. Brantley also uses the miscellany as a means of exploring the dynamics of private reading and public performance in late-fifteenth-century religious culture more generally. Reading the wide-ranging manuscript as a florelegium, Brantley groups its various materials by theme. Each chapter takes up the different genres and forms represente in the miscellany (including devotional lyrics and prayers, dialogues and debates, prose treatises, allegories, and excerpts from longer poems such as The Pilgrimage of the Soul and The Prick of Conscience) and reads the texts with their associated images, exploring what they contribute to the miscellany's overarching interest in facilitating meditative, performative reading. Brantley's careful consideration of text, image, and context represents an important contribution to studies of late-medieval piety, book production, and reading.

In the book's introductory chapter, "The Performance of Reading", Brantley introduces the readers to the manuscript, to Carthusian book production, and to the relationships among medieval books, images and public spectacles and performances. Attending to this manuscript and its larger contexts, she argues, sheds light on the late-medieval association of reading with performance. Drawing on a range of theorists (from scholars of image-text relations to those working on performance), Brantley builds the conceptual frame of her argument, namely that solitary reading may both reflect and constitute performance insofar as many of the imagetexts (a term she borrows from W. J. T. Mitchell) "call upon their readers to imagine public spectacles as a way of creating individual ones" (3). Moreover, she argues that the devotional images and texts contained within Additional 37049 "testify with unusual clarity to the performative culture of late medieval devotional reading" (4). When Brantley speaks of the manuscript as "performative" she is neither simply channeling J. L. Austin's "words that do things", nor resurrecting old arguments about the connections between medieval iconography and mystery plays; rather, as the subsequent chapters suggest, Brantley sees the relationships between reading and performance in this manuscript (and in late medieval devotional culture more generally) as multivalent. Indeed, even as Brantley is most interested in exploring how reading itself is a sort of performance, she also considers how the manuscript's imagetexts depict communal performances and situate the reader as spectator of the performances of others.

The second chapter, "Visible Silence: Carthusian Devotional Reading and Meditative Practice", provides the historical and religious contexts for the study, offering an overview of the Carthusian use of books and images that calls attention to and problematizes any dichotomy between private and public religious experience. This chapter thus draws attention to a central paradox of the Carthusians in England: the order was committed to solitude yet was communal in many ways. As Brantley argues in this chapter, Carthusian devotional texts, such as Additional 37049, provided an alternative to communal worship in the Charterhouse, enabling solitary monks to perform their devotion through reading, seeing, and even producing books. Brantley begins with a brief introduction to the Carthusian order, charting its continental origins to its prominence in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although Carthusians are an eremetic order, known for their solitary and ascetic lives, Brantley considers the ways in which their private work and devotion interact with public spectacles. In particular, she argues, the Carthusian production and circulation of books (both between monks and with devout lay people) disrupts any clear division we may want to draw between the solitary and public lives of Carthusian monks. The production of books, as Brantley notes, was the primary labor of the Carthusian cell but also a form of silent preaching. But Brantley is here also interested in complicating another assumption about Carthusians: that their use of devotional images flies in the face of the order's asceticism. In fact, as she shows, images were often used in both Carthusian cells and public spaces to encourage and model devotion. To this end, many of the manuscript's images depict Carthusian monks kneeling in prayer.
Thus, this chapter shows, Carthusian community is formed in silence, in the shared production of books, and in the private prayer enabled by those books and images.

