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  • Reading Per Artem with The Anchoress
  • Coral Lumbley

In her classic article on medieval literacy, Catherine Brown called for a new method of engaging with the Middle Ages. She proposed the practice of reading itself.1 Specifically, medieval reading, in order to experience coevality with the subjects of study. Brown presents the technique of reading medieval texts the way medieval readers did, savoring words, digesting them and being changed by them; studying not de arte ("about an art"), but per artem ("through an art.") To read per artem is "to work theory from the inside out rather than applying it like a coat of paint."2 This process is closely allied to the medieval practice of ruminatio, wherein, as Mary Carruthers explains, "Reading is to be digested, to be ruminated, like a cow chewing her cud, or like a bee making honey from the nectar of flowers. . . . The process familiarizes a text to a medieval scholar, in a way like that by which human beings may be said to familiarize their food. It is both physiological and psychological, and it changes both the food and its consumer."3 The practice of reading as savoring, ingestion, and incorporation is nearly ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, and is espoused by Augustine, Jerome, Isidore, Beatus of Liébana, Saint Bernard, and Hugh of St. Victor. Brown implies the practice of discovering pleasure and knowledge per artem, which necessarily means using ruminatio, is not practiced widely enough by modern scholars. She suggests that one particular group of moderns may be better at this practice than others, when she comments in a footnote that "There are nonmedievals who still read like this; my hunch is that most of them are writers given to fiction."4 These words ring true for Robyn Cadwallader's historical fiction novel The Anchoress,5 the text of which provides a useful exemplum of how not only popular readers, but scholars as well, might read the Middle Ages per artem.

The Anchoress is a pseudo-autobiography that narrates the first year of an English anchoress's enclosure, a practice in which a lay person vowed to live in [End Page 73] confinement and pray for her or his community until the individual's death. Sarah, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a merchant, enters an anchorhold after losing her mother and sister to childbirth and experiencing a near-rape at the hands of her would-be husband, thus escaping the gendered dangers of mid-thirteenth-century English life, and resonating with the enclosure-as-freedom topos common in scholarship of female anchoritism. Sarah faces the questions which Liz Herbert McAvoy poses as central to the concept of historical anchoritism: "If the solitary is one who wishes to relinquish the world and find and produce alternative meaning within a deserted eremitic space, how does that positioning sit comfortably with society's own need for an anchorite within its religious system, its own desire to encourage and nurture that figure as ideal spiritual representative and thus to contain it within its own discursive boundaries? Moreover, if the anchorite's production of a sacred space is predicated on its solitude and privacy and those (secret) practices performed within it, how then can it perform a wider, public function without that predication being diluted or lost? And how do issues of sex and gender play out within this complex socioreligious matrix to affect the constructions of sacred spaces?"6

The narrative develops as Sarah faces these quandaries; she struggles against her fallen female body, she simultaneously resents and craves the village's clamors to penetrate her anchorhold,7 and she ruminates over the correct way to fulfill her career as a living relic. Her struggle illustrates the novel's engagement with medieval reading in two ways: first, that Cadwallader herself reads the Middle Ages per artem, inviting modern readers to savor how practices such as imitatio Christi would have manifested sensually in the life of a medieval lay spiritual woman. Secondly, Sarah emerges as a positive exemplum of a reader, instructing the modern reader how to read about the Middle Ages, specifically through ruminatio, or by consuming the text until it is digested and incorporated...


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pp. 73-81
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