Review: Reading in the Wilderness

Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 463. £38.00, Hardcover.

In the British Library is a 15th-century collection of Middle English religious verse entitled MS Additional 37049. This Carthusian spiritual text has been fairly elusive of scholarly characterization. There are many reasons for this omission, but one significant one is its construction; it is an assemblage of a wide variety of spiritual works with very diverse illustrations, that may or may not easily connect with the text. So, while there is a fair amount of work on individual elements in the text, very little has been written on the text in its entirety.

Cue Yale University Associate Professor of English, Jessica Brantley, whose book, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England, offers important insights not only for this specific Carthusian text but also for the reading of devotional texts more broadly during this time period. In this study, Brantley looks at both the textual and imagistic programs, suggesting “the combination of dialogue and vision, so clearly reminiscent of dramatic situations, not only presents texts visually but makes possible their animation in the viewer’s mind” (7). Her main argument is that theatrical practices informed and shaped the private experience of devotional reading. One of the effects of this argument is that devotional reading becomes less of a solitary act because individuals see themselves as participating in a wider communal performance.

In the inaugural chapter, Brantley introduces the manuscript and connects the dynamics between 15th century illuminated devotional texts and public theatrical performances. This dynamic works in at least two ways. First, the “imagetext” (a term borrowed from W. J. T. Mitchell) in the manuscript “mimics the quintessential experience of theater-goers, who are equally audience and spectators” (5). Second, the imagetext encourages the readers to take on the role of performers, imagining themselves in the text, enacting it in the private drama of their heart.

In the second chapter, Brantley situates the manuscript into broader Carthusian spiritual practice. While being committed to silent solitude, fifteenth-century Carthusians also had a strong commitment to communal religious experience. Brantley argues that in the reading, seeing, and producing books, like Additional 37049, the Carthusians found an alternative means of communal worship. Carthusian book production, allowed for silent preaching by the encouragement or modelling of certain devotional practices both for other monks and lay people.

In subsequent chapters, Brantley focuses on specific texts within the manuscript, providing close readings of the dynamics between image and text. For example, she compellingly argues that the central imagetext of the manuscript, Desert of Religion, works to bring the reader into the experience of the desert. However, because the wilderness experience is through the medium of books, available to a community, it is paradoxically a communal activity. “The reader in the desert becomes the reader in the book, and the book represents the desert wilderness as a species of spiritual community” (119). This is further reinforced by the presence of Carthusian garbed figures in many of the images. The images do not merely represent the subject of the text, but also model the proper response to the material, which is, by nature, a communal activity.

Additionally, Brantley points out that liturgical performance and sacramental celebration is thematically present throughout the manuscript, in both text and image. This is often accomplished quite cleverly. For example, the organization of text and images often prompt the reader into an oscillating performative movement of the eyes, recreating some of the effects of a communal liturgical celebration and public theatrical performance. In so doing, the book offers “a kind of private sacramental power, in the place of the communal processions and liturgical spectacle generally missing from Carthusian experience” (209).

The most controversial, and interesting aspects of Brantley’s arguments are located in the later chapters where she argues, not merely for an abstract connection between Additional 37049 and theatrical spectacle, but speculates that certain parts of the manuscript are derivatively connected to actual lost plays. Her suggestion is not that this dramatic framework was publically performed, but rather its potential performability would have been known to the private reader in the cell and it would have transformed the reading experience “into a spiritual performance in its own right” (300).

This is a compelling book that deserves more attention from those interested in Carthusian Spirituality or medieval spiritual texts more generally. At the very least, Brantley has made a compelling case that the division between private reading and public spectacle is not as clear as one would originally think. It would have been helpful to Brantley’s arguments to contrast Additional 37049 with other illuminated devotional texts from mainland Europe, whose writers were less likely to have had much theatrical experience, yet on the surface, these texts seem to use many of the same mechanisms as Additional 37049. However, given the wildly diverse elements of Additional 37049, any thorough analysis of the manuscript will require the playing of several roles (dare I say doubling) on the part of the author. Something Brantley does very well in this beautiful book. Reading in the Wilderness is itself an imagetext, with many beautiful images throughout, as well as a very expansive and helpful bibliography for further study. Reading in the Wilderness is a bold, deeply thoughtful, and well written book, containing ideas that extend far beyond an individual spiritual text. It makes a valuable contribution to scholarship surrounding medieval spiritual books (both illuminated and not) which needs to be explored further.

 

Review by Michael Anderson.

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