Performance Literacy: Theorizing Medieval Devotional Seeing

Part of the Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance book series (CSLP)


The Book of Margery Kempe offers ample evidence of imagery’s prominent role within lay devotional practices. The book’s author suggests that religious images frequently triggered Kempe’s powerful physical reactions:

this creature saw a beautiful image of our Lady called a pieta. And through looking at that pieta her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly.1


Cognitive Theory Mirror Neuron Mirror Neuron System Corporeal Vision Naturalize Phenomenology 
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    The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. B. A. Windeatt (New York: Penguin, 1985), 186 (I.60.3492-5). For the original language, see The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)Google Scholar
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    Kathleen Ashley argues that the metaphor of the tactic “allows us to see medieval dramatic performances as always a reinterpretation or adaptation of traditional myths and ideologies.” I am suggesting that it also allows us to see the performance encounter as a reinterpretation or adaptation of the laity’s traditional role in devotion and devotional seeing. See Ashley, “Contemporary Theories of Popular Culture and Medieval Performances,” Mediaevalia 18 (1995): 9.Google Scholar
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