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Staging Contemplation

Participatory Theology in Middle English Prose, Verse, and Drama

Eleanor Johnson

Staging Contemplation

Eleanor Johnson

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018
Paper $30.00 ISBN: 9780226572178 Published August 2018
Cloth $90.00 ISBN: 9780226572031 Published August 2018
E-book $10.00 to $30.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226572208 Published August 2018
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.
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

Review Quotes
"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
Modern Philology
"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.'"
Nicholas Watson, Harvard University
“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.”
James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition
“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.”
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