Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.17


Thomas H. Bestbul, Texts of the Passion. Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Pp. vii + 264, including an appendix and an index. ISBN 0-8122-3376-X.


Reviewed by Andre F. Basson, Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), Rand Afrikaans University (Johannesburg, South Africa), afb@rau1.rau.ac.za.

In the first chapter (pp. 1-25) which also serves as an introduction, the author familiarizes the reader with the methodology and outlines his theoretical assumptions. The subject of the book is the Passion narratives in devotional works written in Latin from about the beginning of the eleventh century to the end of the sixteenth. Bestbul justifies his project by noting that scholarly attention still tends to be prejudiced in favor of Passion narratives written in the vernacular languages, whereas the Latin versions have often been relegated to the inferior status of "background" or "literary context" (p. 3). At least in the late Middle Ages, he argues, the Latin narratives on the Passion were still very popular and widely read. He then goes on to examine these texts from the perspective of (a) audience (which includes Latinity and vernacularity), (b) authorship, and (c) the condition of the texts themselves. As far as the audience is concerned, Bestbul argues for a readership which changed over time and varied from country to country, from region to region, and from city to city. Readers also belonged to different social, economic and political levels of society. Furthermore, Bestbul refuses to see the relationship between the Latin narratives of the Passion and the vernacular versions in terms of a hierarchy. It is a relationship, he believes, that is much rather characterized by "mutual reciprocity and impenetrability" (p. 11). In regard to authorship, Bestbul immediately acknowledges the indeterminacy of the concept in popular devotional literature. It appears to have been common practice to attribute these works to the Latin fathers or to well-respected contemporary authors. This phenomenon, he suggests, should be seen as "a creative act of literary criticism" (p. 15). The rationale behind these false attributions, he believes, was to create the impression of timelessness and transcendency. Although aware of its limitations, he nevertheless believes that a diachronic approach is fully justified in the light of the principal aims of his inquiry. At the same time, he will also attempt to examine the Latin narratives of the Passion within their cultural and historical contexts, an area of investigation that has thus far not received the scholarly attention it deserves. Following Bakhtin and Williams, he rejects the view that the text represents a mere mimesis of reality or only communicates the intention of the author. Texts are shaped by a culture and at the same time actively contribute to the shaping and transformation of that culture.

