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Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 106-108

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Book Review

Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality

Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Late Medieval Spirituality. Edited by Mary A. Suydam and Joanna E. Zeigler. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

These essays look at "mystics as performers, actors, and dancers--in short, as artists who performed their mysticism" (xiii). The collection is part of an emerging scholarly literature on late medieval religious practices and their relationship to belief and experience. As Rosemary Drage Hale shows in her fascinating essay, "Rocking the Cradle: Margaretha Ebner (Be)Holds the Divine," for late medieval European Christians, bodily practices, the contemplation of images, and the manipulation of material objects inculcated belief and brought about extraordinary experiences. Suydam and Zeigler's book, then, joins work by Thomas Bestul, Mary Carruthers, Jeffrey Hamburger, and others in an exploration of how practices engender experience and how medieval people themselves understood the complex interplay of belief, imagination, experience, and practice. What is new about Performance and Transformation (1999) is its emphasis on the specifically performative quality of these practices and the use, by many of the essays' authors, of contemporary theories of performance to analyze the devotional and mystical activities of late medieval people.

Almost all of the essays focus on medieval women, underscoring the importance of this type of innovative scholarship for uncovering women's lives. In the later Middle Ages, extraordinary sanctity, bodily miracles, visionary and auditory power, and ecstatic experiences of union with the divine (to which I would reserve the term "mysticism," not itself found in the medieval texts under discussion) were often exhibited by women. Caroline Walker Bynum and André Vauchez demonstrate, moreover, that women were more likely than were men to be described as enacting extraordinary performances, such as intense asceticism and bodily miracles. So, for example, while the most famous stigmatic was a man (Francis of Assisi), many more women than men were said to have received this sign of bodily and spiritual conformity with Christ. The attempt to understand such extraordinary religious phenomena, then, becomes a crucial part of the feminist historical enterprise.

The essays in Performance and Transformation grapple with three primary issues: the performative quality of mystical language (Catherine Müller, Laurie Finke); the performative dimension of reading (Robert Sweetman, Mary Suydam); and the performative nature of devaotional and mystical practices (Claire Sahlin, Nanda Hopenwasser, Robert Sweetman, Mary Suydam, Rosemary Drage Hale, William Hodapp, Mary Giles, and Susan Rodgers and Joanna Zeigler). The latter are the most innovative--and also the most potentially problematic. I will focus here on just one textual issue raised by some of the collection's most interesting pieces. [End Page 106]

The essays dealing explicitly with bodily performances draw their evidence from a variety of late medieval religious texts--hagiographies, auto-hagiographies, devotional and meditational treatises, visionary accounts, sermons, and letters. (Surprisingly, there is little attention to material culture as a source of information about medieval practices; only Hale refers to material artifacts at length, describing the use of images and effigies of Christ in the religious life of late medieval beguines and Dominican nuns.) The authors take medieval texts as offering fairly straightforward accounts of medieval women's actions and experiences. Yet can all of these different types of texts be read in the same way? And do they all offer the same kind of evidence?

Only Suydam approaches the problem directly. In her essay "Beguine Textualities: Sacred Performances," she argues that the mediated nature of medieval manuscript culture undermines modern conceptions of author, work, text, and audience. Following John Dagenais, Suydam claims that "there is a fundamental oral, interpretive, and performance orientation to all medieval texts" (179). She seems to suggest that the constant interplay between author, copyist, and reader within medieval manuscript traditions renders impossible any distinction between, for example, male-authored and female-authored texts. Yet even if this were so, which I doubt, would it mean that the genre of the text is not important? Might not specific genres have very different reading conventions, ones that...


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