// Research Questions

Thanks to the scholarship of Elizabeth Salter, Ian Doyle, Eamonn Duffy and Nicholas Watson, among others, it is a commonplace that late medieval England witnessed an expansion in the range and production of vernacular Lives of Christ. These texts, usually assumed to have emanated from monastic and ecclesiastic contexts, and to have been designed to promote orthodox Christian doctrinal positions, are conventionally understood in terms of the practical effects of thirteenth-century pastoral programmes, including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Pecham’s Lambeth Constitutions (1281) and later related initiatives.

An important offshoot of this pastoral expansion are the vernacular texts derived from, or associated with, the single most important tradition of writing on Christ’s life, that of the pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes Vitae Christi. This affective Latin work and its vernacular renderings narrate episodes from the Gospels, drawing moral and spiritual teaching from vividly retold scenes in which the readers/hearers are to imagine themselves present amidst the action in order to stir devotion to Christ in His humanity and move their souls towards God and salvation. Nicholas Love’s early fifteenth-century Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ is outstanding among these, not only because it survives in more copies than any other religious prose work than the Lollard Bible, but because of its authorisation by Archbishop Arundel c.1410, whose memorandum sanctioned the Mirror as the counter-text to Lollardy and the Wycliffite Bible. The Mirror is thus the most ‘official’ and authoritative text of the era, mandated ‘to the edification of the faithful and the confutation of false Lollards and heretics’. Through its examination of the corpus of pseudo-Bonaventuran English texts before, during and after Arundel’s clampdown on religious freedom of thought and biblical translation, Geographies of Orthodoxy will interrogate the notion that vernacular religious writing after the ‘Arundelian’ era was stripped of much of the ideological latitude and creative energy earlier enjoyed in an alleged ‘golden age’ of ‘vernacular theology’ in the later fourteenth century. The project will deal with these issues by exploring the following research questions:

  • How might the circulation of these texts within various social and regional contexts inform our understanding of the formation of orthodox practices and ideas?
  • How do the affective and performative devotional models articulated in such literature interact with actual reading practices?
  • What does codicological evidence tell us about orthodox reading practices and other, more contestatory, devotional and interpretative encounters with these texts?
  • How do the answers to these three questions reshape our understanding of a burgeoning late medieval vernacular and religious textual culture?

The project therefore questions and will revise previous historical descriptions of the devotional contexts in which pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ were produced, circulated and read c.1350-1550. It recognises and addresses the pressing need for a more nuanced account of the texture of late medieval devotional culture than is currently available. The pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ have been selected for examination because they account for a greater range and depth of devotional experiences, modalities and teaching than other forms of religious discourse. For example, confessional literature tends to be restricted to considerations of penance (indeed, penitential teaching and routines are subsumed anyway into vita Christi); and saints’ lives offer much less spiritually, morally or affectively or in terms of authority than this holiest of lives drawn from the holiest part of the Bible. How to live, what to believe, how to feel, and how to be saved: this eloquent tradition is a defining gauge and agent of lived religious sensibility without equal. Arundel’s mandating of Love’s Mirror and the nature of its circulation show that this genre was universal: it was at the centre and commanding heights of medieval religious and literary culture. How this tradition is inflected through the inter-related contingencies and contiguities of codices, owners, scribes, readers is at the centre of this project and its focus on the material circumstances in which the tradition was articulated, received and adapted from the later medieval period to the Reformation.

Research Context

The trickle of vernacular Lives of Christ became a flood in the years marked, on the one hand, by the Lollard controversy and the Arundelian reaction to it, and, on the other, by the English Reformation. The diversity of perspectives, practices and localities informing the production and ownership contexts of such late medieval English religious texts, of which the pseudo-Bonaventuran corpus is the most important example, has not been accounted for by modern scholarship. Current work in this area usually assumes that late medieval religious orthodoxy was conceived by a centralized, hegemonic English Church, and then channelled – or challenged – in myriad forms of ‘vernacular theology’. Such a view supports, paradoxically, both an account of the English Reformation as a revolt against ‘exhausted’ ecclesiastical structures and devotional traditions but also the alternative assumption that ‘traditional religion’ after Arundel remained the undisturbed terrain of orthodox practice and belief. In either case, there has hitherto been no comprehensive attempt to map how ideas and sensibilities of orthodoxy encoded in the texts and manuscripts of the defining pseudo-Bonaventuran tradition are received within anglophone textual communities. Previously, this development has been understood in terms of pastoral trend toward ‘affective piety’ and devotio moderna. Geographies of Orthodoxy will argue that the pseudo-Bonaventuran vernacular Lives of Christ undertook specific cultural work for their producers and readers, and that they function as an index of ‘mainstream’ practices and beliefs. Lives of Christ constitute ‘practical’ rather than ‘academic’ theology; their function was to help individual Christians achieve salvation, and to understand and live their lives under Holy Church.

