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The Boundaries of Faith: The Development and Transmission of Medieval Spirituality.

John C. Hirsh. (Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 67.) Leiden and New York: E.J. Brill, 1996. xii+ 189 pp. $97. ISBN 90-04-10428-3.

In recent years, scholars of medieval-Renaissance studies have often sought to expand the borders of Western medieval and early modern society by exploring its connections over time to other cultural traditions and geographical regions. John Hirsh's innovative work, The Boundaries of Faith, is part of a series of works clearly informed by these concerns. Hirsh's book is not a monograph, however, but a collection of independent studies, each of which might stand on its own. The chapters are linked chiefly by the fact that each deals in some way with the means by which medieval spirituality has been or may be appropriated by specific persons. The sources of medieval faith examined by Hirsh were embodied initially in religious forms as diverse as private prayerbooks, Chaucerian tales, mystical literature, or popular devotional experiences, among them the arma Christi and Marian apparitions.

In his discussions, Hirsh often enlists comparisons between the medieval devotion under discussion and what he believes to be modern manifestations of the same faith expressed in Spanish-American art collections, Central American religious consciousness, or even the sense of oppression felt by inner city youth. This aspect of the book is made possible, perhaps, by the fact that Hirsh's definition of faith is at times deliberately vague, often not defined in a specifically Christian sense but allowed to embrace more wide-ranging spiritual insights that might be common to a number of religious traditions. Underlying the book is the author's attempt to counter recent analyses of medieval devotional life which, he argues, have spoken of religion as though it were located solely in external forms, whether literary or liturgical, rather than in individuals who have their own subjective understanding of the faith shared by the larger community. While he admits the difficulties involved in trying to determine the precise nature of the particular devotion of someone in the past, Hirsh thinks that the effort to do so is necessary since a person's inner beliefs constitute one of the "boundaries of faith." Such beliefs are one of the outposts joining together past devotion, the present community of faith, and future generations who will inherit the assumptions and religious attitudes passed on to them.

Hirsh's book is most convincing in those chapters which deal exclusively with developments taking place within the context of European Christian devotion. "The Origin of Affective Devotion" traces the wording of prayers to the Virgin and the order in which the prayers in prayerbooks are arranged from the ninth through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Hirsh's careful analysis of the wording of the prayers and their order demonstrates the growing desire to promote a sense of personal connectedness to God or the Blessed Virgin on the part of those who arranged and reworded the prayers. Particularly nice are Hirsh's two chapters examining the nature of feminism in the Book of Margery Kempe and in Chaucer's "Second Nun's Tale." He develops a creative means of analyzing Margery's approach by situating Margery's religious life in a sacred order, tangential to but distinct from the secular patriarchal order of kings, nobles, and husbands, and the equally patriarchal hierarchy of the Church. While Margery never completely rejects medieval patriarchalism, her firm grasp of the ultimate importance of the sacred allows her to have access to a higher divine authority for her actions. Margery's loyalty to the sacred realm becomes the source of both her deeply held religious beliefs and her ability to challenge either secular or ecclesiastical patriarchy to defend her position. Likewise, Chaucer's use of the martyrdom of St. Cecilia presents her as a woman who finds strength through her faith to challenge the secular patriarchy by rebuking her judges, even though she must do so within the context of the ecclesiastical patriarchy. Like Margery, Cecilia's faith "conforms to a larger pattern of spiritual unity"(90).

Those articles which seek to trace the transmission of medieval devotional themes into the present day are a bit more problematic; although those, such as the chapter on "Christ's Blood, which demonstrate continuity within the context of cultures shaped by Roman Catholicism, are the most successful and are often quite striking. The Catholic Church has undoubtedly preserved more of medieval tradition than those churches which sought deliberately to abandon the medieval past, and it is not surprising that continuities should exist. Hirsh's attempt, however, to draw connections between the social structures underlying the medieval arma Christi devotion and that of the arma urbis (guns and the police) of inner city youth seems misplaced at best, not because such a comparison is an affront to "genteel decorum" (143), but because Hirsh demonstrates no necessary continuity between the overtly Christian culture of late medieval Europe and the markedly secular culture of the modern inner city.

While there is a tendency in Hirsh's book to avoid acknowledging the degree to which ritual and communal practices also contain and transmit faith by shaping personal experience, his discussions of medieval devotional life are well done and should interest anyone whose studies involve an interdisciplinary approach to medieval religious life. Perhaps historians need to be reminded from time to time that religious faith is, after all, most present in the living tradition of the individuals who practice it.

DONNA SPIVEY ELLINGTON Gardner-Webb University
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Author:Ellington, Donna Spivey
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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