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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  November 2009

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Subject:

Fwd: TMR 09.11.15 Chaganti, The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary (Malo)

From:

Christopher Crockett <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 16 Nov 2009 09:18:42 -0500

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text/plain

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

------ Original Message ------
Received: Mon, 16 Nov 2009 02:52:22 AM EST
From: The Medieval Review <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: TMR 09.11.15 Chaganti, The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary (Malo)

Chaganti, Seeta. <i>The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary:
Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance</i>. Palgrave: New York, 2008. Pp. 245.
$90.00. ISBN: 0-230-60466-8.

   Reviewed by Robyn Malo
        Purdue University
        [log in to unmask]

In <i>The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement,
Inscription, Performance</i>, Seeta Chaganti offers an extended study--indeed,
the only literary study--of how reliquaries and shrines formed the basis for
what she calls the "poetics of enshrinement." Such a poetics emerges,
according to Chaganti, from how reliquaries depend on both inscription
(literally, for Chaganti, writing) and
performance (liturgical or otherwise).  Her work is crucial to thinking about
how reliquaries and material culture in general shape poetic practice; and
given the ubiquity of relics in late medieval religious culture and practice,
such a study is long overdue.

In the Introduction, Chaganti outlines the link between reliquaries,
inscription, and performance, and in Chapter One, Chaganti goes on to argue
that considering reliquaries as both performance and also inscriptional
objects reveals an "aesthetics of enclosure" (27).  This aesthetic serves as
the foundation for many of the readings that follow--particularly of <i>Saint
Erkenwald</i> (Chapter Two) and
Chaucer's <i>Pardoner's Tale</i> (Chapter Five).  Chaganti's argument rests on
the premise that reliquaries, as both inscriptional and performative, provide
a material basis for understanding poetic form, which, for Chaganti, is
similarly inscriptional, performative, and enclosing.  Her point is
interesting, as is her discussion about how such objects--like metaphors--call
our attention to the relationship between the contained and containing, the
interior and exterior. Chaganti's book thus engages with and offers an
important extension of Cynthia Hahn's observation that reliquaries engage
metaphorically with the objects they contain.

This study is thus concerned with how reliquaries, like metaphor (and indeed,
poetry in general), figure forth what Chaganti calls the "absent presence"
(51).  Chapters Two and Three, on the alliterative <i>Erkenwald</i> and the
N-Town <i>Assumption</i>, respectively, both explore how the poetics of
enshrinement creates the absent presence of
Erkenwald himself and of the Virgin Mary.  In Chapter Three, which this reader
found to be the most convincing and pleasing chapter of the book, Chaganti
shows how the play itself serves as a reliquary--and as such, how it figures
forth Mary's presence.  For Chaganti, the play functions like a reliquary, in
that it (figuratively) enshrines
Mary's body and, like a reliquary or image, creates meaning even in the
absence of the relic or artifact.  As she puts it, the play "engages the
poetics of enshrinement by creating a dialectical interaction between the
play's spectacular elements and the inscriptional aspects of its poetry" (77).
 In Chapter Four, Chaganti explores how the process of visualization subtends
her idea of the absent presence.  She argues that <i>Pearl</i>'s performative
and
inscriptional aspects demonstrate not only the similarities between poetry and
devotional objects, but also that inscriptionality can fold "in upon itself to
produce a kind of vision that unfolds outward from itself" (122).

Chaganti's reading of the <i>Pardoner's Tale</i> in Chapter Five turns on the
intersection between the material object, poetic language, and vision, which
featured centrally in Chapter Four.  Chaganti claims that the Pardoner's
performance is inscriptional, and that the objects he carries provide a clue
for understanding how the poetics of
enshrinement function in the Tale.  Though Chaganti does not discuss these
objects in detail, this chapter makes three important contributions to
scholarship on the Pardoner.  First, she begins by asking how the poetics of
enshrinement work when the "inscriptional element [is] seemingly occluded"
(132).  This question draws our attention to what the Pardoner hides about his
occupation as well as about his sexuality--and to what such occlusion can tell
us about how
metaphor operates.  This observation sets up the second contribution of this
chapter, Chaganti's discussion of the Old Man in the Pardoner's Tale as
enclosing and enclosed, and hence as a figure for metaphor itself.  Finally,
Chaganti reads the Host's insult as "embody[ing] the transformative and
transitional act required in figurative expression" (147).  In other words,
when the Host wishes
the Pardoner's balls were enshrined in "an hogges toord," he refers indirectly
to the bodily digestive process that, like metaphor, turns one thing into
something else.  This reading offers a convincing take on the infamous
exchange between the Pardoner and Harry Bailly.  The chapter in fact provides
a way to conceive of the stakes of this book: how the poetics of enshrinement
provides a model for understanding the act of poetic creation as a moment of
mental enshrinement.

The Conclusion features close readings of two lyric poems, the inset lyric in
the <i>Book of the Duchess</i> (164-66), and a lyric from Cambridge Magdalene
College MS Pepys 1236 (158-62).  The claim she makes based on these poems is,
as she allows, an "encompassing" one: that the poetics of enshrinement
"constructs lyric voice itself in both medieval and postmedieval contexts"
(163).  While Chaganti's readings of these poems are often compelling, it is
difficult to see
how two lyrics can stand in as representative examples for an entire (and, as
Chaganti acknowledges, widespread and complex) genre.  The book ends with a
consideration of the relevance of an "historicized" poetics of enshrinement to
contemporary lyric poetry (167-69).

Given the wide-ranging nature of this topic, it would be impossible to cover
every angle in a single monograph--and Chaganti rightly calls our attention to
the centrality of relics in late medieval English culture and literature and
to what reliquaries have in common with poetry.  Chaganti's contribution to
the field is all the more important, for in contrast to the many well-known
studies of continental relics by scholars such as Peter Brown, Caroline
Walker
Bynum, and Patrick Geary, there are very few (and rarely cited) book-length
studies of the medieval English cult of relics, none of which focuses on
literature and one of which remains unpublished (Ben Nilson [1998], David
Rollason [1989], Islwyn Geoffrey Thomas [1974], J. Charles Wall [1905]). 
There are thus significant gaps in the
bibliography, for of these four studies, Chaganti cites only one, Nilson's
<i>Cathedral Shrines</i>.  So, too, in recent years, many scholars have been
working on English shrine architecture and devotional contexts--John Blair,
Sarah Blick, John Crook, and David A. Stocker, for example, none of whose work
on specific medieval English shrines and reliquaries is cited in <i>The
Medieval Poetics of the
Reliquary</i>.  This material would have provided a useful (and more
contextually relevant) supplement to the better-known studies (often of
earlier or continental material) Chaganti references.

All that said, there is no question that, for far too long, literary scholars
in particular have passed over reliquaries, which, as Chaganti suggests, have
a good deal in common with poetic composition. Indeed, the major and crucial
intervention of this book is to remind the reader that reliquaries functioned
poetically.  Chaganti's study
is at its best in its use of theory to explore poetic form and in some of its
deft and insightful close readings and case studies, particularly in Chapter
Three on the N-Town <i>Assumption</i> and Chapter Five on Chaucer's
<i>Pardoner's Tale</i>.  The book offers a model for imagining what the
relationship between material and
literary culture might have been.  Such a model allows us to imagine
reliquaries as part of a useable past--as material objects that emerge from
poetics, perhaps, as much as the other way around.  Given that <i>The Medieval
Poetics of the Reliquary</i> is ultimately about poetic language and
representation--about the reliquary of the mind, as Chaganti entitles Chapter
Five--such a figurative payoff only makes
sense.

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