Skip to main content

Reading in the Wilderness

Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England

Just as twenty-first-century technologies like blogs and wikis have transformed the once private act of reading into a public enterprise, devotional reading experiences in the Middle Ages were dependent upon an oscillation between the solitary and the communal. In Reading in the Wilderness, Jessica Brantley uses tools from both literary criticism and art history to illuminate Additional MS 37049, an illustrated Carthusian miscellany housed in the British Library. This revealing artifact, Brantley argues, closes the gap between group spectatorship and private study in late medieval England.

Drawing on the work of W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Camille, and others working at the image-text crossroads, Reading in the Wilderness addresses the manuscript’s texts and illustrations to examine connections between reading and performance within the solitary monk’s cell and also outside. Brantley reimagines the medieval codex as a site where the meanings of images and words are performed, both publicly and privately, in the act of reading.

344 pages | 8 color plates, 108 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Art: British Art

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature

Medieval Studies


“Jessica Brantley’s Reading in the Wilderness is an impressive, thorough, and thoughtful analysis of one of the most important of all fifteenth-century English manuscripts.  In addition to providing a much-needed discussion of a densely illustrated compendium, the book provides a good general discussion of Carthusian patronage of the arts and attitudes towards the visual arts, which has long represented a lacuna in the literature.”

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Harvard University

“At long last—an in-depth study of the Carthusian Miscellany! Instead of mining the surface of this fascinating manuscript for the occasional visual nugget to illustrate late medieval devotional practices, Jessica Brantley digs deep to illuminate the manuscript itself, significantly extending previous work by art historians, Middle English editors, and students of fifteenth-century religion by focusing on its performative nature and highlighting its theatricality.”

Richard K. Emmerson, Florida State University

“Jessica Brantley persuasively describes a prevalent medieval practice of performative private reading. Moving beyond previous theories of reception, she analyzes manuscript illustrations as action-seeking cues to the devout or meditative reader. Finding apparently solitary reading experience ’quickened’ at every point by its relation to public and communal experience, she stages a vigorous challenge to simplified notions of individuality and community in the later middle ages.”

Paul Strohm, Columbia University

"[The author] puts forth a convincing case for the presence of theater in monastic reading, thus challenging the boundaries between public performance and private reading . . . and between verbal literature and visual image-texts, as visible forms of communication within the late medieval Carthusian charterhouse."

Kevin Teo | Comitatus

"A work of high scholarship that brings to bear a novel form of analysis to a medieval monastic illuminated text."

Herman A. Peterson | Catholic Library World

“In the context of the study of this odd and oddly compelling manuscript Brantley’s reading is interesting and provocative.”

Martha W. Driver | Renaissance Quarterly

"Brantley’s loving and learned attention, lavished on this ’one small and roughly made book,’ exemplifies the kind of careful, empathetic reading of a single medieval artifact that can open up an entire horizon of cultural understanding. I recommend it highly."

Ann W. Astell | Clio

"Ranging widely from genre to metaphor and motif, from the layout of stanzas and rhyme braces to the structure of allegorical trees, [the author’s] expertise as a literary critic is evident at every point. She is equally astute with images."

Ann Eljenholm Nichols | Medieval Institute Publications

"This is an impressive book that should be required reading for those working on late-medieval religious culture, Middle English devotional writing, early English drama and performance studies, and the relationship between images and texts. . . . Finally, Reading in the Wilderness is a beautiful book. With eight full color plates and over a hundred black and white images of the manuscript and analogues, it offers the reader visual as well as textual pleasure."

Shannon Gayk | Medieval Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 
List of Abbreviations 

1. Introduction: The Performance of Reading

2. “Silence Visible”: Carthusian Devotional Reading and Meditative Practice 
    Backgrounds: The Carthusian Order 
    Carthusians and Books 
    Carthusians and Art 

3. The Shapes of Eremitic Reading in the Desert of Religion 
    The Desert of Religion as Imagetext 
    “Als Wildernes Is Wroght þis Boke”: Formats of Monastic Books 
    Reading Spiritual Community in the Wilderness 

4. Lyric Imaginings and Painted Prayers 
    The Eremitic Lyric and Richard Rolle 
    Imagining the Carthusian Reader 

5. Liturgical Pageantry in Private Spaces 
    Reading the Liturgy: Two Models 
    Performing the Holy Name 
    Performing the Canonical Hours 
    Performing the Seven Sacraments 

6. Envisioning Dialogue in Performance 
    “In Maner of a Dyaloge It Wente” 
    Allegorical Dialogues: The Pylgremage of the Sowle 
    Mystical Dialogues: The Tretyse of þe Seven Poyntes of Trewe Love and Everlastynge Wisdame 

7. Dramatizing the Cell: Theatrical Performances in Monastic Reading 
    Dramatic Texts, Lyric Voices, and Private Readers 
    Theatrical Reading in Additional 3749 
    Monastic Closet Drama 

8. Conclusion: Reading Performances 
Appendix: Contents of British Library MS Additional 3749 


Conference on Christianity and Literature/MLA: CCL Book-of-the-Year Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press