Bodies of Parchment: Representing the Passion and Reading Manuscripts in Late Medieval England
By Sarah Noonan
PhD Dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis, 2010
Abstract: In a diverse range of late-fourteenth- and fifteenth-century devotional literature, Christ’s body is metaphorically related to a book or a document at the moment of his crucifixion. His skin transforms into parchment, whips and scourges become pens, and a steady flow of blood, of ink, covers his body and the written page. And each word written onto his parchment body welcomes sustained study, acting as a potential meditative focal point for the devout reader.
Through this metaphor and the accompanying materiality of the texts that include it, medieval authors and audiences could imagine intimately interacting with Christ’s body during the violence of his Passion. They could touch it, see it, hear it as it was read aloud, and, in the case of scribes, write it. This dissertation explores how the object of the text allowed audiences to participate actively in the events of Christ’s Passion and considers how the affective engagement with Christ’s suffering body that pervaded late-medieval devotional practice informed, in turn, the signifying power of a text’s materiality.
The Christ-as-book metaphor often occurs in works that represent the creation and consumption of books in similar terms — terms that emphasize books not as already completed objects but as objects that are continuously in the process of being made, reproduced, edited, and circulated. Manuscript books are shown to function as loci for active and varied acts of interpretation as readers approached them as textual and material, but also visual and aural, objects. While the Christ-as-book metaphor can illuminate the dynamic role manuscripts could play in inspiring affective devotion, it has primarily been examined for the insight it offers into literary or theological trends of mysticism and popular religion.
I argue, however, that this metaphor and the texts containing it can be read productively through the lenses of manuscript studies and book history. Building upon the work of D. F. McKenzie, Roger Chartier, and Alexandra Gillespie, I consider how the material form in which these texts occur influenced their reception and status as cultural objects amongst late-medieval lay audiences. The materiality of the manuscript book, I suggest, powerfully guided the ways in which readers approached, viewed, and experienced devotional works and, as a result, Christ’s body in late medieval England. The first chapter presents an examination of how writing, as the literal act of inscription and as a metaphor for the reading process: one remembered what one read, for example, by writing it in one’s heart), works to reproduce Christ’s suffering body both on the page and within the reader.
By highlighting the interactions between pain and reading and between Christ’s body and a text’s material form, the Meditations on the Life and Passion of Christ, the Orison of the Passion, and the Charters of Christ illustrate that each re-reading of their respective texts constituted a re-writing as well. Every inscription of the text and of the events of Christ’s Passion produces a new copy — a new witness — both on the manuscript page and within the reader’s heart. Christ’s suffering body is not presented in these works as a reified, stable text to be copied out, or read, passively but instead as a text that welcomed readerly and scribal interpretation and reinvention.
In the second chapter, I consider the potential for the material object of the text to function as a type of affective image for the devout reader. I argue that the ABC of Christ’s Passion, a text that relates the letters of the alphabet to the wounds inflicted upon Christ’s body, demonstrates how even the undecorated manuscript page could function as a potent “image” and focal point for a devout reader’s meditative practice. John Lydgate’s Passion poetry further illustrates the value of contemplating the visual aspects of a written text and its material form. While a reader could be moved to devout thoughts by regarding an image of the crucified Christ, Lydgate explores the potential for the object of the text to interact with and at times even supplant the devotional influence of standard Passion iconography.
The layout of books and rolls can provide further evidence of how these textual objects were read by medieval audiences, and, in the third chapter, I investigate how affective reading practices mirrored the late-medieval devotional preoccupation with Christ’s suffering, fragmented body. The format and narrative structure of the Symbols of the Passion encourages readers to consult its text in a discontinuous fashion, as if the reader’s engagement with that work were intended to mirror how he or she would have meditated upon the partitioned body of Christ represented in popular arma Christi images. A parity existed, I suggest, between how Christ’s body and texts could be approached; both could be productively read in parts, with each fragment operating as an affectively-potent whole in its own right. Rather than being an idiosyncratic reading style promoted by the Symbols, the Book of Margery Kempe, Handlyng Synne, and a wide-range of other late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth century works of devotion also encourage late-medieval audiences to read discontinuously, indicating that this method of reading was influential and pervasive amongst a range of late-medieval devout audiences. But many audiences “read” medieval works by listening to them being read aloud rather than by personally and privately consulting a text within its manuscript context.
In the fourth chapter, I study a unique musical version of the Short Charter of Christ and a non-musical: but nonetheless melodic) O-and-I lyric, “Throw hys hond.” I examine how these works explore the tension between spoken and written language and suggest that they provide a glimpse of the oral / aural potential latent within the metaphor of Christ’s body as a book. While manuscripts might be seen today as offering a silent material witness to the past, medieval audiences conceived of these forms as being imbued with sound, the otherwise dead skin and ink infused with a vocal presence.
Top Image: British Library Additional MS 37049, f. 23r