Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature

Article excerpt

Nicole R. Rice, Lay Piety and Religious Discipline in Middle English Literature, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). xviii + 247 pp. ISBN 978-0521-89607-8. £50.00/$79.00.

In this rich, thoughtful, and very interesting study Nicole R. Rice has sketched out what almost amounts to a short history of lay spirituality in late medieval England, a time when its putative dangers were, for a while at least, balanced in some minds by its commendable encouragement of devout aspiration. Focusing on five texts in particular - four anonymous, the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, Fervor amoris, Book to a Mother, and The Life of Soul, together with Walter Hilton's Mixed Life - she has effectively identified and addressed both the embatded reactions of clerics as they found certain aspects of their formation and their devout practices appropriated by and for a lay audience, and the development of the movement itself. Important teachings of the spirituality that developed, derivative and conflicted as they sometimes were, were also guardedly encouraging, and acknowledge human dignity in distinctly religious terms.

One of the real strengths of this book is its willingness to engage religious attitudes and to consider how far these attitudes respond to late medieval devout practices. Latin psalters and books of hours encouraged devotions rooted in the liturgy, and these were carried into vernacular texts during the course of the fourteenth century, so that devout and literate laypersons enjoyed more or less ready access to a range of religious exercises and practices, ecclesiastical in origin and often focused upon individual salvation. In recent years many of these texts have been subsumed, thanks in no small part to Nicholas Watson, under the heading 'vernacular theology'; and Rice's study deepens this approach by further defining the role of theological and personal instruction, often realized in a moral or devout programme. …

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