Having complicated the traditional understanding of Carthusian piety as purely solitary and aesthetic, Brantley turns to the ways in which the compilation represents the performance of private devotion and offers her first extended reading of one of the manuscript's imagetexts: the Desert of Religion. This chapter, "The Shapes of Eremetic Reading in the Desert of Religion", is the only one of the book devoted to a single text, but, as Brantley demonstrates, the poem occupies a place of centrality — both figuratively and physically (it occupies the middle twenty folios of the manuscript) — in Additional 37049. Brantley reads the manuscript's representation of this imagetext in light of the other two extant copies of the Desert (British Library MS Cotton Faustina B. VI and Stowe 39) to show the ways in which it embodies the practice of "wilderness reading" so central to Carthusian self-identity. Brantley compares the illustrations of each of these versions — including the tree-diagrams, depictions of praying hermits and monks, and representations of Mary of Egypt — to suggest that the poem (and its illustrations) serves as "a wilderness one can see" and performatively "enter into" (95). That Additional 37049's wilderness is rather more populated than its analogues suggests to Brantley that its artist's vision of the wilderness is one of eremitic community.

Brantley next examines several of the many lyrics included in the manuscript. Although critical attention to the manuscript has often failed to situate the lyrics in their visual contexts, Brantley argues that doing so further throws into relief the compilation's interest in religious performance. To this end, she suggests that the manuscript is pervaded by a "lyric sensibility" (164) with the lyric serving as a particularly appropriate genre for both communal performance and wilderness contemplation. This is largely the case, Brantley shows, because lyrics stand at the join of visual and aural culture, of private meditation and public performance. Scholars have long considered the relationship of medieval lyrics to their visual contexts and read them in light of contemplative practice. Critics have also explored the ways in which the lyric is aural and communal. As critics like Siegfried Wenzel have shown, we often find lyrics embedded in aural performance, in genres such as sermon literatures, hymns, and carols. For Brantley, the manuscript draws on these dual inheritances of the religious lyric — visual and aural — to explore further the relationship between meditative reading and public performance. In other words, although the poems of this manuscript are not found in public contexts and were almost certainly read privately, they still reflect the public, performative uses of lyrics. Brantley focuses her discussion in this chapter on the manuscript's eremitic lyrics, selections from Richard Rolle, excerpts from the Pricke of Conscience, and crucifixion and Marian lyrics and their accompanying illustrations. The final section examines how speakers within the images often voice the lyrics and thus model lyrical performance, suggesting to Brantley that the Carthusian reader imagined by the manuscript is thus "both a speaker and an audience, a viewer and the object of another's view" (165).

The fifth chapter, "Liturgical Pageantry in Private Spaces", examines the ways in which traces of the public performance of the liturgy are evident thematically and iconographically throughout the codex but adapted for private meditation. As Brantley argues, in this manuscript, "the liturgy is the hinge around which private prayer turns into liturgical performance" (169). Although we might not expect to find liturgical imagery in a Carthusian manuscript, many of the imagetexts represent communal liturgies, such as processions, and multiple images reflect devotion to the Holy Name (which began as a private devotional practice but was "liturgized" in the mid-fifteenth century). Although the chapter focuses on the performance of the Holy Name, Brantley also briefly addresses other resonances of the liturgy throughout the manuscript, considering the manuscript's Charter of Christ, a vernacular meditation on the canonical hours accompanied by the associated images of Christ's Passion, and a visually remarkable two-page "flowchart" representing the seven sacraments. Although some of these representations are more closely affiliated with the liturgy than others, Brantley persuasively demonstrates that the backdrop of ecclesiastical performance inflects the private reading of the manuscript. Brantley argues, provocatively, that through these traces of liturgical performance, the manuscript provides its reader "a kind of sacramental power, in place of the communal processions and liturgical spectacle generally missing from Carthusian experience" (209).

