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Reviewed by:
  • Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts
  • Katherine Wallace
Gertsman, Elina, ed., Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts, Aldershot & Burlington, Ashgate, 2008; hardcover; pp. xiv, 348; 39 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$99.95, £65.00; ISBN 9780754664369.

The culmination of a conference held in 2005, Elina Gertsman's Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts presents a collection of essays from a broad spectrum of disciplines within medieval studies, all of which address issues of performance and performativity. In her introduction, Gertsman claims as justification for this book, that previous scholarship in the area of performativity tends to be isolated and 'closely circumscribed' in topic, just as the definition of medieval performance 'remains elusive and fragmented,' and she emphasizes the need to 'reconsider interconnections between medieval theatre, images, texts and practices of viewing, reading, listening, and enacting' (p. 2). Gertsman's collection succeeds in bringing together diverse perspectives of medieval performance from history, literature, architecture, art, theology, music, dance and theatre, achieving a certain intertextuality and inclusivity that may be lacking in more focused studies. However, the extent to which this book informs our definition of medieval performance and heightens our understanding of or engagement with issues of performativity remains individuated.

The collection is organized into four loosely unified sections (the last appears to comprise a 'miscellaneous' category) that contain multiple reference points between their various topics and approaches. The quality of writing and editing is consistently high throughout and Gertsman has, for the most part, chosen articles that are clear and engaging, with awkward, hard-to-follow or jargon-ridden passages appearing only rarely among the sixteen contributions.

While some essays are too drily descriptive (Decter, Delogu) or too broadly superficial (Maurey, Nevile) to venture outside their prescribed area, others offer a stimulating dialogue (Emmerson, Swift, Gertsman), touching on issues which suggest multiple cross-disciplinary parallels such as the reader/viewer as performer, the performance of self or gender, or behavioural transformation through performative acts. The inclusion of a broad range of topics nevertheless reveals the (sometimes unavoidable) biases of medieval scholarship: twelve of the sixteen essays deal with liturgical or religious practices, and six focus on literary (narrative or dramatic) texts, while all necessarily rely heavily on written records of verbal, ceremonial, dramatic, [End Page 210] ritualistic or other performative acts, whose apperceptive gap is barely acknowledged by some authors, but bridged by others through an intuitive and thoughtful application of performance theory.

Despite editorial intention, the definition and use of performance and performative theory vary greatly. In several essays, performance is viewed traditionally, as music, dance or theatre (Maurey, Nevile, Eherstine), or equated at a basic level with ceremonial movement and vocalization (Maranci, Decter). Others explore the performance of subject and identity, or of social and political tension (Delogu, Swift, Zorach). Several authors apply or take issue with the traditional demarcation between theatre and ritual (Fischer-Licthe, Suydam, Muessig, Kienzle) and a few attempt a more radical definition of performance as the combined sensory-phenomenological experience of reader/ audience in connection with transformative visual or aural stimuli (Emmerson, Sheingorn, Gertsman). Performative theory pervades the volume, at worst with authors who pay lip service to performance studies gurus Richard Schechner and J. L. Austin, dropping names, jargon and labels with liberal abandon but little meaningful import throughout their articles, but at best with authors whose direct engagement of existing theory raises questions both contentious and illuminating. Interestingly, the two authors whose disciplines of music and dance fall most traditionally into the realm of performance (Maurey, Nevile) both fail to consider performative theories or cross-disciplinary dimensions, and instead present a descriptive overview of their subject which, though quite coherent, does little to further inter- or intra-disciplinary dialogue. Instead, authors whose texts, whether events or objects, are not traditionally considered performances, succeed in bringing performance, gender and reception theory into meaningful dialogue with medieval experience (Emmerson, Sheingorn, Frohlich).

The test of a theory is in how it can inform and engage with various disciplines without being contextually or subjectively limited, while the test of a discipline is not how it can manipulate its subject to fit into yet another theoretical mould, but how it confronts...


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