Tell someone that you are working within the field of medieval mysticism and, more often than not, they will give you one of two responses: if largely unfamiliar with the subject, your interlocutor will gasp, open wide their eyes and with a slight shake of the head, breathe a mystified, ‘wow’; for those who have studied such a hallowed topic, a conversation frequently ensues about the five great and well-studied figures of English mysticism: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. The latest medieval print publication in the Cambridge Companion series does not attempt to demystify the first response, but to put it in historical context, and does not try to dismiss the second response, but to unearth other authors and types of writing that may be conceived as mystical.
Each member of the Cambridge Companion family has an idiosyncratic format: while The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature, 1100-1500 begins with broader background essays on authors and context, and goes on to include a selection of more tightly focussed thematic or specialist subject essays, The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing takes a contextual approach throughout, containing essays on textual spaces and the cultural and economic situations of women in the Middle Ages. The editors of The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism have opted for a historicist methodology. Vincent Gillespie, co-editor of the volume, writes in the Preface: ‘There is a widespread view that “mystical” activity in the Middle Ages was a rarefied enterprise of a privileged spiritual elite. A consequence of this is that medieval mystical texts have too often been studied in a cultural and even literary vacuum’ (xi). This collection fills a gap in the critical field by offering its readers pairs of essays, the first of which covers history and culture within a particular period, with the second discussing works of literature from that period. The time boundary for each pair of chapters is determined by events that seem to mark a change in the national consciousness, and in turn affect devotional activity.
Chapters 4 and 5, for instance, cover the period beginning with the Fourth Lateran Council and ending with a bout of the Black Death. Alastair Minnis, author of chapter 4, ‘1215-1349: culture and history,’ discusses the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, which cemented the previously-hoped for aims of reforming church organization, engaging the laity in regular penitential activity and improving the conduct of the clergy, before linking this to the growth in the genre of ‘the art of preaching’ manuals (pp.69-72). There is some repetition of these ideas in the following chapter, Denis Renevey’s ‘1215-1349: texts,’ and if there is a flaw in the layout of the book, it is that key ideas are often repeated within each pair of chapters. The main difference is that the textual sections go into slightly more detail about the dominant genres or authors of the period. The end date of 1349 marks the death of one of England’s most famous and prolific mystics, Richard Rolle. Denis Renevey, author of Language, Self and Love, a monograph on Rolle’s commentary on the Song of Songs, discusses the diversity of his corpus after pointing towards the poetry of John of Howden, thought to be his near contemporary and fellow Yorkshireman (pp.103-110). Yet the space limitations of the text-focused sections of the book means that Renevey must condense his summary of Rolle’s large collection of writings in Middle English and Latin into less than six pages, suggesting that the book aims rather to create an impressively broad panorama than a series of expansive case studies.
Readers with an interest in medieval music would appreciate the discussion of medieval devotional lyrics offered by Roger Ellis and Samuel Fanous in ‘1349-1412: texts,’ which traces the influence of holy texts and songs on Middle English lyrics and explores their contemplative function (pp.137-140). Members of the Medieval Song Network who attended the second workshop would also be delighted to find, in Vincent Gillespie’s chapter, ‘1412-1534: culture and history,’ a link to his presentation on Richard Rolle’s experiences of angelic song. Providing a vernacular translation of an account of miraculous singing performed by Continental female mystic, Christina Mirabilis, he goes on to claim that angel song becomes something of a trope in fourteenth-century England in the writings of Rolle and his contemporaries (p.182). It is this kind of connection-making that the Companion encourages: rather than having a ready-made theme, contributors and readers are urged to see the relationships between texts and their backgrounds.
The volume acts as a comprehensive yet concise map, helping scholars to navigate a period of rapid change. At the same time, it defines the very field it explores by revealing the depth and complexity of the term ‘mystical,’ opening up genres and authors that we would perhaps not have associated with this term. Readers completely new to this area of study may feel a little daunted by the amount of historical detail in the culture and history chapters, but those who wish to develop their knowledge of mysticism beyond one author, genre or period could do no better than to begin here.
Review by Sophie A. Sawicka-Sykes