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Staging Contemplation

Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama

Staging Contemplation

Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama

What does it mean to contemplate? In the Middle Ages, more than merely thinking with intensity, it was a religious practice entailing utter receptiveness to the divine presence. Contemplation is widely considered by scholars today to have been the highest form of devotional prayer, a rarified means of experiencing God practiced only by the most devout of monks, nuns, and mystics.
            Yet, in this groundbreaking new book, Eleanor Johnson argues instead for the pervasiveness and accessibility of contemplative works to medieval audiences. By drawing together ostensibly diverse literary genres—devotional prose, allegorical poetry, cycle dramas, and morality plays—Staging Contemplation paints late Middle English contemplative writing as a broad genre that operated collectively and experientially as much as through radical individual disengagement from the world. Johnson further argues that the contemplative genre played a crucial role in the exploration of the English vernacular as a literary and theological language in the fifteenth century, tracing how these works engaged modes of disfluency—from strained syntax and aberrant grammar, to puns, slang, code-switching, and laughter—to explore the limits, norms, and potential of English as a devotional language. Full of virtuoso close readings, this book demonstrates a sustained interest in how poetic language can foster a participatory experience of likeness to God among lay and devotional audiences alike.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018


"Johnson presents precise, dynamic readings of late-medieval religious English writings (prose, poetry, and drama) that she groups as 'contemplative' literature. . . . every page of this book has something cogent and new to show concerning how these works deploy English poetics to widen the horizons of 'contemplative' piety in the world."


"Staging Contemplation is an engaging, bracing read, full of interest for students and scholars not only of medieval drama but of Middle English religious writing generally. The book’s approach to a wide range of canonical works is so original because its author sees these texts, as blind Gloucester says to mad King Lear on the blasted heath, 'feelingly.'"

Modern Philology

“In her fine new book, Eleanor Johnson argues for the essentially performative character of the late Middle English literature of Christian contemplation and the essentially cognitive character of the sensory contemplative experience it seeks to further. Situating its readings carefully in the historical moment when English was most conscious of its status as a vernacular, the book moves easily between deft analyses of the style of contemplative texts and scripts and the effects these seek to produce in, and on, their readers and audiences. Staging Contemplation will energize the study and enlarge the readership of some of the most remarkable works of the English literary tradition.”

Nicholas Watson, Harvard University

“Eleanor Johnson’s bold wager in Staging Contemplation pays off richly: let’s think of contemplation as bodily, social, staged, and above all participatory. . . . A beautifully coherent, fresh, and persuasive argument.”

James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition

"Eleanor Johnson continues to challenge the traditional separation of cultural, social, and textual spheres to shape a new view of the place and practice of contemplative, lively, and flexible late medieval piety…This is an adept and engaging display of close reading...Even those intimate with these well-digested texts will be stimulated by her reinterpretation.”

James G. Clark | Journal of British Studies

"Staging Contemplation should reinvigorate the discussion of fifteenth-century literature by releasing drama from the ghetto to which it is often consigned... Provocative and filled with perceptive readings, it will inspire lively conversations about what ‘contemplation’ really means, and whether vernacular drama continues the trajectory of earlier religious writing or takes it in wholly new directions."

Barbara Newman | The Yearbook of Langland Studies

"Eleanor Johnson’s new study of Middle English contemplative literature (broadly understood) offers a series of exciting case studies in how formal literary effects can create spiritual benefits for readers...Other scholars have addressed the relation of contemplation and performance in late medieval literary cultures, but Johnson brings together a new and notably expansive set of examples through which to understand this relation better."

Jessica Brantley | Studies in the Age of Chaucer

"In this ground-breaking yet accessible book Eleanor Johnson argues convincingly that during the Middle Ages contemplation pervaded allegorical poetry, cycle dramas, and morality plays alongside devotional prose and disengagement from the business of the world. She also shows how this genre enabled and enhanced literature, especially spiritual and theological literature, in its use of the vernacular...Staging Contemplation is a brave study that amply rewards close and frequent reading, opening up the reader’s mind not only to fresh possibilities in contemplation but also to the way we may understand and appreciate the use of English in the century that followed the 1370’s."

Luke Penkett | Comitatus

Table of Contents

Middle English Contemplation: Forming Vernacular Participation

Part I: Participating in Time and Eternity

Chapter 1
Feeling Time, Will, and Words: Vernacular Devotion in The Cloud of Unknowing

Chapter 2
Julian of Norwich and the Comfort of Eternity

Part II: “Kyndely” Participation

Chapter 3
Piers Plowman and Social Likeness: How to Know God “Kyndely”

Chapter 4
There’s Something about Mary: Staging the Divine in “Kyndely” Language, Time, and the Social World

Part III: Vernacular Comedy and Collective Participation

Chapter 5
Likeness and Collectivity in the Play of Wisdom

Chapter 6
Laughing Our Way toward God; or, Dramatic Comedy and Vernacular Contemplation

Staging God in the Vernacular


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