- Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England
Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's latest book will rapidly become essential reading for scholars of medieval literature. In her study of the reception history of various prophetic and visionary writings, she has provided a thoroughly revisionist account of theological politics in England in the late medieval period. The generation of scholars since Anne Hudson's The Premature Reformation (1988) have largely come to imagine an insular English church, largely untroubled by continental heresies, but which faced a solitary challenge to orthodoxy in the last decades of the fourteenth century with the rise to prominence of the Oxford theologian JohnWyclif and his followers, the Lollards. With their calls for disendowment and for lay access to a translated Bible, and their questioning of fundamental theologies such as transubstantiation, the Wycliffites, in Hudson's parlance, represented "the English heresy." In Books Under Suspicion, the traditional binary of a proto-Protestant Wycliffite heresy jostling with institutional Orthodoxy is replaced by a much more rich, colorful and complex English theologico-political landscape. In a study that largely focuses on the English reception of "suspect" writings between the reigns of Edward III and Henry IV, Kerby-Fulton argues persuasively that the idea of an insular England untroubled by, and largely unaware of continental heresy and speculative theology is untenable. This is an England that is acutely aware of the Papal inquisition and the academic controversy concerning alternative revelatory-inspired salvational doctrine, an England that—depending on the readership—simultaneously appropriates, repurposes, tolerates or nervously censors suspect theologies and revelatory writings. Knowledge of such theological controversies, Kerby-Fulton tells us, is an essential, yet largely untapped means for contextualizing the writings of authors includingWilliam Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich.
The study opens with a chronology of what Kerby-Fulton terms "Non-Wycliffite cases of heresy and related events," which serves to demonstrate a plethora of competing theologies, eschatologies, and divisive sectarianisms [End Page 222] that have been too often ignored by scholars of religious literature. It is interesting, however, and perhaps to the detriment of this chronology, that it does not integrate Wycliffite and non-Wycliffite cases in order that the relative weight of ecclesiastical concern with various brands of heresy might be gauged. Obviously it raises the suspicion that in Ricardian and Lancastrian England, cases of non-Wycliffite heresy might be buried amongst the disproportionately represented cases of suspected Lollardy. Nevertheless, the chronology, as microcosm for the entire book, allows the reader to develop "a more pluralist view of unorthodoxy" (396).
Once again Kerby-Fulton has provided research of utmost interest to scholars of Piers Plowman, a text most regularly contextualized against the social and political turmoil that followed the Black Death, which would eventually result in the cataclysm of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. Books Under Suspicion offers the reader three fascinating case studies that introduce us to a refreshingly diverse spectrum of politically motivated readers of Piers Plowman. Other than Langland's appropriation by various readerships, salvational and revelatory theologies are juxtaposed with Langland's own frequent slippages into pseudo-prophecy. Kerby-Fulton addresses the author's (and his presumed coterie's) own negotiations with suspect eschatology and salvational doctrine in his attempts to respond to the "horrific" severity of pre-destinarianism (344). Geoffrey Chaucer's less tortured relationship with these materials is also investigated in reference to texts including the House of Fame, where it is argued that Chaucer is not only interested in exploring the idea of an unknowable "whimsical" God (as he might also be said to do in other texts including "The Clerk's Tale" and "The Knight's Tale"), but is perhaps parodying the breakdown of Langland's formative version of Piers Plowman. Importantly, with respect to the two great Ricardian authors, Kerby-Fulton makes the case that both Langland and Chaucer must be acknowledged as importers of Continental streams of thought: "Chaucer, as is well known, [was familiar] with...