In chapter 2 (pp. 26-68), Bestbul gives an overview of the major medieval narratives of the Passion, often with a detailed and indispensable analysis of the textual history. By way of introduction, he first discusses the principal sources of these texts: the gospels (including the apocrypha), the liturgy and biblical commentaries. The gospel claim that Christ's suffering and death were in fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible opened the way for the embellishment of the Passion story. Elements of the liturgy for Holy Week that may have exercised a particularly strong influence on the representation of the Passion in medieval devotional literature certainly included the heavy play on the messianic message of the Book of Isaiah and Christ's Good Friday reproaches. The apocrypha, although by no means as important as the Bible and the liturgy, provided details not found in the canonical gospels. From the twelfth century, a compendium (comprising commentaries by Augustine, Jerome, Gregory and Bede on the gospels) and the Glossa ordinaria became widely circulated. Other works from this category include Peter Comestor's Historia scholastica and Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea. Turning to the relatively few surviving examples of devotional literature from the early Middle Ages, Bestbul notes that most of it appears in private prayer-books. These texts do not yet seem to attempt to encourage the reader's participation in Christ's sufferings, nor do they offer a graphic representation of the Passion that would elicit such a response. However, the late eleventh century saw a changed outlook on the importance of Christ's humanity and a new form of spirituality that emphasized private meditation and the value of the emotions as a means of achieving union with God. One result was a flood of devotional texts that not only responded to these changes but also stimulated them. Bestbul presents a very concise survey of the principal writings on the Passion in which the "new anthropology of Christ" (p. 36) came to be reflected. In each treatment of the Passion, he notes the emphasis on the physical details of Christ's sufferings as a means to invite the reader to become actively involved. It also appears to have been an important feature of the major Passion narratives from the twelfth century. Trends that we encounter for the first time in these texts, trends such as a greater comprehensiveness in the accounts of the life of Christ, the canonical hours as an organizing principle for such accounts, and a more extensive use of allegory, reappear in the thirteenth century in the Passion narratives of Bonaventure and in a number of other works from the Franciscan tradition. In their treatment of the Passion, the Franciscans of the thirteenth century also returned to numerous commonplaces from earlier narratives. Their contributions to the genre include not only new details that would later become commonplace, but also much more attention to the Virgin's emotional torment. Bestbul's admirably succinct survey of the development of the Passion narrative in medieval devotional literature also includes texts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He notes inter alia the continuing endeavour to engage the reader to participate in Christ's agony and the almost exhaustive description of his physical torments. He concludes his survey with a section on the Passion narrative in Latin devotional poetry and in vernacular (prose and verse) texts. Regarding the large number of medieval devotional texts on the Passion in the vernacular languages, Bestbul reaches the fairly obvious conclusion that this could be taken as clear evidence of the increasing popularity of these languages, especially in the late Middle Ages. More noteworthy perhaps is his view that this development also indicates a move toward popularizing vernacular devotional literature on the Passion among members of the laity, which in turn strongly suggests a growth in lay piety among what he refers to as "an increasingly literate and leisured middle class" (p. 67). However, notwithstanding the significant increase in readership among the laity (especially women), the readers of devotional texts on the Passion still continued to be for the most part male members of religious orders whose knowledge of Latin still prejudiced them in favour of the non-vernacular versions. Bestbul accordingly rejects the traditional view which held that the increasing popularity of the vernacular writings should be regarded as evidence of the decline of the Latin tradition. Instead, he believes that as far as medieval devotional literature is concerned it would be more consistent with the facts to speak of a single tradition which appealed to diverse audiences without trying to associate either Latin or the vernacular languages consistently with a particular category of class, social standing, or gender.

In chapters 3-5 (pp. 69-164), Bestbul turns his attention to a number of major themes in the medieval Passion narratives. Chapter 3 (pp. 69-110) is devoted to the extremely negative representation of Jews. Indeed, anti-Judaism is a striking feature of medieval literature and seems to know no generic boundaries. He considers the treatment of Jews in these writings to be "crucially important in comprehending the purposes these texts served in medieval culture and society" (p. 69). He identifies an increasing importance attached to the role of the Jews in the Passion narratives from about the middle of the twelfth century, a phenomenon he believes is part of a process which began centuries before with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Rome and subsequent attempts to exculpate the Romans for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus by blaming all of it on the Jews. However, the history of the early Christian communities in Late Antiquity and their attitudes to the Roman state are, I believe, really far too complex to allow for the assumption that the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman state is to be regarded as the prime cause of an incipient anti-Jewish prejudice. Be that as it may, Bestbul shows quite convincingly how, in the twelfth century, the Passion narratives still portrayed the Jews and the gentiles as co-responsible for Christ's suffering. In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, the responsibility of the former is expanded. Bestbul offers a number of possible reasons for this phenomenon: the growing interest in Christ's humanity, resulting in greater attention to his suffering and the identity of his tormentors; the growth in pictorial realism as a means to improve meditation which in turn gave rise to an increasing emphasis on the role of the Jews. But Bestbul is convinced that a more satisfactory answer could be found by also examining what he calls the "social and cultural matrices" (p. 73 in which these texts are located. Devotional narratives too are "products of historical communities, connected to dense networks of relationships and processes" and as such they have the power "to articulate an ideology, to form social perceptions and contribute to social formations" (p. 73). As a result, he provides a brief analysis of the historical, social and cultural context which he believes led to the negative portrayal of Jews in medieval devotional texts. In view of the fact that literary texts both articulate and contribute to the popularization of contemporary ideologies and social attitudes, Bestbul convincingly argues that it is by no means purely fortuitous that the medieval devotional texts which emphasize the role of Jews in the Passion originated in areas of western Europe with large and prosperous Jewish communities. Furthermore, Bestbul notes that the major thirteenth-century devotional narratives in which the role of Jews received special emphasis were in fact written by members of those very same orders -- the Dominicans and Franciscans -- who were entrusted with the task of enforcing anti-Jewish measures. The role of Jews in Christ's suffering are also expanded in Bonaventure's two treatises on the Passion, but, as Bestbul points out, although these details were no doubt added for the purpose of emotional appeal, they contribute at the same time to arousing in the reader very distinctive anti-Jewish feelings. This feature of Bonaventure's narratives can only be correctly understood by examining the "textual environment" of Paris of the middle of the thirteenth century, a city which at that time had become a hotbed of persecuting activities against the Jews. The position of Jewish communities in fourteenth-century France and Germany is equally important for understanding the representation of Jews in Ludolphus of Saxony's Vita Christi. On the one hand, the account of the Passion events also expresses the prevailing Christian suspicions regarding Jewish complicity in the spreading of the disease, and on the other hand, it deliberately underscores the perceived otherness of Jews as a subhuman race and the danger of Jewish contamination.

