- The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism
Medieval English devotional culture, along with the texts that supported it, has been the subject of ever more (and ever more sophisticated) studies over the last three decades. Thanks in large part to the critics who contribute to this Companion, the study of medieval English literature has taken a “religious turn.” The field is, in some ways, peculiar: There are many articles but few monographs, and while the constant stream of texts edited in the Exeter and Salzburg series witness to what W. A. Pantin called the “vast sea” of late medieval English religious literature, critics have by and large focused on but a few texts. The claims of visionary writers, read as reporting their unmediated dalliances with the divine, have until very recently discouraged extensive attempts at source criticism—even the historicizing of these texts has only been done slowly and with many caveats and apparent reservations.
There are many reasons, therefore, to welcome a book like The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Mysticism. While some of its chapters are considerably stronger than others, at its best this Companion presents a canny understanding of the status quaestionis of its subject, and its authors indicate a variety of directions in which future work should tend. The major argument of the Companion, reiterated in several chapters, is the need to identify and explore continuities and connections between the writings of the Middle English mystics and the larger religious and cultural history of late medieval England. As Vincent Gillespie writes in the preface (with his usual eloquence), “The attractive if previously somewhat remote archipelago known as ‘the Middle English mystics’ . . . has been revealed to be connected to the mainland of medieval religious writing and culture at multiple points” (xii). The mapping of these connections in the Companion is timely and sensitive, and, in several cases, the essays collected here make a substantial contribution to the field.
After Gillespie’s preface and a thirteen-page “Chronology” (a regular feature of recent Cambridge Companions and, in almost all cases, of limited [End Page 242] value), Nicholas Watson presents an introduction that both explains the history of the study of mystical texts in the modern academy and offers a suggestion for a new approach to such literature. Watson describes the movement of these texts from the Counter-Reformation invention of “mystical theology” to early twentieth-century “spirituality studies” and thence to departments of English literature, and he thus helpfully contextualizes the creation of various book series and periodicals, including The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England and the present journal, even as he introduces the novice reader to the major resources of the field. After succinct sections on the antique origins of the practice of contemplation and the important place of affectivity in medieval contemplative texts, Watson offers the rubric of otium as a potentially fruitful way to consider medieval devotional writing. Otium, the busy retirement of the philosophers, presents the opportunity to connect the works of the contemplatives with other medieval and postmedieval authors: otium is perhaps, most generally, what an anchoress has in common with a university theologian—or even, Watson suggests, with poets like Traherne and Wordsworth. As we will see, at least the first of these commonalities is explored in several of the following chapters.
The remaining chapters of this Companion come in pairs: Five periods are delineated, and each is the subject of one chapter on “culture and history” and another on “texts.” This structure is at times very useful, since it forces the historical contextualization that is one of the primary goals of the Companion. Yet it also results in a certain degree of repetition between chapters.
The first pairing addresses the period circa 1080–1215, with the historical-contextual chapter by Brian Patrick McGuire and the chapter on texts by Henrietta Leyser. McGuire views twelfth-century religious history primarily through the twin lenses of Anselm of Canterbury (especially as presented by Richard Southern) and...