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Performance Literacy: Theorizing Medieval Devotional Seeing

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

Abstract

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

Keywords

Cognitive Theory Mirror Neuron Mirror Neuron System Corporeal Vision Naturalize Phenomenology 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    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
  2. 3.
    James H. Marrow, “Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance,” Simiolus 16 (1986): 152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Scholars of medieval drama who have attended to performance’s visual contributions to lay devotional culture include: Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989)Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 40. Comments by an Italian visitor to England in 1497 reflect this characteristic of lay piety: “Although they all attend mass every day, and say many Paternosters in public, the women carrying long rosaries in their hands, and any who can read taking the office of our Lady with them and with some companion reciting it in the church verse by verse in a low voice after the manner of churchmen, they always hear mass on Sunday in their parish church.” “A Relation... of the Island of England... about the Year 1500,” in Women in England c. 1275–1525: Documentary Sources, ed. P. Jeremy P. Goldberg, trans. C. A. Sneyd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), 283.Google Scholar
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    As David Morgan asserts, a popular religious image is not “a neutral or a blank slate, an unresistant medium that receives whatever believers wish to see limned there.” Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 122.Google Scholar
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    A frequently quoted story from the early seventeenth century recounts an old man who, when quizzed on his knowledge of Christ, replied “I think I heard of that man you spake of, once in a play at Kendall, called Corpus Christi play, where there was a man on a tree, and the blood ran down.” “The Life of Master John Shaw,” in Yorkshire Diaries and Autobiographies in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Charles Jackson (Durham: Andrews and Company, 1877), 139.Google Scholar
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    It is important to recognize that mirror neuron system (MNS) research is still developing and that the evidence is far from conclusive. Recent articles have challenged the notion of action understanding through the MNS in humans or questioned the existence of an MNS in humans entirely. See Gregory Hickok, “Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21, no. 7 (2008): 1229–1243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  41. 67.
    Bruce McConachie, Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 71.
    Ibid. Robert Pasnau also discusses this characteristic of medieval visual theory in Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 43.Google Scholar
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    Jean Gerson, “Treatise against The Romance of the Rose,” in Jean Gerson: Early Works, trans. Brian Patrick McGuire (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 388Google Scholar
  45. 74.
    Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar
  46. 78.
    Tobin Nellhaus, “Performance Strategies, Image Schemas, and Communication Frameworks,” in Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn, eds. Bruce McConachie and F. Elizabeth Hart (New York: Routledge, 2006), 83.Google Scholar
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  48. 83.
    Lawrence Clopper summarizes these arguments in Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 63–107.Google Scholar
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    Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1981)Google Scholar
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    Augustine, On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, trans. R. J. Teske (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1991), 2: 186–215.Google Scholar
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    Donnalee Dox, The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 14.Google Scholar
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    Original: “Nam quod legentibus scriptura, hoc idiotis praestat pictura cernentibus, quia in ipsa etiam ignorantes vident quid sequi debeant, in ipsa legunt qui litteras nesciunt; unde et praecipue gentibus pro lectione pictura est.” Latin and English translation as cited in Celia Chazelle, “Pictures, Books, and the Illiterate: Pope Gregory I’s Letters to Serenus of Marseilles,” Word and Image 6 (1990): 139–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For connections between iconoclasm and anti-theatrical prejudice, see Iconoclasm vs. Art and Drama, eds. Clifford Davidson and Ann Eljenholm Nichols (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1989)Google Scholar
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    Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Robert, 1860), 163Google Scholar
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    British Library Add. 24202 contains A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (fols 14r-17v) and Tretyse of Ymagis (fols 26r-28v). I will refer to these texts as Tretise and Ymagis hereafter. A transcription of the Middle English Ymagis is published as “Images and Pilgrimages,” in Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, ed. Anne Hudson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 83–8.Google Scholar
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    Herbert Kessler describes how in the Middle Ages “many materials were selected because they seemed, in their very nature, to negotiate between the world of matter and the world of spirit.” Seeing Medieval Art (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004), 29.Google Scholar
