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  • Intimate Reading: Textual Encounters in Medieval Women's Visions and Vitae by Jessica Barr
  • Suzanne M. Edwards
Intimate Reading: Textual Encounters in Medieval Women's Visions and Vitae By Jessica Barr. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.

An elegantly structured book, Jessica Barr's Intimate Reading elaborates the medieval history of reading by attending to the strategies that hagiographic and visionary writers employ to interpellate readers. Through nuanced readings of vitae by Thomas of Cantimpré and Goswin of Bossut that record the lives of thirteenth-century holy women of Liège and visionary literature by Margery Kempe, Gertrude of Helfta, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Julian of Norwich, Barr explores how images of textuality, reading, and interpretation in these works invite or foreclose intimacy among the reader, the female saint or visionary, and God. By detailing the ways in which embodiment—both the holy woman's and the reader's own—is mediated by textuality, Intimate Reading joins other recent scholarship in challenging "the relegation of these women's spiritualities to the realm of affect" by highlighting the relationship between affect and intellect (18). In the works that Barr's study illuminates, texts and textuality mediate between the material and immaterial to bring God, the reader, and the writer or subject of the text into relation with one another.

Intimate Reading is organized conceptually rather than chronologically, a structure that shows off one of the book's major strengths: Barr's attention to the wide range of strategies that manage readers' engagement with vitae and visions of holy women. Three of the five chapters present comparative readings of paired works, which further nuances the varied ways in which medieval writers sought to bring readers in relation to the text, the holy woman, and the divine. The book's first two chapters, which focus primarily on lives of thirteenth-century Liègeois holy women, explore how hagiographic narratives promote clerical authority and discourage readers from independently interpreting or emulating female saints. According to Barr, Thomas of Cantimpré's lives of Christina Mirabilis, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières foreground the saints' obedience to clerical authority and downplay their literacy. In contrast, Goswin of Bossut portrays Ida of Nivelles herself as a reader and gestures toward multiple interpretive possibilities, albeit only to underscore the idealized reader's obligation to authoritative readings. In chapter 2, Barr turns to a fourteenth-century Liègeois codex, [End Page 207] compiled by the Cistercian monk Saint John of Trond, arguing that it positions a devotional encounter with the book as a substitute for holy women's somatic and physical spirituality. This substitution of a reader's inward transformation for the saint's spectacular bodily performance enforces distance between the reader and the textual subject.

The first half of Intimate Reading thus establishes rhetorical strategies that distance readers' devotional practices from holy women and lays the groundwork for the latter chapters, in which women's visionary and mystical texts invite readers' more intimate relationships with the textual subject's spiritual practice and/or with God. Chapter 3 considers the Book of Margery Kempe, arguing that the work's conversational style evokes, for the reader, a personal encounter with Kempe herself. This chapter is noteworthy for its fresh take on the prevalence of books—such as Jacques de Vitry's vita of Marie d'Oignies, Richard Rolle's Fire of Love, and Birgitta of Sweden's Revelations—in Kempe's work. Building on earlier critical readings that explore how Marie's and Birgitta's spirituality offer models for Kempe, Barr shows how the Book's representations of the act of reading (or being read to) emphasize the "visceral power of texts" and thereby guide the reader's encounter with Kempe's text (128). In chapter 4, Barr argues that Gertrude of Helfta's Herald of the Memorial of the Abundance of God's Loving-Kindness and Mechthild of Magdeburg's Flowing Light of the Godhead locate divine presence in the text, positioning the book as a material site for the reader's encounter with the immaterial divine. Paying careful attention to images such as the inscription that Gertrude receives on her heart...


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pp. 207-210
Launched on MUSE
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