The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures, 1350-1700

By Burow-Flak, Elizabeth; Warren, Nancy Bradley | Church History, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Embodied Word: Female Spiritualities, Contested Orthodoxies, and English Religious Cultures, 1350-1700


Burow-Flak, Elizabeth, Warren, Nancy Bradley, Church History


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Embodied forms of religious devotion have long been recognized as characteristic among late medieval and early modern Catholic women, as well as, more recently, in studies of select early modern English Protestant women. But how can these experiences, from seemingly disparate contexts of pre-Reformation monastic houses, post-Reformation nuns in exile, and women from a range of reforms, be seen as part of the same culture? This is the question that Nancy Bradley Warren seeks to answer in this study of English women and what she calls their and their communities' incarnational piety, epistemology, textuality, and politics (7). Perhaps the most notable feature of the book is its scope, bridging divides not only of periodization and reformation, but also of geography in considering national and expatriate English women and their European inspirations and protectors. Almost as notable is the break from simple chronology through which Warren organizes her evidence. Thus, the book begins with the example of the miraculously preserved body of Margaret Wake, an English Carmelite nun in Antwerp, in 1716, and the wave of spiritual autobiographies and devotion among local nobility that the discovery inspired. Subsequent chapters then interlace stories of pre-Reformation or exiled nuns with those of lay women as diverse as Margery Kempe, Grace Mildmay, Anna Trapnel, and Elizabeth Cary. In so doing, the study hopscotches back and forth across time and the English Channel. Circling back, finally, to histories that, Warren suggests, define a particularly English identity across faiths, nations, and historical periods, the study reads those histories as shaped by hopes and anxieties pertaining to women's rule and succession.

Warren's first chapter traces an incarnational emphasis in the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Aemelia Lanyer, from meditation on the Eucharist, the Virgin birth, and the Passion to reflection on the labor--a term implied particularly by the Brigittines--of recording their often mystical experiences in textual flesh. Although avoiding the claim that any writer directly influenced another, Warren nonetheless highlights notably international "channels of textual transmission" that connect the fourteenth-century women to each other and English communities (21). Addressing Lanyer, who wrote for Jacobean court circles over 200 years later, Warren identifies no such paths of textual transmission, relying on Lanyer's poetry alone to reveal an embodied piety similar to that of the medieval nuns.

The second chapter connects Julian's Showings , a mainstay in the libraries of the seventeenth-century Benedictine convents in Cambrai and Paris, to the writings of women in those orders and to the autobiography of sixteenth-century Protestant gentlewoman, Grace Mildmay. Noteworthy in this chapter are two arguments: that the women's corporeal experiences are distinctly gendered, and--an argument Warren makes through the philosophies of Stanley Cavell and Karl Morrison--that the women's expressions of nuptial union and inscriptions of Christ on their hearts exceed simple metaphor. In a clarification much like the distinction between Real Presence and understandings of the Eucharist as a mere symbol of divine presence, Warren argues that the women's experiences are bona fide "perceived, corporeal experiences through which knowledge is acquired" (85). …

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