- Challenging Communion: The Eucharist and Middle English Literature by Jennifer Garrison
Focusing on 'a broad range of nondramatic literature — penitential manuals, dream visions, religious allegories, mystical literature, devotional treatises, and lyrics' (p. 5) — Jennifer Garrison's Challenging Communion argues towards 'identifying a pervasive Middle English literary tradition that rejects simplistic notions of eucharistic promise' (p. 2). At the heart of Garrison's discussion is what she terms 'eucharistic poetics'. Complementing and following on from Sarah Beckwith's work on the relationship between community and Christ's body in medieval drama, Garrison analyses how medieval literary texts 'emphasize both communion with and alienation from Christ in order [End Page 203] to contemplate and question not only their own personal connection with the divine but also the necessity of the institutional church as a mediator between Christ and humanity' (p. 2).
After a thoughtful and detailed introduction, which includes an admirably clear and succinct summary of the 'two basic medieval approaches to the theology of the Eucharist: what modern scholars often identify as the Augustinian approach and the Ambrosian approach' (p. 10), Chapter 1 covers Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne. Recognizing that scholarship on this text — an 'early fourteenth-century penitential manual' — is scant, Garrison takes the opportunity to address this. She suggests that 'for Mannyng, the fleeting union with Christ that the Eucharist offers believers simultaneously demands they seek a deeper devotion through recognition of their own distance from the divine' (p. 21).
This tension — the Eucharist's simultaneous offering of access to God and the receiver's forced recognition that man can never be like God — is the thread linking the book's six chapters. Chapter 2, 'Devotional Submission', turns to the Pearl poem, exploring the text's presentation of 'the importance of inward-looking liturgical piety by troubling the boundaries between literal and figurative meaning' (p. 59). Garrison's discussion of the medieval Eucharist's manipulation of literal and figurative, accident and substance, continues into Chapter 3, 'Christ's Allegorical Bodies and the failure of Community in Piers Plowman'. This chapter extends Langland scholarship by linking his well-explored use of allegory with the 'Christian community' (p. 82), taking the Eucharist as 'an allegorical sign of Christ's body, both Christ's historical body and the corporate body of all Christians' (p. 83). Chapter 4, 'Julian of Norwich's Allegory and the Mediation of Salvation', further examines 'devotional reading […] of both host and written text' (p. 104), arguing that 'an understanding of [medieval] devotional reading as socially transformative is essential to the mystical body of Christ' (p. 104). Julian's 'depict[ion of] the institutional church's role in the formation of a Christian community of readers as powerfully and positively transformative' (p. 131) is countered in Chapter 5, 'The Willful Surrender of Eucharistic Reading in Nicholas Love and Margery Kempe'. Garrison argues that 'both regard the institutional church as systematically limiting the lay believer's contact with and intellectual knowledge of Christ's body' (p. 131). The final chapter, 'John Lydgate and the Eucharistic Poetic Tradition: The Making of Community', is a fascinating study of 'how the Eucharist enables Lydgate to explore the spiritual power of poetic form' (p. 160), and his 'construct[ion of] the Christian community through spiritual and intellectual illumination' (p. 174).
The book's brief conclusion summarizes and reiterates Garrison's thesis that the medieval Eucharist, while apparently offering receivers access to the divine, actually only heightens their awareness of man's distance from [End Page 204] God: 'the Eucharist provides a model for devotional reading practices as always predicated on distance and frustrated meaning' (p. 183). She closes by proposing that all the texts studied 'invite readers to contemplate and question the necessity of the institutional church as mediator between Christ and humanity' (p. 183).
This is a very ambitious book, broad in its literary, temporal and theological sweep. Garrison's skilful handling, however, prevents the argument from becoming too sprawling, and the chapters flow...