Rude Strength

Rude Strength

Brandolino, Gina

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)


[T]he bleding continued a while til it migt be sene with avisement. And this was so plenteous to my sigt that methowte, if it had be so in kind and in substance for that tyme, it should have made the bed al on blode and a passid over aboute.

This passage, which I affectionately refer to as “the bloodbath scene,” is from Julian of Norwich’s description of Christ’s bleeding during the Crucifixion as it was revealed to her in the Fourth Showing. While none of her renderings in A Revelation of Divine Love lack graphic specificity, I cite this passage as a particularly obvious example of Julian’s penchant for enthusiastic description. Having received the vision while she lay ill, Julian suggests that, if it were present in actuality as it was in the Showing, Christ’s blood would have saturated the bed she was confined to and overflowed. By allowing vision to spill into reality, Julian makes a crude but carefully wrought mess that I offer to you as an example of “rude strength.”

Rude strength is a term I learned from Walter Pater, who used it in 1873 in his Volume of essays titled The Renaissance to describe the essential quality of art in the Middle Ages. A fairly ingenuous first-year doctoral student, I read Pater’s description and recognized precisely that quality of the literature of the Middle Ages that I find so compelling. Soon enough, however, it became clear that “rude strength” was not something Pater meant as a compliment; he was giving a description of medieval artistic efforts I have since learned that many who champion the Renaissance are apt to give. What Pater was identifying was a lack a lack of conscious aesthetics, of a “purely artistic quality.” The Middle Ages, in his estimation, produced art that was unpolished, roughhewn. I disagree with many of the conclusions Pater comes to concerning medieval art, but I still believe it has rude strength. I am amazed that he could so misrecognize a virtue for a fault.

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