Staging ContemplationParticipatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama

Staging ContemplationParticipatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama

Eleanor Johnson

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780226572031

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Staging Contemplation draws together traditionally disparate types of literature—prose devotional treatises, spiritual memoirs, alliterative poems, cycle dramas, and morality plays—to argue for a broad, inclusive, and theologically and literarily sophisticated contemplative genre in the late English Middle Ages. Contemplative literature in this period is characterized by its drive to use the poetic facets of literary language to create for a reader or hearer a simulacrum of the experience of divine contemplation. That is, these contemplative works all manifest a sustained and shaping investment in staging—performing in a gradual manner—a participatory experience of contemplative knowing for their audiences. “Participation” means two things: first, a sensory participation in the written or performed literary works and, second, a contemplative participation in God that arises from the participatory experience in the literary. By serving as sensory proxies for or preparatory enactments of participation in the divine, these texts—some of them notoriously difficult, some notoriously grotesque—offer up new theories of how and why literature may in fact be an ideal proving ground for contemplative ideas. In some, the sonic properties of poetic language dovetail and are cast as the building blocks of understanding God; in others, comedy is deployed as a counterintuitive but enormously powerful tool for staging divine contemplation. In the end, the book also reveals the centrality of the Middle English vernacular itself—on formal, poetic grounds—for the efflorescence of this participatory genre of contemplation, thereby retheorizing the rise of the contemplative vernacular.