Warren, Nancy Bradley, The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures.
This is a splendid book: highly readable, engrossingly narrated, and altogether compelling. Nancy Warren acknowledges a debt to David Wallace's work on female spirituality and historical periodization, and at the heart of her study is 'a desire to reconsider the binaries of medieval and early modern, Catholic and Protestant, domestic and foreign, orthodox and heterodox, that have obscured important aspects of English religious cultures' (p. 8). Warren demonstrates the sustained importance of medieval female spirituality for both Catholics and Protestants in the post-Reformation period. The temporal and confessional continuities she establishes arise from the devotional centrality of identification with the bodies of Christ and the Virgin. Female spirituality rooted in the body, she shows, forms a basis for connectedness with society and community, as well as with the English body politic, and with the church conceived as the mystical body of Christ. This is not an overtly contentious study, but Warren makes it clear that she differs from those who, like David Aers, regard identification with Christ's Passion as a form of victimization or acceptance of passivity: 'Experiencing Christ's, and others', sufferings through textual encounters with them informs theological and political visions (or, better, revisions) committed to performance and to action rather than to stasis or passivity' (p. 46).
Chapter 1 explicates incarnational paradigms in the lives and writings of three medieval holy women (St Birgitta of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich), and explores the influence of these in the poetry of a seventeenth-century Protestant, Aemilia Lanyer. Chapter 2 traces the legacy of Julian of Norwich in the writings of Mary Gascoigne (a representative example of the English Benedictine nuns at Cambrai and Paris, who played a crucial role in the preservation of Julian's texts), and in the spiritual autobiography of a Protestant gentry woman named Grace Mildmay (1552-1620). That early modern women devoted to preserving the 'old religion' were attached to medieval women's writings and spirituality may not seem surprising, but, as Warren intimates, there have been few sustained studies of these continuities (the most notable being Christine Peters's Patterns of Piety, from which Warrens study diverges markedly). More surprising is the significance of medieval affective and contemplative piety for Protestant women like Mildmay, who belonged to 'a religious tradition that is so often understood as defining itself in opposition to such forms of devotion' (p. 13). In this chapter, too, Warren shows that there is a political dimension to the incarnational piety whose continuity she traces: 'Mildmay's engagement with the spirituality of the past informs her visions of the constitution of the body that is the church and her attitudes to the body that is the English nation' (p. 14).
Chapter 3 argues strongly for 'the importance of Spain as a nation and of women as spiritual subjects in forging distinctive forms of early modern Englishness strongly aligned with medieval religious culture' (p. 14). Like the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai and Paris, the English Brigittine community of Syon, which finally settled in Spanish-controlled Lisbon, was engaged in developing a form of oppositional nationalism, influenced by St Birgitta. The Lisbon Brigittines had connections with Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza who entered England in 1605 to advance the Catholic cause. Luisa, Warren argues, was likewise influenced by St Birgitta, and played an important part in promulgating an oppositional model of English Catholic identity in the seventeenth century. Many have argued that women helped to preserve English Catholicism in domestic settings. The Syon nuns and Luisa, Warren points out, show women taking on public and explicitly political roles, despite being confined to domestic or monastic enclosure.
Further temporal and confessional continuities are identified in Chapter 4, which compares the (auto)biographical writings of Margery Kempe with two seventeenth-century Englishwomen, Anna Trapnel (a Baptist and Fifth Monarchist) and Elizabeth Cary (a Catholic convert whose biography was written by her daughter, who was a nun at Cambrai). The final chapter examines the politico-cultural uses of medieval history and medieval female spirituality in texts written by men in the service of competing orthodoxies, between 1570 and 1700. A particular focus is the significance of St Birgitta's appearance in Catholic and Protestant texts that circulated in times of political crisis. Warren concludes with a study of Pomfret's Life of the pro-Royalist but anti-Catholic Christian Cavendish, which reveals 'not only that it is impossible to escape the legacies of the medieval past by rejecting them, but also that the unresolved traumas of the past never cease to reemerge to unsettle present invocations of it' (p. 240).
My summary cannot hope to do justice to Warren's many-stranded and intricately interconnected study. I congratulate her on her exemplary presentation of a rich and complex argument. Scholars concerned with issues of historical periodization and disciplinary organization, as well as specialists in English religious cultures of the period 1350 to 1700, will want to think about Warren's arguments and in some way make them their own.
Department of English
University of Auckland
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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