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Chaucer's Chain of Love.

The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture. By DAVID AERS and LYNN STALEY. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1996. 310 pp. $45; 40.50 [pounds sterling] (paperbound $19.95; 17.95 [pounds sterling]).

Powers of the Holy is a provocative and important book, bringing Wyclif, Langland, Julian of Norwich, and Chaucer together as writers concerned with the relations between power and authority in the context of the political and religious crises of the 1370s to the 1390s. Commitment to scholarly 'conversation' (which organizes the book in separate differently voiced sections) and a heroic determination to marshal within the same set of covers writers genres, discourses, and historical circumstances more often treated separately mean that it is not a tidy book, but it is often an exhilarating one.

In the opening chapters, David Aers reconsiders the Christ figure of Caroline Bynum's influential studies, a bleeding, feminized, dolorous body, capable of empowering women and their association with food both in symbolism and in social history. Aers replaces this Christ with a mobile, preaching, social critic, working in public arenas and important to Wycliffites and others who found their positions increasingly defined as heretical at the end of the fourteenth century. This resolutely male Christ allows little scope for the complexities of women's investments in affective piety (seen here as principally empowering for conservative churchmen), and Aers's deployment of Him (in readings of Julian, Wycliffite texts, and Piers Plowman), does not dispose of the value of Bynum's Christ. Indeed, Aers's alternative Christ replicates many of the essentializing moves his own argument is designed to undo. Nevertheless, this is a landmark argument for bodies of Christ, for historical contingency and particular interest groups as the producers of time-bound figurations of the holy, one of the most lucid and useful responses to Bynum we have.

Lynn Staley takes up the discussion by reading Julian of Norwich as a writer aware of the politics of late-medieval devotional and theological writing and herself concerned with reconnecting authority and power. She sees the differences between the Short and Long Texts of the Revelation of Love as Julian's own authorially self-conscious move from a feminized text written in or for a feminine subculture to a version more widely engaged in addressing and transforming contemporary languages of power, not simply adding affectively to them. While much of this is contentious or provisional in the current state of knowledge about the Revelation's textual history and the study of female subcultures, it is an excellent demonstration of the value of considering Julian as a writer with a historical and political context.

Staley's other chapter is the length of a short monograph and as weighty. She looks at Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale, Melibee, and the Clerk's Tale against the politics respectively of the 1370s, 1380s, and 1390s in order to argue for Chaucer as profoundly concerned with the relations between power and authority and to show the historical and political inflections of his handling of the genres of hagiography and moral allegory. Staley's concern to situate Chaucer's thinking among other discussions of power and authority freights the chapter heavily, with the crises and parliaments of Richard's reign, with chroniclers and merchants, dissenters and churchmen, civic entries and coronation orders, as well as political and social theory and other literary texts. Although the convincingness of these literary-historical alignments can fluctuate, new and provocative arguments are constantly produced, and one's reading permanently enlarged, by the chapter's magnificent determination to hold sacramental authority and political power within the one framework.

Powers of the Holy runs risks, and they are well worth it. We shall go on arguing over both the particulars of its argument and the parameters of its attempt to create new frames for thinking about late-fourteenth-century literature (Aers and Staley provide an agenda for future work in the book's joint conclusion), but the field in which we do so will be different. Moreover, the book's multifarious, passionately intelligent engagement should make its territory part of the historical sense of audiences outside its field. In a radically different vein from Duffy's Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), Aers and Staley challenge any reader not to include an account of this pre-Reformation moment in the narrative by which they shape their present.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dillon, Janette
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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