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REVIEWS DAVID AERS and LYNN STALEY. The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Pol­ itics, and Gender in Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. 310. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper. The Powers ofthe Holy is one of those books you keep feeling you've de­ cided about, only to find you haven't. Passionately argued and replete with historical analyses, literary intepretations, theoretical observa­ tions, and generally well considered polemics, it is unusual to the degree in which it treats students of Middle English as though we all approach our subject as intellectuals, personally and politically engaged in the fourteenth century as part of our wider engagement in life in the present. While its historicism is broadly consistent with the work of scholars like Paul Strohm, Lee Patterson, and Steven Justice-who, of course, also seek to engage us in the past in a rich variety of ways-its particular drive towards an ethical understanding of Ricardian religious and literary culture and how we study it seems reminiscent of feminist scholars with whom the authors are in little sympathy, such as Carolyn Dinshaw and Gayle Margherita. As a consequence of this consciously ethical brand of historicism and the confidence it gives the authors that their subject is relevant to anyone who takes it seriously, this conversa­ tional, slightly sprawling book about a quarter century oflate-medieval English literary history is likely to be one of those rare studies of Middle English literature that are read by many people who work in quite dif­ ferent areas, and so come to represent our field to a larger world. (For example, the Bryn Mawr Review has already published a fine review of the book by a feminist theologian, Jo-Anne McNamara, and I am con­ fident it will be read with care by early modernists.) I have learned a great deal from this book, agree with much that is in it, disagree with much else, and expect to be telling all the students of medieval and early-modern culture and thought I encounter over the next few years that it is one of the books they must read. The book circles around several themes dealing with gender, politics, literary representation, and the theology of Christ's humanity; three major texts-Langland's Piers Plowman, Julian's Revelation ofLove, and 219 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; and a handful oflate-fourteenth-century his­ torical processes and incidents, especially the Revolt of 1381, the con­ demnation of Lollardy from the Blackfriars Council of 1382 to the heresy trials of the early fifteenth century, and the troubled relations be­ tween Richard II and successive Parliaments through the 1380s. The themes cannot readily be rendered as a single argument or simply re­ lated either to the texts discussed or the incidents the book connects with these texts; indeed, the themes are occasionally hard to spot amid the careful readings of particular textual moments of which a good deal of the book consists. But this must be more or less a deliberate policy, as the axiom on which the book is ostensibly built is that the complex­ ity of the interrelationships between cultural discourses makes it nec­ essary to explore these discourses only as they are played out in partic­ ular historical contexts. Foucault, Marx, and Quentin Skinner are cited to this effect in the book's joint introduction, and Aers had previously explored this axiom in a published response to a sweeping condemna­ tion of late medieval culture by Kathleen Biddick.1 While the axiom might seem obvious to some, its implications for Marxist historiogra­ phy, and its ethical implications, are at once far-reaching and hard to put into practice-as the book's lapses from its own principles indeed show. The Powers ofthe Holy is unified by its fierce concentration on three decades of English history and impassioned desire to find in these decades a key to the processes by which power circulates and the forces of social conformism and protest operate. Ricardian and early Lancastrian England-not twelfth-century France, fourteenth-century Italy, or Tudor England-emerges as an exemplary battleground for conflicting...


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