Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Elisabeth C. Davis: "Mother Juana de la Cruz"

Elisabeth C. Davis

Book Review

Mother Juana de la Cruz, Visionary Sermons (1481-1534). Edited by Jessica A. Boon and Ronald E. Surtz. Translated by Ronald E. Surtz and Nora Weinerth. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, Vol. 47, ITER Academic Press & Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Toronto, Canada & Tempe, Arizona, 2016), 243 pp. ISBN: 9780866985499

1> In the past thirty or so years, the historiography on women’s religiosity in the medieval and early modern periods has come into its own. Beginning with Caroline Walker Bynum’s landmark texts on women, their bodies, and religion, historians have teased out the various ways religious women interpreted their beliefs and acted within Catholic society. These texts not only include intriguing historical theses by the monoliths of history, including Natalie Davis and Barbara Diefendorf, but also exquisite primary source collections. It is into the latter group that Jessica Boon’s and Ronald E. Surtz’s Mother Juana de la Cruz, 1481-1534, Visionary Sermons enters.

2> I will not deny that when I pick up a collection of primary sources, I long to read to the sources first, rather than the introduction. While I value the time it has taken the editors to compile a collection, I want the cake, as it were, rather than just the icing. Yet, Jessica Boon’s introduction to de la Cruz’s sermons justifies the wait. Her introduction is beautifully written and diligently researched by someone who obviously has a passion for the topic.

3> Part of my deep admiration for this collection comes from the Boon’s emphasis on expanding the timeline of medieval visionary literature. While Boon admirably describes the literature of “Spanish Renaissance,” she explicitly writes that her and Surtz’s goal is to “expand the canon of medieval vision literature…to include these Renaissance Castillian visionary sermons” (8). This elongated timeline of visionary literature challenges the more traditional timelines in the historiography of medieval and Renaissance Europe that have strict cut off dates, with the Renaissance beginning in 1450. Boon’s and Surtz’s desire to place de la Cruz’s work in conversation with medieval literature forces scholars to look beyond the arbitrary dates that divide the different periods in history, literature, and religion to the longer trends that unite them.

4> Boon and Surtz also challenge historians to focus on larger geographical connections within these two periods. Spanish history tends to be isolated within the larger fields of medieval and early modern studies. Students of history, literature, and religion are more likely to take a general course on the medieval or early modern periods that focuses on France, Italy, and England, rather than including Spain within these narratives. By placing de la Cruzs’s work within the interlocking circles of the Spanish Renaissance and medieval and Renaissance literature, the editors of this collection call upon professional scholars to widen their horizons to include Spain within a broader European mindset, rather than leaving it to its own devices.

5> Historiographical implications aside, one of the most profound aspects of Boon’s introduction is her analysis of the sermons themselves. Boon’s introduction rightly situates de la Cruz’s sermons as straddling Bernard McGinnis’s Foundations of Mysticism and Bynum’s classic works. By using McGinnis to analyze de la Cruz, Boon reminders the reader of how the public would have responded to the sermons. As she notes, these sermons would have been spoken aloud, intended for a larger audience rather than only the literate. Indeed, she suggests that de la Cruz meant her sermons to inspire visionary or mystic experiences within each of her audience members. Despite this stimulating suggestion, Boon does not continue with her line of thought, placing it at the end of her introduction, rather than centering her introduction on it. She leaves her readers wondering how de la Cruz intended the performance of the sermons and whether the performance aspect of the visionary sermons was a part of a larger trend in Renaissance Spain.

6> The meat of Boon’s introduction emphasizes what we might call the gender bending of de la Cruz’s sermons. Like Bynum’s older works, Boon analyzes how de la Cruz played with the gender binary, drawing from both feminine and masculine imagery in her attempts not only to connect her readers with the divine but also to understand it herself. Given that it has been nearly thirty years since Bynum first proposed these ideas, it is rather unsurprising for a scholar to illustrate medieval mystics defying traditional gender pairings. Boon’s analysis may be uninspiring but it is well done, with Boon fleshing out specific details within her larger arguments. Moreover, given her desire to bring de la Cruz into a medieval visionary dialogue, it is justifiable that she would draw upon the Bynum for inspiration.

7> Apart from Boon’s thoughtful introduction, I was struck by the beauty and sophistication of Ronald E. Surtz’s and Nora Weinerth’s translation work. It is difficult to do a basic translation, let alone one in a historical dialect. Yet Surtz and Weinerth have managed to maintain the lyrical, poetic quality of de la Cruz’s sermons. When putting these sermons in the context of Boon’s emphasis on their performance quality, the reader gains a sense of why they appealed to early modern audiences. Not only is Surtz’s and Weinerth’s translation remarkable, but the annotations within the sermons are commendable. These comments, which provide Biblical verses and explain imagery, are particular time savers for students, or even professionals, studying the sermons within a limited amount of time.

8> Despite my continuing praise for this collection, I would have liked more on the structure of the collection, particularly why the editors organized the sermons the way they did. Boon and Surtz outline each individual sermon in its introduction, giving readers, an overview of the upcoming text. Yet, they do not explain the collected order of the sermons themselves. Does this order reflect the original publication? Is it different? If so, why? There is always some symbolism behind the structure of a collected edition. In this case, that symbolism is a secret that the editors hold close.

9> In all, Mother Juana de la Cruz, 1481-1534, Visionary Sermons is an excellent addition to the library of any scholar of the medieval or early modern historian period. It is also a valuable edition for those who wish to teach an introductory course on these two periods; women in the pre-modern world; or medieval/early modern Christianity. Like de la Cruz’s work, it is has enough layers of meanings to appeal not only to upper division undergraduates but also to professional scholars.

Elisabeth C. Davis is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University at Buffalo. Her work focuses on the role of the nuns in society. Her research ranges from Merovingian queen saints in medieval France, to nuns in the seventeenth century Europe, to the Ursulines in colonial Quebec. She is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes nuns in nineteenth century America.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature and Culture,
Volume Ten (2017): Artefacts 

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