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Scholarly Issues

Issues: Vernacular? Theology? Vernacular Theology?

Project Co-Director Dr Ian Johnson assesses the valences of a controversial critical conjunction in contemporary medieval English Studies…

At Kalamazoo in 2007 some speakers in sessions on late medieval English religious literature and culture talked of vernacular theology as if it was still very much the vital paradigm. Others, however, spoke of ‘vernacular theology’ whilst gesturing scare quotes for the term. Others went so far to speak of it in the past tense –but they were, in effect, still speaking about it nonetheless, and no better locution or concept came over the horizon to take its place.

‘Vernacular theology’ is, indubitably, an intractably problematic and attractive combination of terms. As Nicholas Watson points out, it has the advantage of:

    encouraging reflection on the kinds of religious information available to vernacular readers without obliging us to insist on the simplicity or crudity of the information: that is, the term is an attempt to distance scholarship from its habitual adherence to a clerical, Latinate perspective in its dealings with these texts.1

So, vernacular theology is definitely intellectually worthy of being called theology, like learned works in Latin. What is more, it shines with the lustre of the designation ‘vernacular’, an invariably positive term, charged with connotations of access, freer expression, and incipient democratisation. So far, the collocation seems straightforward enough; but both words, ‘vernacular’ and ‘theology’, need to be used with tact, especially when they keep each other’s company. And they have been doing that for quite a while now.

Although the expression ‘vernacular theology’ was used by Ian Doyle as long ago as 1953,2 it was with Nicholas Watson’s extraordinarily influential article of 1995 in Speculum, ‘Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409’, that vernacular theology entered the consciousness of so many medievalists in English Studies.3 Watson’s narrative of vernacular theology is all the more moving and depressing because it is powerfully written as well as being academically engaging –a tale of lost opportunities, of something precious snatched away by stifling small-mindedness. His story also taps into the modern academic partiality for seeing medieval vernacular textuality in terms of its competition against colonial, clerical Latin culture and its sources. This partiality has its own partisan binaristic idiolect: ‘appropriation’, ‘supplanting’, resistance’ and ‘rupture’ –such is the idiom favoured in modern forays into medieval ‘vernacularity’.4 However, this politically excited binarism, if unchecked, is in danger of overlooking the common ground between Latin and English texts/culture, let alone their rich intertextual relations. How far does such marginalising of the mainstream impair a sound understanding of vernacular theology?

The collocation ‘vernacular theology’ is remarkably suggestive, opening up so much more than it closes down. It offers both possibility and peril to the modern academic. On the one hand, as a meeting point of the sacred and the political, it can be used to account for the transcending of a dominant Latinate overculture and the formation and release of spiritual authority and difference into new textual, personal and cultural loci. On the other hand, if pushed into indiscretioun, vernacular theology can slip into an essentialism which represents culture, personal experience and authenticity as a reflex of linguistic vernacularity. Moreover, its tendency to subscribe to a liberationist narrative, which imagines linguistic and social boundaries as faultlines negotiated by vernacular theology, is, understandably enough, tempting fare to modern academic taste –much more palatable than the more comfortable but unthrilling fact that medieval people and texts crossed such boundaries routinely without transgression or trauma. The vernacular theology ‘movement’ may have shed its own invaluable light on discourses of the sacred by being sensitive to the unique contingencies of vernacular difference, but has it sometimes averted its gaze unwisely from the unstruggling harmoniousness that also characterises larger Latin, European and vernacular traditions of holy textuality and culture? In dwelling on textual examples of personal spiritual originality and in valorising these against an allegedly unadventurous backdrop of mainstream devotional performance, has vernacular theology, as we have known it, been running the risk of overlooking the personal and subtle leeway arguably permitted, licensed and encouraged in ‘conventional’ late medieval devotion and its texts?