Affective writing on Christ’s life and/or passion in a Middle English setting is elaborated in texts such as Richard Rolle’s Long and Short Meditations on the Passion, Walter Hilton’s Prickynge of Love, the Pore Caitif, The Life of the Virgin and Christ, and in various prose and verse Lives of Christ, but its culmination is in the pseudo-Bonaventuran corpus. The Meditationes Vitae Christi circulated in partial translations such as the Privity of the Passion, the Meditation on the Supper of Our Lord, the Middle English Meditationes de Passione, and Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. The Mirror is the most complex and authoritative expression of the tradition in English, and is extant in 61 manuscripts and 9 early printed versions. Despite the extraordinary achievements of the text’s modern editor, Michael Sargent, no satisfactory mapping of its dissemination and reproduction has been undertaken. Who commissioned copies of the Mirror? In what contexts was it read and used? What does the Mirror’s wide and enduring circulation suggest about the audiences and appetites for affective devotional materials among lay and religious, across genders and social distinctions, and in specific urban, regional, local and national contexts? How does Love’s text contend with other versions of the life of Christ appearing in England in the fifteenth century? How might current scholarly understanding of fifteenth century devotional culture be enlarged in light of the post-Arundelian reception of both Love’s Mirror and other texts within this literary tradition (e.g. the Speculum Devotorum, another compilation in pseudo-Bonaventuran vein, whose awestruck prologue agonises about writing in the wake of not only the Meditationes but also Love’s Mirror)? Where, furthermore, might one locate the cultural work of such vernacular Lives of Christ in a broader history of the period culminating in the Henrician Reformation?

Research Methods

Geographies of Orthodoxy will assess the issues and questions raised above by a collaborative research programme. At all times the project will be informed by a broad awareness of, and recourse to, the situation of Lives of Christ with regard to Latin and vernacular devotional literature, in particular biblical reworkings and commentary, saints’ lives, sermons, contemplative works, religious lyrics, liturgical and paraliturgical literature, spiritual instruction, preacher’s handbooks, prayer, religious polemic, penitential literature, ecclesiastical satire and discourses of dissent.The research process will be rooted in detailed codicological analyses of the extant manuscripts and texts. As such it will detail the sponsorship, production, dissemination and reception of the entire material remains of the English pseudo-Bonaventuran tradition. The project team will assemble a comprehensive database describing the relevant texts and manuscripts. The database will be modelled on (and designed to complement) the electronic apparatus constructed for the Brut manuscripts on the earlier Imagining History project. The team will then move on to work on a carefully-selected series of synchronic case-studies based on the production, reception and ownership contexts of the manuscripts in the corpus. Because our aim is to describe the versatility of late medieval textual networks and their varied processes of transmission and reception, the project’s core methodology is centred on the related ideas of ‘cultural mapping’ and ‘manuscript geography’, as defined and explored on the ‘Imagining History’ project at Queen’s.

These two key terms are cartographical metaphors which extend beyond their ostensible geographic implications: whether tracing the scribal dissemination of a text across regions and through time, or the passing of a single manuscript through succeeding generations of owners, ‘cultural mapping’ enables us to record how texts and books invariably occupy a multiplicity of possible settings related to the cultural location inhabited (temporal, regional, social, institutional etc.), thus enabling us to estimate and record the nature of the reading or hearing communities who utilised them at a particular time or place.

‘Manuscript geography’ contributes to this effort by allowing us to locate manuscripts and texts in specific cultural settings, enabling the identification of not only geographically but also socially diverse networks of patrons, owners, copyists and readers. Such an approach promises to reveal much with regard to the specific cultural topography to which particular texts and manuscripts often uniquely belong and the implied networks formed so unpredictably by often widely-scattered audiences for texts within this tradition. All this will in turn foster better contextualised modern reading and critical interpretation of these Lives as important literary texts in their own right. There will also be comparative studies of the texts that keep company with pseudo-Bonaventuran material in books and networks, with a view to understanding better the complexities of how such texts worked with each other in the formation of individual reading experiences, devotional attitudes and literary tradition. A particularly exciting aspect of this project is that it promises variously to revise and/or confirm the paradigmatic assertion that vernacular religious writing becomes impoverished in the wake of Arundel’s Constitutions. Where, for example, English pseudo-Bonaventuran materials are found alongside less orthodox religious and secular writings within particular codices, or wider social networks, literary circles and other ownership contexts, this would confound, or at least problematise, established understandings of this material’s reception. The project thus offers an opportunity to make a most telling contribution to what is centre-stage in current Middle English literary studies.