- Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity by Sara Ritchey
The expansive title and somewhat grandiose jacket description of this volume’s contents set a demanding and challenging agenda, promising a major reconsideration of the fundamentals of late-medieval religious and devotional practice. To cram all that promised within a short space—text and footnotes amount to only 204 pages, some of them taken up with illustrations—would be a major achievement. In reality, it is not achieved; although on the way the book is often thought-provoking.
The volume certainly ticks several key boxes for current work on high- and late-medieval Catholic spirituality. Its title overtly invokes “the material turn,” with the focus on “the material world” interpreted (as becomes clear) with a quasi-environmentalist agenda. Three of its five chapters focus on religious women, thereby contributing to “gender studies” and work on “the body.” The introduction outlines [End Page 620] a series of claims and promises along these lines. The argument builds from an interpretation of the new approach to nature in the twelfth-century Renaissance, here read as an understanding that the world had been materially re-created through Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Accordingly, subsequent centuries saw
the emergence of a new way of thinking about the material world—its flowers and spices and mountains and agriculture and animals, and even its people and their God. Everything was to be understood as holy matter—matter made sacred by the world’s re-creation. And, as we shall see, this new understanding was significant in inspiring a great variety of religious behaviours.(p. 11)
There is no doubting Sara Ritchey’s commitment to the project; but the ambition goes beyond the material and evidence offered, so that the argument’s foundations are insufficiently established. The basic trap seems to be that readings of texts are offered that proclaim authorial intentions without considering reception and responses, the readings being used as the foundation for a rather vague construct that never quite takes shape. The discussion moves from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, leaping rather than flowing. For the twelfth century, Hildegard naturally has pride of place (but is not the only source); Ss. Clare and Francis are dominant in the thirteenth. Chapter 5 then jumps to “the Estranged Wilderness” of the Carthusians, drawing on Ludolph of Saxony and the well-known miscellany of British Library MS Add. 37049 to provide the basis for discussion of the development of the Carthusians’ concept of wilderness. Although connected, the chapters come across as somewhat episodic analyses, with the texts and individuals not necessarily sharing the same goals. How far those goals were in fact as Ritchey asserts is unclear: for the texts she uses Harvard-style referencing, but the major statements of the appeal to nature or material re-creation often have to be taken on trust, lacking clear ascription or quotation. Possibly the words are treated too concretely: the book imparts a nagging and growing anxiety that its foundations are much shakier than Ritchey is willing to consider; that whatever should be made of the texts, the “naturalistic” vocabulary and images are merely metaphor. After all, books still have folia, but that does not make them inherently environmentally friendly.
The selectivity in the choice of texts also raises questions about the extrapolation. Several survive in small quantities; readership and impact are problematic issues that are never addressed head-on. Rather, there is an assumption of impact; that these ideas are an obscured, neglected, yet nevertheless significant current. That may be true, given the way medievalists work and sometimes fail to notice things; but, ultimately, that it is true is not convincingly demonstrated.