Female Devotion and the Vercelli Book

By Dockray-Miller, Mary | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Female Devotion and the Vercelli Book


Dockray-Miller, Mary, Philological Quarterly


The reception theories of Hans Robert Jauss provide a vocabulary with which to explore Vercelli, Archivio Capitolare manuscript 117, the Anglo-Saxon religious manuscript usually referred to as the Vercelli Book. (1) Jauss's concept of literature's "horizons of expectation" places the audience in the forefront of literary and historical criticism. (2) While differentiated from I. A. Richards' and other theorists' advocacy of reader-response criticism, Jauss's theories similarly privilege the interaction between reader and text over an iconic, fixed text. (3) In Jauss's terms, a literary work is not a fact but an event-the event of the audience's reception of the text. While Jauss focuses on individual literary texts, his work is informative when investigating a manuscript like Vercelli 117, which compiles a diverse group of Christian religious texts, both poetry and prose. When the Vercelli Book is examined within the horizon of contemporary women's studies and feminist theory, it can be described as a manuscript intended for a specifically female reader to be read as part of her private religious practice.

Allen Frantzen introduced Anglo-Saxon studies to Jauss's reception theory in his 1990 Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. (4) Frantzen uses Jauss's diction of reception and horizon to argue that the "reception of the Anglo-Saxon past records the invention of Anglo-Saxon studies to serve the ideological ends of leaders in English culture and education." (5) While Frantzen's subject is the history of Anglo-Saxon studies, his introduction of Jauss into the discipline is useful in other inquiries as well. Jauss's theory of horizon argues that interpretation is a process "mediated not only through the producing subject but also through the consuming subject," (6) since the "historical life of a literary work is unthinkable without the active participation of its addressees." (7) In his privileging of audience, Jauss explicitly rejects traditional notions of a literary text's meaning as "timelessly true," notions that now seem critically quaint but that wielded more cultural power in 1967 (Jauss's German publication date; this essay appeared in English in 1982). (8)

Feminist critics have engaged with reader-response and reception theories, usually from the perspective of feminist readings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century canonical, male-authored texts. Most prominently, Judith Fetterley argued in 1978 for the "immasculation" of women readers of such texts, since a female reader is "asked to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her." (9) While reception theory and reader-response analysis make regular appearances now in medieval studies, a number of those readings tend not to be gender-based. (10) Feminist analyses of medieval women readers tend to be focused in the later medieval period; for example, C. Annette Grise argues that late medieval devotional texts directed at women "acted to secure the submission of their female readers." (11) If its original horizon of reception was explicitly female, should our critical views about the Vercelli Book change? What would it mean if those texts were collected and copied with a specifically female reader in mind, rather than a male reader, or a supposedly gender-neutral, universal reader?

Anglo-Saxon scholarship has always assumed a masculine horizon of expectations for the Vercelli Book, created about the year 1000 in southeast England. Most scholars connect the manuscript to the Benedictine Reform of the second half of the tenth century, and assume that the maker and initial user(s) of the manuscript were men. (12) Although we tend to see the Benedictine Reform as a primarily masculine endeavor, spearheaded by Sts. Dunstan, AEdelwold, and Oswald and supported by King Edgar, (13) the devotional and theological forces driving the Benedictine Reform affected and were affected by women as well as men. …

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