Other related questions arise. The ‘Golden Age’ texts produced in the fourteenth century were copied and circulated much more in the fifteenth century than they were in the 1300s. Does this mean that vernacular religious culture and experience after the ‘Arundelian’ era was not, after all, stripped of much of the ideological latitude and creative energy enjoyed in the late-fourteenth-century glory days of vernacular theology? Was it, then, the fifteenth century that was the true Golden Age of Vernacular Theology? This question is all the more sharpened if we take into account the vibrancy and ideological reach that religious drama sustained, right through to the Tudor Reformations, as a form of unofficial vernacular theology. As Kate Crassons puts it: ‘medieval drama largely explores religious issues in a non-academic mode that distinctively understands theology as a lived practice and experience’.5 In the ways in which they were used by readers, hearers and meditators, and in their potential for performing within the imagination a range and depth of devotional experiences, modalities and teaching, were the Middle English Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ in any way an analogue of the drama as a culturally powerful refraction of vernacular theology?

And what does the Pseudo-Bonaventuran tradition say to the recent idea that vernacular theology was exhausted even before frosty-faced clerisy attempted to crush it? For Katherine Little, it was not so much that Arundel throttled the life out of vernacular theology –it was more that a troublesome paradigm no longer worked.6 Hagiography, so the argument goes, was more fit for pious purpose in a presumably grateful fifteenth century, and proliferated accordingly.7 If we accept that lives of the saints acquired a new puissance, where would this place the sovereign biblically-informed genre that reperformed the holiest life of all, the Middle English Vita Christi? To what extent did the Pseudo-Bonaventuran Life of Christ rework the (allegedly superseded) paradigm of vernacular theology? Does, moreover, this supposed phase of fifteenth-century cultural history, when texts were ostensibly more preoccupied with mainstream devotion than with the sideshow of dissent versus orthodoxy, have affiliations or bear comparison with the pre-Lollard, pre-anxious, ‘pre-hereticating’ culture that marked the earlier Middle English era?

Whatever the questions, whatever the answers, and whatever people say at this or that medievalists’ gathering, vernacular theology is in all probability not going to go away. It is too rich and productive a compound for that to happen. On the one hand, theology is provisional, insufficient, necessary, fruitful and boundless. On the other, the vernacular is an irregular complex of enabling and constraining circumstances. In vernacular theology, each constitutes the other’s condition. Together, they demand of us no little caution –and no little imagination.

1. Nicholas Watson, ‘Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409’, Speculum 70 (1995), 822-64, p. 823, n. 4.

2. This is drawn to our attention in Vincent Gillespie, ‘Vernacular Theology’, in Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm (Oxford, OUP, 2007), pp. 401-20, p. 401. The term is used in A. I. Doyle, ‘A Survey of the Origins and Circulation of Theological Writings in English in the 14th, 15th and Early 16th Centuries with Special Consideration of the Part of the Clergy therein’, 2 vols. (Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge, 1953).

3. See Note 1 for full bibliographic details.

4. The biggest influence in this area is Rita Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts (Cambridge, CUP, 1991). Those who have followed in the wake of this pioneering study have not always matched its sophistication and interpretative flexibility.

5. Kate Crassons, ‘Performance Anxiety and Watson’s Vernacular Theology’, 95-102 in Literary History and the Religious Turn, Special Issue ed. Bruce Holsinger, English Language Notes 44.1 (2006), 77-137, p. 99.

6. Katherine C. Little, ‘”Bokes Ynowe”: Vernacular Theology and Fourteenth-Century Exhaustion’, 109-12 in Literary History and the Religious Turn, Special Issue ed. Bruce Holsinger, English Language Notes 44.1 (2006), 77-137.

7. ibid., p. 112.


One comment for “Issues: Vernacular? Theology? Vernacular Theology?”

  1. Amen to footnote 4. Perhaps Rita Copeland’s contribution to vernacular theology (with or without scare quotes!) has been neglected. She points out that only in England was vernacularity a problem for the hierarchy. So post-colonialism may perhaps be a good lens to view some late medieval English religious writing; though Julian is not agonistic, Langland certainly is.

    Posted by John Young | January 7, 2012, 10:31 am

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