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The Call to Read: Reginald Pecock’s Books and Textual Communities (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 374-377 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0029

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The first large-scale study of Reginald Pecock and his works since the 1980s demands the attention of all scholars interested in fifteenth-century religious culture, literature, theology, and the interactions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Campbell’s book does not disappoint, as she invites the reader on a journey through the construction of Pe-cock’s textual communities, his ideas on lay religiosity, his reliance on reason and the authority of the Bible.

The introduction offers a brief survey of modern scholarship concerned with that increasingly contested term, “vernacular theology,” and the blurring of distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy, which has been a particularly welcome feature of recent scholarly enquiry. Campbell aligns herself firmly with the progressive camp, which is skeptical about the ontological status of these categories, and she seeks to locate Pecock’s writings within a religious and intellectual milieu that is more fluid and contingent than has often been acknowledged. Pecock is introduced as someone who “thinks big” (8) about the reform of preaching and teaching, his ideas being on a similar scale to those of Arundel in drafting his Constitutions—although with very different intentions and results. The scholarly debate stimulated by Nicholas Watson’s groundbreaking Speculum article of 1995 has, I think, resolved itself into a more nuanced perception of the effects of Arundel’s legislation than Campbell allows; she, like many other medievalists, appears to regard its intention as at best the prescriptive regulation of theological speculation, at worst its prohibition. I suspect there is still some work to be done here to produce a more fine-grained view, but that is clearly not a major concern of this book, which is described as focusing on “the contents of Pecock’s writings” (5). That does not quite encapsulate Campbell’s project; she is much more interested in locating Pecock within textual and religious communities than with the minutiae of his texts. Thus anyone seeking a detailed exploration of the contents of his works must look elsewhere.

The opening chapter, “Pecock’s Audience,” might more accurately be entitled “Pecock’s Audiences,” as Campbell seeks to sketch out the intended, historical, and implied audiences for her subject’s works. This is no easy task; while Pecock’s writings are littered with references to the kinds of reading practices he demands from his readers, and the prologues paint a colorful but impressionistic picture of actual reading events, there is very little real evidence upon which she can base her audience sketches. As a result, the dividing lines between the different categories become increasingly blurred, and at times the “historical” audience and the “ideal” audience seem to be presented as one and the same. Part of the difficulty may lie in the assumption that Pecock was clear about his audience’s expectations, and that he viewed his audience as broadly, though not completely, homogeneous. My own reading of his works suggests that at least some of the time he struggled unsuccessfully to address “an” audience that he recognized to be radically fragmented. Nevertheless, there is some fascinating detail here about Pecock’s metropolitan milieu; Campbell argues a good case for his familiarity with members of the Mercers’ Guild and their concerns, and indeed perhaps those of other craft guilds, though these receive less attention.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Pecock’s radical ideas for the reform of theological education for the laity, including his construction of an educational program that, he claims, would render all other such initiatives superfluous. The novelty of his project is demonstrated convincingly, in particular his emphasis on the provision of books, which could usefully be further contextualized in relation to Pecock’s infamous views on preaching bishops. It would be interesting to see Campbell speculate further about the practicability of putting Pecock’s program into practice. Most of the examples she mentions of lay individuals practicing structured routines of reading and devotion are, of course, from the wealthiest classes, and it is not always easy to see how readily these practices would translate to the lower orders. However, the emphasis that she places upon the development of the mixed life gestures toward some fascinating possibilities. The fourth chapter is, in some respects...



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