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Reviews375 Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings, by Sarah Beckwith; xii & 199 pp. New York: Routledge, 1993, $74.50. In this handsome yet costly volume, Sarah Beckwith traces the uses of Christ's body in the social, political, and theological struggles in late medieval England. Imaging of Christ was often used as a model for control and maintenance of the social status quo, as Beckwith displays in a telling anecdote about Christological imaging and the suppression of the Peasant's revolt (pp. 23-24). In these historical contexts, argues Beckwim, "Christocentric devotion becomes a medium for the production of identity" (p. 1) and, as she argues throughout, a principle for social ordering. These conflicts are particularly acute and dramatic, as Beckwith displays, in the context ofWyclif, Lollardy, and the attacks on the clergy's monopoly over the meaning of Christ's body during the ideologically turbulent fourteenth century. Chapter One does some "ground clearing" (p. 5) as Beckwith takes on critical assessments of mysticism that remove it from historical and social contingencies and see it as "a timeless encounter with God" (p. 16) . She quotes with approval Szarmach's comment that mysticism is itself a construct" (p. 11). To develop this attack and this reimagining of mysticism, Beckwith wants to "restore a politics of utterance" to the texts and practices under investigation (p. 19). This sensitivity to the "constitutive dialogism" of the mystical texts points to the problem of authority, for mystical texts are really quite bold in their "transcription of die voice of God himself' (p. 20). In adding to that voice, the mystical dialogue reveals that "authority, in the guise ofthe last word of God, is being continuously supplemented and fractured" (p. 20). This implicit challenge to authority forms part of the materialist history of public and private sacrality that Beckwith traces. Chapter Two focuses on "Christ's body and the imaging of social ordering" and displays how "the signification of Christ's body is a contested social arena in late medieval English society" (p. 26) . Christ's body serves as the "focus and medium through which clerical control seeks to establish itself . . . borrowing from an older language of the body as image of society" (p. 32). In opposition to this quest, however, Beckwim finds a fracturing and a destabilization of the body of Christ and traces its "transformation" (p. 38) as Wyclif and others attack images and challenge transubstantiation. The imaging of Christ is central to "a debate about the relations of sacred and social power" (p. 45). Chapter Three opens with a useful excursus on affective piety in die Bernardian and Franciscan traditions, tracing the significance of the imago dei and the concept of imitatio Christi. The chapter then focuses on two texts and a historical exemplum, showing how the English works The Prickynge ofLove and The Mirrour of the Blessed Lyfofjesu Christ take part in an imaging of Christ that both expands popular piety and undoes institutional sacramentalism, even though works such as the Mirror explicitly attack Lollardy and shore up 376Philosophy and Literature institutionally sanctioned devotional uses of Christ's body. This provocative irony drives much of Beckwith's study. The final chapter studies these issues in The Book ofMargery Kempe. Kempe embodies many of the tensions and the tendencies that Beckwith has traced. As part of a social class "developing its own cultural insignia" Kempe "might have been a typical candidate for crucifixion piety." And for her, Christ's body is "open enough to let her in, porous to her and intimate with her; [and at the same time] closed enough to make it a special privilege that she should be included" (p. 111). A short conclusion reviews the implications of this "materialist study" of the images of Christ's body and the struggle over "sacrality" as catholicity and protestantism "play out their tropes and struggle for cultural capital" (p. 117). Beckwith's notes are almost as long as her text, and the twenty pages ofworks cited and fifteen page index make the book a fine resource on Christological imagery. The prose, diough at times laden with quotations and distracting theoretical paradigms, nonetheless constructs an argument which will inspire...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 375-376
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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