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  • Walsingham and the English Imagination by Gary Waller
  • Sarah Boss
Walsingham and the English Imagination. By Gary Waller. (Burlington, VT: Ash-gate Publishing. 2011. Pp. xii, $99.95. ISBN 978-1-4094-0509-2.)

The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham at Little Walsingham in Norfolk was England’s principal Marian shrine during the later Middle Ages. It was destroyed during the Reformation and re-established as two separate shrines—one Anglican and the other Catholic—during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This book describes the history of the shrine, paying particular attention to its status in English religious culture and church history.

The first chapter discusses the Pynson Ballad, a fifteenth-century poem that narrates a tale of the shrine’s origin—apparently a vision of the Virgin to a Norman lady, Richeldis, in the eleventh century. In this vision, instructions were given for the building of a copy of the Holy House at Nazareth, where Our Lady lived with the infant Jesus. Waller gives a very good survey of the literature concerning what may be known of any earlier tradition than that recorded here and follows the standard view that the whole narrative is of late origin.

Chapter 2 then pursues the book’s main argument. Waller accepts the view that the “official construction” of the Virgin Mary as sexually pure and completely [End Page 895] sinless made her far removed from the condition of ordinary women; but, he contends, there is a certain amount of evidence—not least, from Walsingham’s Protestant detractors—that real-life pilgrims to the shrine probably enjoyed lustful encounters of a kind that would normally have incurred considerable disapproval but were part and parcel of the carnivalesque character of a pilgrimage. Waller contends that, although church officials and theologians wanted to control both women and sexuality, the pilgrims practiced, and continue to practice, a more subversive kind of Christianity, ruled over by the female figure of the Blessed Virgin and characterized by a freer approach to sexual relationships.

The next chapter examines the section on Walsingham from Desiderius Erasmus’s Peregrinatio Religionis Ergo (Basle, 1526). Waller points out that the Latin text is gently critical of certain popular beliefs and practices but that it remains faithful to the notion that the Mother of God must be central to Christian practice. The standard English translation, by contrast, turned the work into a far more Protestant tract, drawing out any possibly lascivious implications of the Latin terms used in relation to the Walsingham cult.

Chapter 4 considers the poetry and music of Walsingham during the Reformation period, considering such works as William Byrd’s Walsingham Variations (c. 1580s). Waller shows how these works record a great sense of loss after the destruction of the shrine and a continuing sense of religious reverence for Our Lady’s former home there. This chapter is the most valuable part of this book, both for its detail and its sensitivity to the material under discussion.

Chapter 5 examines the fortunes of Walsingham during the centuries following the Reformation, again examining poetry that harks back to Walsingham’s earlier days as a center of pilgrimage. Chapter 6 gives a detailed examination of Agnes Strickland’s The Pilgrims of Walsingham (1835). Waller argues that a longing for a past in which a female figure was central to Christian practice infuses these texts, as do the imagined superstitions of the Middle Ages. These romantic imaginings provide the ground for the later Victorian reinvention of the medieval period, including the refounding of the shrine at Walsingham.

Chapter 7 considers nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature about Walsingham, and the final chapter gives an impression of Walsingham in the present day.

As a survey of literature about Walsingham, this book is extremely valuable (although not complete) and will be a necessary reference work for anyone pursuing further research in this area. However, the work’s principal argument is not entirely convincing. The idea that English Christians have missed a female presence in their religious lives is certainly a plausible one; but the notion that this female presence is tied to sexuality in particular is much less believable. Indeed, it reinforces...


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