In the next chapter, "Envisioning Dialogue in Performance", Brantley explores the manuscript's sustained interest in dialogue, both as a literary form and as represented visually. Although the miscellany contains a number of texts generally acknowledged as dialogues (such as the disputation between the body and the worms), Brantley demonstrates that the imagetexts of the manuscript suggest that many other of the works included were also to be read dialogically. The chapter begins with a reading of the miscellany's textual dialogues, but also explores how the compiler draws out the dramatic elements of other devotional texts, such as lyrics, excerpting dialogic or dramatic moments and emphasizing a performative reading of them by means of their accompanying images. One such set of texts that the compiler renders dialogic are excerpts from the Middle English Pilgrimage of the Soul where prose excerpts are often visually framed by images of two disputants in the margins, ostensibly engaged in conversation across the text. As throughout the book, Brantley provides ample visual evidence of her reading; nearly every other page contains illustrative images. The final section of the chapter offers one last example of the compiler's interest in dialogic texts: the ars moriendi section from the Middle English version of Heinrich Suso's Horologium Sapientiae known in late-medieval England as The Treatise of the Seven Points. The performative nature of Suso's dialogue between a dying man and Wisdom, as Brantley notes, was not lost on its medieval readers; it influenced the morality play, Wisdom. Although the play and the excerpt in the miscellany are unrelated, Brantley suggests that in drawing on this dialogic and performative material, the Carthusian compiler both engaged the meditative tradition and the dialogic, and perhaps even theatrical one.

The book's final chapter, "Dramatizing the Cell: Theatrical Performance in Monastic Reading", explores the affiliations between the performative reading of the manuscript and the late-medieval theater. Brantley begins with the few texts included in the miscellany that were performed publicly (such as the Townely lyric and the Decalogue from the Speculum Christiani), but soon turns to the many others where the ordinatio of the page resembles a
performance script, with dialogue marked by braces, boxes, and rubrication noting character names. In so doing, this chapter takes up the fluidity of performative genres, exploring the ways in which excerpted drama can appear as lyrics and lyrics can function dramatically. In other words, performative texts might function as either meditations or drama depending on the context in which they are read. Beginning with a consideration of the "Towneley Lyric", Brantley explores the relationship between private reading and public staged drama, suggesting that there is a link "between the kind of meditative reading this manuscript book requires and the great civic cycle dramas" (273). She thus explores the parallels between the readerly experience of seeing the page and the spectator's watching the stage, noting that this affinity between private reading and public performance is also suggested by a number of manuscripts of medieval drama that seem to be intended for reading privately as well as performing publicly. Although she does not go so far as to suggest that the performative texts of Additional 37049 were, in fact, performed by Carthusian monks, Brantley persuasively demonstrates that such performances would not have been unknown or irrelevant to a Carthusian reader and that we should conclude that monastic readers used "the communal and spectacular imaginary of the theater" (300) to enhance their private meditation.

The book ends with a brief, summative conclusion and an appendix that details the contents of Additional 37049. The conclusion reemphasizes that while the miscellany may, at first glance, seem to lack clear unity of subject matter, form, or voice, it is a coherent textual and visual artifact insofar as it is unified by its imagetexts, which encourage a very consistent and very particular sort of readerly response--the performance of devotion. Additional 37049, in
Brantley's words, thus "represents performances, embodies performances, and initiates readerly performances, all of which draw on affiliations with the visions and voices of public spectacles to construct a private devotional self" (304). The helpful appendix that follows provides the incipit, reference entries, other manuscript sources, and selected bibliography for each item in the miscellany. This is sure to be a useful resource for scholars working on the manuscript in the future.

As I hope the above summary has suggested, this is an impressive book that should be required reading for those working on late-medieval religious culture, Middle English devotional writing, early English drama and performance studies, and the relationship between images and texts. The merits of this book are many: it extends current interest in images and texts in the fifteenth century to the final quarter ofthe century (still relatively unexplored terrain); it provides a paradigm (performative reading) for bringing together lyric and dramatic modes and genres; it offers a new way of thinking about reading practices in the period; it provides an important assessment of Carthusian literary production; and it challenges the assumed dichotomy between public and private devotion, both in monasteries and among the laity. Finally, Reading in the Wilderness is a beautiful book. With eight full color plates and over a hundred black and white images of the manuscript and analogues, it offers the reader visual as well as textual pleasure — which is, it seems to me, a fitting reflection of the extraordinary manuscript that it takes as its subject.