Books under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England

By Newman, Barbara | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2008 | Go to article overview
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Books under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England


Newman, Barbara, The Catholic Historical Review


Books under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England. By Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2006. Pp. lii, 562. $50.00.)

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's Books under Suspicion is among the major books of the decade in medieval English studies. In this monumental volume on academic freedom and its discontents, Kerby-Fulton has given us nothing less than a new intellectual history of theological pluralism, dissent, and the limits of tolerance in the late Middle Ages. Challenging received wisdom, she shows that medieval England was not nearly so insular as scholars have supposed. While exquisitely attuned to the rise of Wycliffite heresy, medievalists tend to write as if unruffled orthodoxy prevailed until 1381, treating the English intellectual scene as exempt from such Continental currents as Joachimite apocalypticism, Free Spirit heresy, intra-Franciscan quarrels, the beatific-vision controversy, and even schism politics. Against the grain, Books under Suspicion speculates richly as to how all of these influenced the writings of Chaucer, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, and above all, Langland: Piers Plowman scholars will find lush grazing for their oxen. What is incontestable, however, is the new evidence Kerby-Fulton provides to revitalize turf one might have thought worked to exhaustion.

Since England had no papal inquisitors and no orchestrated royal campaign against heresy before Henry IV's assault on the Lollards, it is understandable that the Orthodox/Lollard binary has dominated English studies for the last generation. But England's decentralized approach to the repression of heresy does not imply the absence of either heresy or repression. Drawing on bishops' registers, university records, patent rolls, and other sources, Kerby-Fulton prefaces her work with a thirty-three-page chronology of "non-Wycliffite cases of heresy and related events" in England and Ireland from 1161 to 1457, although the bulk of her analysis focuses on the fraught decades of the 1380s and '90s. The work ends with an index of no fewer than 119 manuscripts consulted-many containing texts by Joachim of Fiore, Olivi, Rupescissa, and other suspect writers traveling incognito, often in bowdlerized or mutilated form.

Kerby-Fulton's category of "revelatory writing" includes both women's texts laying claim to visionary inspiration and their male counterpart, exegetical works claiming intellectio spiritualis. Both strategies, she argues, offered a theological refuge for optimistic eschatologies and "salvational generosities"-a more precise term than "universalism."Though academics distrusted revelatory writing, they were compelled by Scripture to admit at least the possibility of authentic revelation in both forms, thus providing a fragile safe-conduct for many texts that might otherwise have been censured. And in times of trial, even hardened skeptics could seek reassurance from revelations. Thus Books under Suspicion becomes a study in strange bedfellows. Wycliffites, for example, shared the general skittishness about revelatory writing, but at times, their interest in disendowment led them to make common cause with Joachimiteleaning Franciscan Spirituals. Two of the most interesting "Lollard" texts, the testimony of Walter Brut and the anonymous Opus arduum (Kerby-Fulton proposes Nicholas Hereford as its author), prove to have been influenced by Continental apocalypticism.

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