Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha, the Ideal of the Imitation of Christ, the Orders of Society

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha, the Ideal of the Imitation of Christ, the Orders of Society

Article excerpt

Giles Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha, The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ, The Orders of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, I995). xix + 4z3 pp.; z9 plates. ISBN o-521--30515-2. L40.oo.

Modestly represented as complementary to Constable's forthcoming book The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Three Studies is a work of very real importance in its own right, which explores in extraordinary detail, and over more periods than will be possible in the forthcoming volume, three topics which have engaged the author over many years. Perhaps the most powerful of these investigations is the first one (pp. 1-141), a searching examination of the interpretations of the Mary and Martha narrative (Luke x.38-42; John xii. I-8), which details the many ways in this the story was read, not simply as a comparison of the active and the contemplative life, but also as `two aspects of the church, two periods of history, or two types of prayer, and they [Mary and Martha] were compared to the hands of God, the sides of Solomon's throne, the chambers of Noah's ark, the hands and wings of the creatures in Ezechiel 1.8, and the sacrificial birds in Luke 2.24'. Traditional interpretations perish among these rich perspectives, and in medieval texts the two women often appear in complementary, not contradictory, roles. There will be few medievalists indeed who will not be informed in one way or another by Constable's searching examination. Not only as a gloss on one narrative, but also as a way of understanding the ways in which Scripture was read and interpreted, this section of Three Studies is a model of considered learning and critical acumen.

The second section (pp. 143-z48) takes up a far larger issue, one which really seems to demand a book of its own. Its topic, earlier antecedents for the imitation of Christ, is culturally so complex, and so involved with individual and institutional expressions of faith, as to defy summary analysis. What Constable calls `the imitation of Christ's body' is often theologically related to his 'humanity' (these two sections might have been somewhat extended), and symbolic and especially literary texts often admit of greater play than appears here. …

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