Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England, c. 1350-1600.
This fascinating book investigates the use of the topological mode of reading in a range of texts, mostly from the late medieval period. Tropology is that mode of exegetical reading that seeks to transform Christian doctrine into the practices of the reader's own life, as distinguished from allegorical reading--which seeks to explicate doctrine--, and anagogical reading--which seeks the final fulfilment of doctrine in the union of the soul with God. As Ryan McDermott puts it, tropology 'is a practice by which readers are led by the hand [...] from history through doctrine (the allegorical sense) to action, converting the perverted will in the process, and lighting the path to the future consummation of the good (the anagogical sense)' (p. 3). As the author makes clear, tropology is an everyday, non-academic mode of reading that translates reading into ethical practice and is therefore process-based and unending. He also notes that, as he uses the term, it extends far beyond exegetical discourse and into 'a range of interpretive and inventive practices that concern the conversion of words into works' (p. 21). Because tropology is centrally concerned with this conversion of words into works, he argues, it is never simply interpretative, but also always inventive and productive of new literature. Challenging periodization, McDermott shows considerable continuity between medieval and early modern engagements with tropology.
After a short introduction, McDermott's book begins by using William Langland's Piers Plowman as the basis for his chapter explicating 'Topological Theory'. As he points out, tropology is ideal for thinking about what medieval literature does with Scripture, acting as a mode of invention as it carries out the biblical injunction to turn words into works of love in the world. Literature, in fact, becomes itself a form of tropological action as it actively reworks Scripture into a new form. Chapter 2, 'How to Invent History', turns to the poem Patience and the Glossa ordinaria to discuss tropology in terms of ethics. Here McDermott argues that Patience demonstrates how the literal and the allegorical are complementary to one another rather than opposed, and, in Patience's interweaving of the two, readers can see how the literal always already contains the allegorical within it.
Chapters 3 and 4 both focus on Piers Plowman again. In Chapter 3, McDermott suggests that rhetorical readings have obscured the ways in which invention can operate tropologically. Whereas traditional rhetorical theory views imitation and invention as practices of rivalry, topological imitation or invention is non-competitive, seeking rather to fulfil the promise of the scriptural source rather than to replace or challenge it. In Chapter 4, McDermott focuses on the middle part of Piers Plowman to show how this section develops a topological commentary on Scripture that characterizes the virtuous life as one lived in a constant cycling through the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. This chapter focuses on the concept of penitential satisfaction as the means by which failure can be redeemed; tropological intention, McDermott argues, is the means by which Protestant writers can continue to engage with satisfaction even after the elimination of penance.
Chapter 5, 'Tropology Reformed', moves us into Reformation territory to highlight how, in spite of the general assumption that Reformation means a turn to the literal at the expense of spiritual exegesis, tropological readings assume a definite prominence in this period--some in continuation of older traditions, and some breaking with traditional theological readings of Scripture. Examining writings by Calvin, Luther, More, Tyndale, Erasmus, Udall, Bucer, and the Protestant near-martyr John Careless, McDermott shows how his focus on tropology can uncover previously unnoticed continuities between Protestant and more traditional modes of religious exegesis. Chapter 6 focuses on the discourse of optics and mirrors in the York Doomsday Pageant, an annual event held up until 1569. McDermott points out that the York play reverses the perspective so that its spectators find themselves the ones under Christ's gaze as he comes to judge the living and the dead, and uses this insight to argue that, in the York play, the Eucharist becomes a kind of mirror that challenges a works-based system of salvation.
A brief conclusion ends this very effective book by shedding light on how tropological readings crop up in internet scriptural chat boards as an illustration of tropology's nature as an ongoing practice of vernacular exegesis. I recommend this book highly, especially to those interested in historical continuities between the medieval and early modern periods, and to those interested in alternatives to rhetorical methods of thinking about the link between words and actions.
JENNIFER CLEMENT, The University of Queensland
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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