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  • Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England
  • Barbara Newman
Jennifer Bryan. Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 270. ISBN: 9780812240481. US$49.95 (cloth).

Devotional reading has had a good run lately. After centuries of neglect, such late medieval texts as The Chastising of God's Children and the Stimulus Amoris are now consulted about matters as diverse as gender, female literacy, patronage, vernacularity, translation, visuality, heresy, and Lancastrian anxieties. But no one before Bryan has studied this vast, varied array of texts with such shrewd and subtle insight into their authors' primary concern: the formation and transformation of the inner self.

"Inwardness," it seems, was a quality everyone wanted to have in late medieval England. But like other goals of personal development, it proves remarkably hard to define. Does everyone have an inner self, or only the literate few? Is this self gendered? Should it be revealed to God alone or performed in public? At its core, will one find a radiant imago Dei or an abject consciousness of sin? Bryan's first chapter, borrowing a leaf from Wallace Stevens, offers "Seven Ways of Looking at an Inward Man," which alone would be worth the price of the book. The first six are the ecstatic solitude of Richard Rolle (compared to "a happier and more democratic version of courtly love" [43]); the chaste, tightly policed privacy of the female recluse; an adaptation of anchoritic spirituality for the "mixed life"; a potentially Lollard interiority that spurns "outward works"; a liturgical piety [End Page 111] with the opposite goal of internalizing public, sacramental worship; and the "grimly, exuberantly materialist epistemology" of The Pricke of Conscience (62), in which the inner self is totally carnal, with no glimmer of deity. But the seventh and most common model is the Augustinian, best represented in England by Walter Hilton. In this model, the inward man is both an image of the Trinity and ineluctably fallen but above all, a mystery to itself. True inwardness thus requires ceaseless and relentless introspection.

Chapter 2, "Seeing a Difference," explores the ubiquitous trope of mirroring. If the devotional text is a mirror in which the reader can see his or her inner self, so too are Christ and Mary, and the self in turn can mirror Christ. Langland's Will says that he has never seen Christ "but as myself in a mirour" (B.15.162), which prompts the dizzying reflection that "Will is and is not the image of Christ, just as Piers Plowman is and is not a figure of Christ or an ideal laborer, just as Will is and is not Langland, who thus is and is not himself the image of either Piers or Christ" (76). Devotional mirrors "could be both exemplary and reflective" (82), revealing at once the ideal self imaged in Christ and the actual self mired in sin. The focal text of this chapter, the Bridgettine Myroure of Oure Ladye, links both functions to Mary. Bryan contrasts the visually oriented piety of Syon with Mechthild of Hackeborn's Booke of Gostlye Grace, which was recommended reading for the nuns. Mechthild, a thirteenth-century visionary, interacted with Christ, Mary, and the saints but rarely saw herself, whereas the fifteenth-century nuns of Syon were exhorted to constant self-scrutiny and self-correction. Not everyone found value in that exercise. The chapter ends with The Cloud of Unknowing, a text that categorically rejects both vision and the particular self in favor of blindness and forgetting. For the Cloud author, "sin is autobiography, and he wants none of it" (100).

In chapter 3, "Private Passions," Bryan turns to a genre for which late medieval Englishmen had an insatiable appetite. Passion meditations evoke "the transformative power of vision-with-desire," identified as "one of the central tenets of late medieval devotion" (123). Lydgate's Testament juxtaposes a double vision of Christ (glittering conqueror and crucified man of sorrows) with a double vision of self (mischievous young lover and penitent old man), with Lady Memory in the role of Boethius's Philosophy. In a more typical...


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