Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent

By Oakes, Catherine | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent


Oakes, Catherine, Journal of Art Historiography


Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent Review of: Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent. Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Disciplina Monastica. Studies on Medieval Monastic Life 8), Turnhout: Brepols, 2011, 475 pp., XIV colour plates, 93 b&w illustrations.

In 1417 Sister Truyde Schütten asked another sister in her community in Diepenveen to accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome, leaving on January 7th. The other replied declining her invitation because she thought she might be slow and hold up Sister Truyde, but asked how long she was planning to stay. Truyde said she had visited before and remained three days but this time she was not sure how long she would be there. The interchange seems unremarkable, but in the context of the subject of Kathryn Rudy's book it becomes intriguing, for the pilgrimage referred to is not a real journey across Europe, but a virtual journey in the mind and carried out within the convent walls. One of the reasons this is intriguing for the modern reader is because of its resonance with twenty-first-century virtual experiences pursued by millions in cyberspace, who, like the Dutch nuns, rely on visual aids designed to stimulate the imagination to make the adventure as real as possible.

Those visual aids developed to assist the journeys of the late medieval cyber pilgrims are the focus of Rudy's study: Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent. Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages. Specifically she looks at a group of Middle Dutch manuscripts and late medieval artefacts related to the lives of female religious which were created to aid their imaginative journeys. Many of her textual sources are not available in print, and very few in modern translations, and one of the services to scholarship which this book provides is the transcription and translation of eleven unpublished manuscripts, taking up about a third of the book. After an introduction, the main text is divided into four chapters which explore, in turn, the earlier medieval travel literature and pilgrims' diaries upon which the virtual pilgrimage aids were based ('Souvenirs Recontextualised'); the texts themselves and their accompanying images ('Interiority: Stationary Pilgrimage Devotions') ; those examples which required the votary to physically engage with these spiritual exercises ('Exteriority: Somatic Pilgrimage Devotions') and finally the relationship of this material with devotional trends in Western Europe as a whole (? Wider View').

Much of the secondary literature which Rudy uses is in Dutch, though Jeffery Hamburger and James Marrow are both Anglophone scholars to whom she pays tribute. The highly emotional responses called for from the votaries which she discusses are predicated on an understanding of visual imagery as part of a real human narrative, a development traced by Marrow in his book on Passion imagery and which transforms the nature of religious art in the Late Middle Ages.1 Hamburger's numerous publications on the place of art in the spiritual life of medieval nuns raise and examine the question of specifically gendered approaches to this subject matter.2 The work of Henk Van Os on late medieval devotional imagery and Caroline Walker Bynum also inform these pages, especially the latter's account of the sensationally somatic religious practices of certain female religious in 'The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages' published in her volume of essays entitled Fragmentation and Redemption.3 However, the precise field investigated here is remarkably untilled in the academic literature. Rudy herself explains this in her opening acknowledgements where she describes how, having sifted through the existing printed catalogues of manuscripts relevant to her research, she found a number of significant items in the originals omitted. As she puts it, these 'became as interesting as those listed' because at the time they were published there was 'no existing category to describe (them)' (p. …

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