Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Book, Body, and Bread: Reading Aemilia Lanyer's Eucharist

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Book, Body, and Bread: Reading Aemilia Lanyer's Eucharist

Article excerpt

WHEN AEMILIA LANYER'S READERS sit down to read her book, they find themselves beckoned to a dinner table. Through the pages of her Passion narrative Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), they will savor, Lanyer promises, something as delectable as "sweet nector and ambrosia," "sweet milk," and "hony dropping dew" ("Salve Deus," 1735-38). (1) But this is no ordinary dinner party: their host has invited them to the table of the Eucharist. While such a meal might ordinarily consist of the body of Christ, whom Lanyer describes as "the food of Soules" and "bread of life Eternall" (1775, 1778), she complicates matters by identifying the object of their consumption not as Christ the Incarnate but as Christ the Book. Jesus does indeed represent spiritual sustenance for her readers, but their desire, Lanyer proposes, is that "he may be the Booke, / Whereon thine eyes continually may looke" (1351-52). In Salve Deus, Christ is an all-consuming text, the center of a reading feast and the object of desire. When they pull up a chair at Lanyer's Eucharistic feast, they are there to eat a book. Salve Deus heralds the virtues of the female reading experience--what they read, why they read, and how they read differently from men. And there is no better religious context in which to situate such arguments than the Protestant Eucharist, for the vitality of this ritual--like the vitality of Lanyer's own book and the Christ-book she offers--depends upon its textuality. A Protestant Eucharist insists that bread and wine are signs that participants must read and interpret as the body and blood of Christ. Many scholars have considered Lanyer's use of Eucharistic imagery, including Yaakov-Akiva Mascetti, who focuses her reading on the first dedicatory poem, and Ina Schabert, who explains the Eucharistic theme as evidence of Lanyer's "Catholic sympathies" and the "Catholic flair" of her book. (2) What we lack, however, is an account of Salve Deus that extends the implications of this imagery across the entire body of the book and considers the theological particularities that position Lanyer's Eucharist within Protestant discourse. As I argue, it is the Protestant, rather than the Catholic, nature of the Eucharist that makes it such an apt conduit for Lanyer's argument as she deploys this ritual as the structural and theological framework of Salve Deus. As both a woman and a writer, Lanyer wields the power of this ritual as she advocates for the unity of women, dehierarchizes their relationship to each other, and empowers them as readers of metaphor.

Discussing Lanyer in relation to a specific religious category is of course a difficult task, for her work demonstrates a diverse spectrum of religious thought, including the influence of Catholicism and Judaism. Lanyer also carefully mediates between the prevailing Protestant tides of the Stuart court and residual Catholic pressures, especially considering that her opening poem is addressed to Queen Anne, a rumored Catholic. In associating Lanyer with the Protestant Eucharist, my intent is not to categorize her as a "Protestant" poet, suggest a polemical force behind her book, or collapse all of her religious imagery into Protestantism, moves that would misrepresent the complex religious negotiations that characterize both Lanyer's poetry and early modern England. As scholarship on Lanyer attests, the poet relies on a diverse lexicon of religious representation, including strong ties to Catholicism. (3) In linking her work to the Protestant Eucharist, I aim not to erase religious complexity but rather to illuminate the centrality of this particular version of the ritual to the way Lanyer conceptualizes the Passion narrative and her own poetry Seeing Salve Deus through the lens of the Protestant Eucharist--and this is precisely, I argue, what Lanyer asks of her readers--exposes new valences to the themes so readily associated with her work, including her egalitarian vision, her pursuit of female patronage, and the textuality of Christ. …

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