Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England.
Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's latest book will rapidly become essential reading for scholars of medieval literature. In her study of the reception history of various prophetic and visionary writings, she has provided a thoroughly revisionist account of theological politics in England in the late medieval period. The generation of scholars since Anne Hudson's The Premature Reformation (1988) have largely come to imagine an insular English church, largely untroubled by continental heresies, but which faced a solitary challenge to orthodoxy in the last decades of the fourteenth century with the rise to prominence of the Oxford theologian John Wyclif and his followers, the Lollards. With their calls for disendowment and for lay access to a translated Bible, and their questioning of fundamental theologies such as transub-stantiation, the Wycliffites, in Hudson's parlance, represented "the English heresy" In Books Under Suspicion, the traditional binary of a proto-Protestant Wycliffite heresy jostling with institutional Orthodoxy is replaced by a much more rich, colorful and complex English theologico-political landscape. In a study that largely focuses on the English reception of "suspect" writings between the reigns of Edward III and Henry IV, Kerby-Fulton argues persuasively that the idea of an insular England untroubled by, and largely unaware of continental heresy and speculative theology is untenable. This is an England that is acutely aware of the Papal inquisition and the academic controversy concerning alternative revelatory-inspired salvational doctrine, an England that--depending on the readership--simultaneously appropriates, repurposes, tolerates or nervously censors suspect theologies and revelatory writings. Knowledge of such theological controversies, Kerby-Fulton tells us, is an essential, yet largely untapped means for contextualizing the writings of authors including William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich.
The study opens with a chronology of what Kerby-Fulton terms "Non-Wycliffite cases of heresy and related events," which serves to demonstrate a plethora of competing theologies, eschatologies, and divisive sectarianisms that have been too often ignored by scholars of religious literature. It is interesting, however, and perhaps to the detriment of this chronology, that it does not integrate Wycliffite and non-Wycliffite cases in order that the relative weight of ecclesiastical concern with various brands of heresy might be gauged. Obviously it raises the suspicion that in Ricardian and Lancastrian England, cases of non-Wycliffite heresy might be buried amongst the disproportionately represented cases of suspected Lollardy. Nevertheless, the chronology, as microcosm for the entire book, allows the reader to develop "a more pluralist view of unorthodoxy" (396).
Once again Kerby-Fulton has provided research of utmost interest to scholars of Piers Plowman, a text most regularly contextualized against the social and political turmoil that followed the Black Death, which would eventually result in the cataclysm of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. Books Under Suspicion offers the reader three fascinating case studies that introduce us to a refreshingly diverse spectrum of politically motivated readers of Piers Plowman. Other than Langland's appropriation by various readerships, salvational and revelatory theologies are juxtaposed with Langland's own frequent slippages into pseudo-prophecy Kerby-Fulton addresses the author's (and his presumed coterie's) own negotiations with suspect eschatology and salvational doctrine in his attempts to respond to the "horrific" severity of predestinarianism (344). Geoffrey Chaucer's less tortured relationship with these materials is also investigated in reference to texts including the House of Fame, where it is argued that Chaucer is not only interested in exploring the idea of an unknowable "whimsical" God (as he might also be said to do in other texts including "The Clerk's Tale" and "The Knight's Tale"), but is perhaps parodying the breakdown of Langland's formative version of Piers Plowman. Importantly, with respect to the two great Ricardian authors, Kerby-Fulton makes the case that both Langland and Chaucer must be acknowledged as importers of Continental streams of thought: "Chaucer, as is well known, [was familiar] with foreign literary and humanist texts," and Langland was conversant "with reformist apocalypticism" (124). It would be impossible to do justice to the range of issues covered by Books Under Suspicion. Suffice to say that Kerby-Fulton's analyses of less canonical authors such as Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the Carthusian translator of Marguerite Porete, "MN," are equally invigorated by her discovery of a pluralist theological culture in late medieval England.
Although Books Under Suspicion is rich and rewarding book, it must also be said that it is a challenging read given the scope of its engagement with figures and movements with which the reader may not have detailed knowledge. The book might have been helped in this regard by appendices glossing terms with capricious theological import (such as "Joachimism" or "free spiritism"), and with an appendix or glossary containing short entries providing context for the chief protagonists in the history of revelatory writing and its repression. As it stands, many of Kerby-Fulton's characters are introduced fleetingly as part of tangential discussions, and before their relevance has been made clear. The book appears to be undecided if it is presenting the reader with a series of self-contained studies, or alternatively, a grand narrative of English response to alternative theologies and becomes, at times, a frustrating plod due to its failure to fully commit to either mode of presentation. The many micro-studies that combine to make Books Under Suspicion can only be fully appreciated on a second read, when the reader can piece the pattern of interdependent discussions together. As it is, many readers will find themselves, rapidly dissatisfied by the unedifying endnotes, reading Kerby-Fulton's book alongside the Catholic Encyclopedia or some other work of reference.
The extent to which an awareness of these heresies and barely tolerated theologies percolated below the rarefied level of university disputation is a matter the book deals with in respect of the vernacular authors such as Langland and Chaucer, who betray awareness of contemporary theological debates. Nevertheless, it remains for further scholarly enquiry to judge the full extent of the influence and reaction to the "left-wing" heresies and orthodoxies in literary and wider culture. Kerby-Fulton here offers research that will no doubt spark an overdue spate of revisionist analyses of the theologico-political climate in late medieval England, studies that will further respond to a culture that eschews simplistic bifurcated accounts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. In providing entirely new contexts for discussing the vernacular writers of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, this book is sure to stimulate a flurry of research that will challenge and nuance Kerby-Fulton's findings. Kerby-Fulton is right to announce "a new story" for many scholars of Middle English writing.
Queens University, Belfast
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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