Warren, Nancy Bradley, the Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures

By Hollis, Stephanie | Parergon, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Warren, Nancy Bradley, the Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures


Hollis, Stephanie, Parergon


Warren, Nancy Bradley, The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures, 1350-1700 (ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern), Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2010; paperback; pp. 352; R.R.P. US$32.00; ISBN 9780268044206.

This is a splendid book: highly readable, engrossingly narrated, and altogether compelling. Nancy Warren acknowledges a debt to David Wallace's work on female spirituality and historical periodization, and at the heart of her study is 'a desire to reconsider the binaries of medieval and early modern, Catholic and Protestant, domestic and foreign, orthodox and heterodox, that have obscured important aspects of English religious cultures' (p. 8). Warren demonstrates the sustained importance of medieval female spirituality for both Catholics and Protestants in the post-Reformation period. The temporal and confessional continuities she establishes arise from the devotional centrality of identification with the bodies of Christ and the Virgin. Female spirituality rooted in the body, she shows, forms a basis for connectedness with society and community, as well as with the English body politic, and with the church conceived as the mystical body of Christ. This is not an overtly contentious study, but Warren makes it clear that she differs from those who, like David Aers, regard identification with Christ's Passion as a form of victimization or acceptance of passivity: 'Experiencing Christ's, and others', sufferings through textual encounters with them informs theological and political visions (or, better, revisions) committed to performance and to action rather than to stasis or passivity' (p. 46).

Chapter 1 explicates incarnational paradigms in the lives and writings of three medieval holy women (St Birgitta of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich), and explores the influence of these in the poetry of a seventeenth-century Protestant, Aemilia Lanyer. Chapter 2 traces the legacy of Julian of Norwich in the writings of Mary Gascoigne (a representative example of the English Benedictine nuns at Cambrai and Paris, who played a crucial role in the preservation of Julian's texts), and in the spiritual autobiography of a Protestant gentry woman named Grace Mildmay (1552-1620). That early modern women devoted to preserving the 'old religion' were attached to medieval women's writings and spirituality may not seem surprising, but, as Warren intimates, there have been few sustained studies of these continuities (the most notable being Christine Peters's Patterns of Piety, from which Warrens study diverges markedly). More surprising is the significance of medieval affective and contemplative piety for Protestant women like Mildmay, who belonged to 'a religious tradition that is so often understood as defining itself in opposition to such forms of devotion' (p. 13). In this chapter, too, Warren shows that there is a political dimension to the incarnational piety whose continuity she traces: 'Mildmay's engagement with the spirituality of the past informs her visions of the constitution of the body that is the church and her attitudes to the body that is the English nation' (p. …

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