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Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History (review)
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Elina Gertsman gathers a collection of interdisciplinary essays about the visual, literary, and theological discourses on crying in the medieval period. From these very different critical standpoints, each essay explores the role of crying as it relates to a variety of issues such as gender, audience reception (both emotive and ritualistic), piety, and language. The diverse subject matter of the essays is both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the text. There seems to be very little that ties together each of the disparate essays in this collection except for representations of weeping. Although Gertsman claims the book’s “overarching theme” is “tightly focused,” her topic seems, at times, too broad and imprecise.

While the text may not work as a singular and comprehensive examination of the role of crying, it does provide a valuable resource for medieval scholars in a variety of disciplines. Gertsman explains the purpose for such a broad and interdisciplinary examination of the topic in her introduction: “Readers may wish, of course, to focus on the those chapters that speak to their particular fields, but the greater value of the book lies in its integrated cross-disciplinarity, and in the way that each essay inflects, corroborates, and subverts others in the volume” (xviii). Weeping as a subject matter does benefit from such a cross-disciplinary approach because it exists both as a behavior and an emotion, as Lyn A. Blanchfield points out in her “Prolegomenon.” What each of the scholars in this text attempts to analyze is the cultural situation in which this specific behavior, crying, was performed and how it was (and still is) interpreted. What does weeping signify in the medieval world?

Gertsman offers a clear outline of her collection, and the thirteen essays (including Barbara Rosenwein’s “Coda”) are broken into manageable sections with central themes. Each individual essay is also neatly organized into readable sections that carefully and effectively explain its theoretical suppositions and the contextual evidence. The book’s first section examines visual imagery with essays from Henry Maguire (“Women Mourners in Byzantine Art, Literature, and Society”), Marian Bleeke (“The Eve Fragment from Autun and the Emotionalism of Pilgrimage”), Judith Steinhoff (“Weeping Women: Social Roles and Images in Fourteenth-Century Tuscany”), and Felix Thurleman (“The Paradoxical Rhetoric of Tears: Looking at the Madrid Descent from the Cross”). Steinhoff’s essay is the best of the group, making explicit connections between medieval Tuscan art and the role of women in public and private grieving. Examining fourteenth-century pieces, such as The Lamentation by Giotto di Maestro Stefano ca. 1357–1359, Steinhoff finds that “the definition of socially acceptable boundaries for women’s grieving behavior in the sumptuary laws mirrors the behaviors portrayed by the fourteenth-century laywomen donors in paintings of mourning over Christ” (48). Her detailed observations of both the artwork and the laws and customs of the period successfully show that these visual representations of weeping can be seen as instructive to their female audience about the proper ways to grieve, including the proscription of excessive emotional displays. The other articles in this section offer interesting and often engaging arguments, but none achieve the cohesiveness of Steinhoff’s addition.

The second section focuses on crying as it relates to piety. Each work, as evidenced by the titles, explores weeping as either an experience or a subject of discourse (or sometimes both) in one of the three major religious cultures: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Christopher Swift raises the issue of performativity in weeping as religious act in “A Penitent Prepares: Affect, Contrition, and Tears.” Linda G. Jones continues this theme in her essay, “‘He Cried and Made Others Cry’: Crying as a Sign of Pietistic Authenticity or Deception in Medieval Islamic Preaching,” questioning the sincerity of such acts of religious weeping. Kimberley-Joy Knight’s “Si puose calcina a’ propi occhi: The Importance of the Gift of Tears for Thirteenth-Century Religious Women and their Hagiographers” suggests that tears became “a quintessential feature of both male and female devotion,” thus accounting for the need to induce crying through artificial means such as quicklime (139). The final piece of this section, Rachel S. Mikva’s “Weeping as Discourse between Heaven...

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