Lewd Imaginings: Pedagogy, Piety, and Performance in Late Medieval East Anglia

Lewd Imaginings: Pedagogy, Piety, and Performance in Late Medieval East Anglia

By John Thomas Sebastian
PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2004

Abstract: This dissertation explores clerical and lay desires for spiritual teaching and learning at the end of the Middle Ages in England, desires that, while ostensibly contemplative, carried crucial ecclesiological, political, and literary implications. Where these desires met stood the image of the unlearned lay person. This image has a history of its own; tracing it reveals many of the discourses and identities structuring late medieval society. The iconic lay person was a creature of imagination, feeling, and desire, not desire for theological proposition and dispute, but for a palpable relationship to God.

Addressing that desire led in late medieval England to an astonishing increase in clerical awareness of the laity’s spiritual needs and clerical activism in addressing those. Learned writers invented a discourse of ‘lewdness’ (after the technical term for the unlettered medieval laity) according to which the pious laity were supposed to learn by reading images as the learned did by reading books. Derived from an early Pope’s rebuke of an iconoclastic bishop, this assumption maintained its authority throughout the Middle Ages, regularly resurfacing in a variety of contexts, although not always in immediately recognizable forms. The pervasive authority of this dictum led late medieval theologians to expound a system of participatory meditation on events from the life of Christ as particularly suitable for the laity on account of its imaginative methods.

These trappings of ‘lewdness’ obscured, however, the much broader clerical origins of such mystical practice, from monastic and other learned traditions, that paradoxically were adapted to how the ‘lewd’ laity were instructed to pursue their own uniquely intimate kind of contemplation. This discourse of ‘lewdness’ assumed peculiar force within the region of East Anglia (the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk along with parts of Cambridgeshire and Kent), as evidenced by its refraction in the spiritual biography of a remarkable lay woman from Bishops Lynn, Margery Kempe, and its manifestation as the common dramaturgical foundation for a collection of plays otherwise notable for their formal and generic differences. Ultimately it coalesced, ironically, with the goals of later Reformers.

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