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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Medieval

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein


The history of “national identity” before nationalism continues to intrigue scholars.  Not surprisingly, a number of scholars have found that religious identity—whether by defining a coherent national self against an Other (Jewish, Muslim) or by conceptualizing the nation within a universal church—proved central to how medieval authors understood themselves as a national community.  Fictions of religious “Others” such as Jews and Muslims, however, did not necessarily function in any consistent way across time or texts.  Thus, in Angels on the Edge of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000-1534, Kathy Lavezzo draws on poststructuralist theory and the new cultural geography to analyze how the English paradoxically managed to capitalize on their position as a “marginal” space in medieval cartography—the mappae mundi (maps of the world).  Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 draws on some of the same material, especially the mappae mundi, but deploys it to critique ahistorical applications of postcolonial theory (especially Edward Said’s seminal 1979 volume Orientalism) to medieval texts.  In Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative, Suzanne Yeager addresses the role of national identity from a different perspective: the history of “crusade rhetoric,” which promised to reconstitute England as itself a new Jerusalem, occupied by Christians who might travel to the real Jerusalem only in spirit.  Turning to Englishness itself, Miramne Ara Krummel’s Crafting Jewishness in Medieval England: Legally Absent, Virtually Present finds that even as Christians sought to ward off figurative infection by the stiff-necked Jew, they also figured Jews as a fantasy of striking (but un-English) national unity.

Saints’ lives and Marian legends were among the most popular texts in medieval literature.  In The Generation of Identity in Late Medieval Hagiography: Speaking the Saint, Gail Ashton uses French feminist theory first to develop a poetics of female hagiography as its own genre—written by men, used to articulate explicitly patriarchal concepts of femininity and religious experience—and then to expose the “fissures” or “fragments” in the masculine discourses about embodiment and voice that allow an alternative feminine voice to emerge.  Adrienne Williams Boyarin’s Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends joins Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary in linking Marian intercession with anxieties about Judaism, but connects Mary’s own Jewishness to what she calls Mary Legislatrix: Mary the lawyer, strongly linked to charters and contracts, capable of saving sinners from their deals with the devil.  Gary Waller’s The Virgin Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Literature and Popular Culture tracks the sometimes bawdy and blasphemous afterlife of the Virgin in early Protestantism, frequently returning to the year 1538—when several icons of the Virgin were burned—as a touchstone.  Drawing on psychoanalysis and using iconoclasm as his through-line, Waller argues that the Virgin was not so much banished from popular religious discourse as she was denounced, eroticized, or translated into a tourist attraction.

The impact of new scholarship in book history can be seen in attempts to reconstruct how medieval readers interacted with texts.  Jessica Brantley’s Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England—devoted to a single Carthusian manuscript, MS Additional 37049—combines theories of performativity and multimedia to understand how this manuscript might have both modeled devotional reading and actually been read in its original monastic context.  A more wide-ranging study on a similar topic is Jennifer Bryan’s Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England, which argues against attempts to link Protestantism and the Reformation to the birth of the “modern” self.  Instead, Bryan finds that medieval readers articulated their sense of individuality through devotional texts, which called on them to emulate or identify with Christ and the Virgin.  Jean-Claude Schmitt takes on a different problem in the history of reading with The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century (trans. Alex J. Novikoff), which uses the problematic twelfth-century manuscript Opusculum de conversione sua, ascribed to a Jew formerly known as Judas ben David ha-Levi, to explore questions related to medieval notions of history, authority, evidence, and narrative.

Works Cited