Reading Devotion. Asceticism and Affectivity in Love’s Mirror
MIRATOR 9:1 (2008)
The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ by Nicholas Love is one of the most significant Middle English devotional texts of the late-medieval period. A translation and adaptation of the Latin Meditationes vitae Christi, an influential Franciscan text from the fourteenth-century, the Mirror had both educational and polemical aims, intended as an accessible meditative guide for the devout laity as well as an orthodox statement against the contemporary Wycliffite heresy. Through its Carthusian monastic origins, in terms of authorship and focus, and its presentation of themes, language, and imagery that hinge on ascetic and affective attitudes, Love’s Mirror provides compelling evidence for the increasing engagement between the monastic and secular spheres in the late Middle Ages, and illustrates the mutual responses inherent in devotional culture.
Introduction: The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ was one of the most popular texts of the late-medieval period in England, with the number of surviving manuscripts surpassed only by a handful of works, including the Wycliffite translation of the Bible, the Prick of Conscience, and the Canterbury Tales. Composed around 1410 by the Carthusian prior Nicholas Love, the Mirror constituted the first complete English translation of the Pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi, a popular Franciscan text from the late-fourteenth century, and stood as one of the most important versions of the life of Christ of the pre-modern era. As such, the Mirror is frequently cited in surveys of late-medieval devotion to the humanity and passion of Christ, as well as in studies of the monastic dissemination of themes and techniques of meditative devotion to the laity, particularly by the Carthusians. Yet despite its clear influence and its presentation of archetypical meditative devotions on the life of Christ, the Mirror’s tone is emotionally conservative in comparison with other texts of the period, with the result that it is rarely included in academic discussions of affectivity. In this article, I will examine the affective elements of Love’s Mirror in an effort to re-evaluate its connections to late-medieval devotional culture. I will argue that the Mirror’s Franciscan-Carthusian origins comprise highly affective impulses, and that the Carthusian emphasis on the text as an object of and tool for devotion is characteristic of a peculiarly affective asceticism that imbues texts like the Mirror with added significance and power, which are made accessible to religious and lay readers alike.