Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture, The

Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture, The

Bauerschmidt, Frederick C

The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture. By David Aers and Lynn Staley. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 310 pp. $45.00 (cloth); 19.95 (paper).

In The Powers of the Holy, David Aers and Lynn Staley explore the relationship between politics and piety in England during the last quarter of the fourteenth century, showing it to be a period of great intellectual ferment, in contrast to the rather restricted orthodoxy of the fifteenth century. They focus in particular on vernacular works (including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, and various Wycliffe texts) produced prior to Archbishop Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409, which made vernacular discussions of theological matters highly suspect. These texts, which have typically been read as “religious” or “literary” texts, are shown by Aers and Staley to have profound political investments-that is, these texts both are shaped by and respond to the various configurations of social power operative in their specific time and place.

Though the authors have worked closely together in producing this book, the first half is Aers’s and the second half Staley’s. Aers’s section consists of three closely related chapters examining different representations of Christ’s humanity. Reacting to Caroline Bynum’s brilliant but monolithic account of the late medieval understanding of Christ’s humanity as feminized and suffering, Aers shows that there were in fact alternative accounts of that humanity. Aers examines how the dominant “orthodox” representations of Christ’s humanity, which focused on his passion to the exclusion of either his teaching or his resurrection, submerged the memory of the wandering rabbi who challenged the religious and political leaders of his day. Aers then goes on to show how this “dangerous” memory was preserved both in theologically “orthodox” forms (i.e. Piers Plowman), as well as in forms that were theologically “heterodox” (i.e. Wyclif and the Lollards). In both these forms Jesus’ crucifixion is construed not as self-abnegation, but as a suffering inflicted upon him by those in power, a suffering that he willingly takes on rather than abandon his prophetic preaching. Aers then looks at Julian of Norwich’s representation of Christ’s humanity as another example of a Christology in which the suffering of Christ, while not ignored, is not the primary focus. Aers’s essays work together effectively to argue for a rethinking of the significance of Christ’s humanity in medieval Christianity, and they make an important point about the ways that various late medieval depictions of Christ’s humanity both reflect and are shaped by different understandings of the relationship between piety and politics.

Whereas Aers’s essays cluster tightly around the theme of Christ’s humanity, the two essays by Staley that make up the second half of the book address less focused questions of “power” and “authority.” The first, also on Julian of Norwich, presents Julian as a self-conscious author who engaged in an act of “fictional self-fashioning” that allowed her “the freedom to say what she needed to say” ( 109). And what Julian needed to say, on Staley’s account, had to do with the overcoming of the various antinomies that normally structured social power, in particular the pairs lord-servant (in Julian’s “example” of the Lord and Servant) and male-female (in her teaching on the motherhood of Christ). Staley’s second essay offers a reading of Chaucer that is at once theological and political. Though Chaucer is not usually thought of as a theological writer, Staley argues that in certain key Canterbury tales (the Second Nun’s tale, the Melibee, and the Clerk’s Tale) Chaucer offers his readers resources for a social critique grounded in a Christian vision not unlike (though not identical with) that found in Wyclif and Langland. Her exegesis of these tales is interwoven with an exposition and analysis of late fourteenthcentury politics, making for a complex enactment of the basic thesis of the volume as a whole: the unavoidable interweaving of text and social context.

There are (perhaps unavoidable) gaps in the discussion, and certain points argued by Aers and Staley are debatable. An example of a gap can be found in the way in which Aers accurately presents Wyclif as arguing against the exercise of worldly power by the Church and seeking the disendowment of the Church by the lay ruling classes, but does not then take up the topic of Wyclif’s lack of any critique of secular power. It is arguable that Wyclif’s position amounted to Erastianism and would not have long secured the prophetic “freedom” of the Gospel that Aers sees as central to Lollard preaching. This issue, to which Staley alludes at the end of her essay on Chaucer, seems too important to ignore, since it points to certain deep problems running through medieval social thought and doan to our day. The division of power into “temporal” and “spiritual,” which was crucial for settling the Investiture Controversy in the twelfth century, paves the way for the later identification of “temporal” with “public” and “spiritual” with “private.” Thus while it may be true, as Aers claims, that the Wycliffite model of Christ was not one “which fostered an individualism and privatization of piety in opposition to communitarian practices and aspirations” (p. 57), the Wycliffite desire for a purely “spiritual” Church tended to deprive the Christian community of any form of social embodiment apart from the nation.

An example of a debatable point can be found in the way Staley accepts too quickly the thesis of Colledge and Walsh that Julian was highly educated in Latin theology and was widely read in vernacular texts. Staley presents this view as “speculation” (p. 156) but then proceeds to treat it as fact. It seems to me that much, and perhaps all, of Julian’s theology can be accounted for by the kind of theological commonplaces that might be gleaned from sermons, catechisms, and the liturgy itself. Another debatable point is more problematic. Staley persistently characterizes Church teaching as “objective” and Julian’s revelation as “subjective.” This leads her to characterize Julian’s book as “the result of subjective inquiry into her own experience” (p. 163). Such language is highly misleading, tied as it is to post-Cartesian accounts of certainty and selfhood. While Julian clearly distinguishes bet,veen what she was taught in her revelation and what she had been previously taught as Church doctrine, she does not consider the former subjective and the latter objective. Certainly Julian does not think of her revelation as “subjective” in the typical modern sense of “true-for-me-but maybe-notfor-you,” or in the sense of an “ineffable mystical experience.”

These and other complaints do not undercut the value of this important volume. By Aers’s and Staley’s own estimation, the worth of their book “rests in the variety of questions generated by our inquiry into some of the authors of late fourteenth-century English culture” (p. 246). By this standard they have produced an invaluable book that should occupy theologians, historians, and literary critics for some time to come.


Loyola College Baltimore, Maryland

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 1997

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