Herbs, Birds, and Cryptic Words for English Devotional Readers

Herbs, Birds, and Cryptic Words for English Devotional Readers

Fein, Susanna

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)


“Meditation,” according to Hugh of Saint Victor, “is the concentrated and judicious reconsideration of thought, that tries to unravel something complicated or scrutinizes something obscure to get at the truth of it.” In recent work I have identified several Middle English longer lyrics that possess what appear to be meditational forms, that is, they are poems designed to be read in the concentrated manner suggested by Hugh, so that someone well attuned to their enigmatic patterns would be spiritually nourished by reading them. In the sensibility of devout medieval English people, Christian doctrine was connected vitally to emotional receptivity. One could be taught the theology of redemption, but only through heart-felt response to God’s love offering–in the Incarnation and Passion–would one be granted grace.

Learned and popular devotion to a theology of divine incarnation opened the way for an aesthetics of incarnation to develop. Poets who understood that Christ, the Word, took flesh to save mankind, felt themselves empowered to create from the Word the means to flesh out verbally the signs and patterns of redemption for readers for whom literacy was a way to reach God. Such poetry, because it is participatory, stresses that the human soul has an “active potential” for seeking God, to which God will “reciprocate” because He has already shown love by sending his embodied Son. A poetic creation designed to mediate this process can therefore potentially summon the holy presence and make it be felt in the soul of the reader.

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