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    J. Giles Milhaven, “A Medieval Lesson on Bodily Knowing: Women’s Experience and Men’s Thought,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52, no. 2 (1989): 356–7.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 360, 355. Milhaven builds on Joanna E. Ziegler’s analysis in Sculpture of Compassion: The Pietà and the Beguines in the Southern Low Countries c. 1300–c. 1600 (Rome: Institut Historique Belge de Rome, 1992).Google Scholar
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    In their study of material possessions, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton assert “in all cases where actual physical objects become associated with a particular quality of the self, it is difficult to know how far the thing simply reflects an already existing trait and to what extent it anticipates, or even generates, a previous nonexistent quality.” The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    McConachie, Engaging Audiences, 83. Using neuroscientific evidence, Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod suggest that seeing is the product of interplay between two visual systems. Looking at inanimate elements uses a system that creates “visual perceptions,” while the system that processes actions generates “visuomotor representations”; simply put, seeing an object and seeing someone pick up an object trigger different visual systems. Jacob and Jeannerod, Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), xi–xvi.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Work by cognitive-evolutionary psychologists can help us explore this idea further. Research reveals that as children we begin to think of plants, animals, and humans as having immutable “essences,” but that we do not ascribe these same essences to objects or artifacts. Instead, we tend to think of objects in terms of function. In her article “Essentialism and Comedy,” Lisa Zunshine provides a brief review of the scholarship in this area. Zunshine suggests that it is in part because the set of essentialism-enabled inferences that we “use to deal with living things is very different from that for dealing with artifacts” that we find plays and stories involving “domain-crossing” so compelling (105, 106). “Essentialism and Comedy: A Cognitive Reading of the Motif of Mislaid Identity in Dryden’s Amphitryon (1690),” in Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn, eds. Bruce McConachie and F. Elizabeth Hart (New York: Routledge, 2006), 97–121.Google Scholar
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    In his article analyzing William Wordsworth’s ethics of the thing, Adam Potkay examines the way the term “thing” had been employed before Wordsworth. According to Potkay, “in Old English there is no term such as object, for a material entity... From this linguistic detail we can surmise that medieval Germanic-language speakers... did not in general conceive of material objects in a delimited physical sense, as separate from events, from the constitution and frame of that which is and comes to be, from the transcendental condition for knowing what little we can know of systems or stories that exceed our comprehension.” For example, he notes how in Beowulf “‘thing’ designates narrative that is not fully known and gestures toward the unknowability of larger chains of events.” Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that it is not until William Blackstone’s mid-eighteenth-century use of the term that we have “the first clear example of thing as a —being without life or consciousness; an inanimate object, as distinguished from a person or living creature.’” Potkay, “Wordsworth and the Ethics of Things,” PMLA 123, no. 2 (2008): 394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Keyan G. Tomaselli and Arnold Shepperson remind us that “people simply are not born literate: they become more or less literate as they develop their endowments into talents through education... Everyday people get on with life as they encounter it, draw on their experience as a basis for getting along, and make it all intelligible by virtue of the fact that what they do works for them.” “’speaking in Tongues, Writing in Vision’: Orality and Literacy in Televangelistic Communications,” in Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture, eds. Stewart M. Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 348–9Google Scholar
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    One could argue that this kind of seeing through the body served to perpetuate the trend toward a more visceral faith that began among mystics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Caroline Bynum argues that mystical writing from this period expresses a desire for encounters with God and that “such desire is not only for bodies; it is lodged in bodies.” “Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective,” Critical Inquiry 22 (August 1995): 26. The connection between body and desire found in these texts also invaded lay pious practices. Anne L. Clark’s essay “Why All the Fuss About the Mind? A Medievalist’s Perspective on Cognitive Theory,” in History in the Comic Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person, eds. Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 170–81Google Scholar
  76. 164.
    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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    In some ways, performance literacy is related to the educational concept of disciplinary literacy: “Disciplinary literacy is based on the premise that students can develop deep conceptual knowledge in a discipline only by using the habits of reading, writing, talking, and thinking which that discipline values and uses” (8). See Stephanie McConachie, et al., “Task, Text, and Talk,” Educational Leadership 64, no. 2 (2006): 8–14.Google Scholar
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    During the later Middle Ages, York had a clear sense of itself as an historically significant city. York was self-governing, the seat of England’s other archbishopric, second only to Canterbury, and by the late fourteenth century had the second largest population in England estimated at fifteen thousand. As Peter Meredith writes, “it was clearly a city proud of its history and its status and jealous of its privileges.” “The City of York and its ‘Play of Pageants,’” Early Theatre 3 (2000): 23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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