I find this an extremely difficult book to review fairly. McLaren has an enormous and infectious enthusiasm for her texts. And her work is important; she takes the discussion of a widespread form of historical writing well beyond the point at which it was left by a fine scholar, C. L. Kingsford.
The two works under review are on broadly the same subject - writing by women in later medieval England - but could not be more different and are therefore difficult to compare directly. One author is an historian, the other a literary scholar.
As P. G. Maxwell-Stuart notes in his introduction to these selections, the Malleus Maleficarum (c.1486) has elicited periodic interest throughout the last hundred years, perhaps more than it ever did in the two centuries or so of witch persecution after its first publication (p. 36).
When one is sent such an item to review one inevitably speculates why. Is one a known purveyor of hot air? Or just vulgar and unshockable?(1) Is one being set up for Max Reger’s response to a music critic? 'Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe ihre Kritik vor mir.
Many years ago this reviewer attended a meeting of the Cambridge interdisciplinary medievalists’ group at which Terry Jones, who had recently published his debunking book on Chaucer’s knight, bravely crossed swords with Derek Brewer, then the foremost Chaucerian scholar, in front of an audience which included numbers of the university’s teachers of medieval English literature.
Medieval people traced the multiplicity of languages back to the story in Genesis of the tower of Babel, built by humans. God punished their arrogance by scattering them to the four winds so that each could not understand the language of his neighbour. From the sons of Noah were descended 72 peoples with 72 languages.
Passing under a tessellated ply-wood portcullis to enter ‘Revel Grove’ and attend the Maryland Renaissance Festival, held in the Baltimore suburb of Crownsville, crowds of eager 21st–century revelers are greeted by none other than a faux Henry VIII, six feet plus in height, twenty stone, fists at his hips, legs akimbo in colossus fashion, and dressed in as authentic Holbein garb as a theater co
It is one of the worst vices of medievalists that we are too reluctant to take the authors of our major sources at their word. We are keen to classify (or dismiss) repeated ideas or phrases as tropes, topoi or commonplaces merely because they are frequently repeated.
The ‘great divide’ between the medieval and the early modern is nowhere more apparent than in ‘the history of the book’ – a field of study in which it has been particularly damaging to our understanding of the processes by which books and other texts were manufactured and distributed in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Many books on topics related to the medieval Bible have appeared in recent years, usually collections of essays by different authors, and a lot of them have been disappointing in their lack of overall focus and variable scholarly quality. The volume under review in the Manchester Medieval Studies series is a single-author work with a clear aim, and is rigorously scholarly throughout.