Gender and the representation of women in medieval Passion narratives is the subject of chapter 4 (pp. 11-144). The role of women, like that of the Jews, constitutes another major theme of these texts. Up to the twelfth century, the Virgin Mary's presence at the foot of the cross was still portrayed without any reference to her emotional state. This is in clear contrast to the medieval Passion narratives which describe her suffering in copious detail, especially in texts written by males. Bestbul suggests a number of reasons for this change. First, he refers to the growing preoccupation with Christ's humanity and the increased interest in the Passion as specific features of twelfth-century spirituality in western Europe. Second, the sudden appearance of the suffering Mary around 1100 also requires, Bestbul quite rightly believes, an investigation into the broader social and historical context. Recent scholarship, he also notes, has cautioned that many of these idealizations of women may hide a strong misogynous intent as well. In fact, both views of women may even co-exist in the same text. Which view is privileged in the course of the reading process may be predicated on factors such as the audience's gender, although it may also happen that the text calls forth conflicting and confusing responses in the mind of a single reader. At the same time, Bestbul prefers to allow for the possibility of multiple perspectives on the presentation of the Virgin among male authors and even within an individual male author. In a number of cases, Bestbul assumes a conscious attempt on the part of the male author "to appropriate female subjectivity to serve male-defined ends having to do with the dissemination and perpetuation of established ideas about gender relationships" (p. 25). But, what evidence do we have in support of such a deliberate misogynous intent on the part of the author? That the images of the Virgin's emotional suffering and the kind of speech attributed to her are male constructs based on the medieval male perception of the female person cannot be denied. Neither can one dispute Bestbul's claim that these texts reinforced traditional hierarchical values and confirmed women in their subordinate roles. Would a male audience have found Mary's words in the "Quis dabit" lament ("Nunc orbor patre, viduor sponso, desolor prole, omnia perdo" ["Now I am deprived of a father, bereft of a bridegroom, forsaken by a son, I lose everything"]) "disquieting" in the sense that it appears to subvert traditional gender roles and family relationships (p. 130)? Can we really be sure that the same audience would have perceived Mary's return to passive behavior as the re-establishment of male dominion and responded to it with relief? Finally, is there any evidence that Mary's temporary lack of restraint would have led a female audience to conclude that the "existing order could be challenged or subverted" (p. 132)? One can hardly fault Bestbul's assertion that these texts "bring to the foreground the asymmetries in political, social, and domestic power relationships between men and women in medieval society" but his statement that they also "express anxieties that such a dynamic might generate in a male audience" and at the same time "contain the seeds of subversion and challenge, and might have been read in those terms especially by female audiences" (p. 133), I believe, is somewhat speculative. Certainly less open to question is his interpretation of the struggle between Mary and her male companions of the body of Christ in the "Quis dabit" lament as a possible reflection of the increasing independence achieved by women in the sphere of property ownership and litigation.

The final chapter (pp. 145-164) examines the portrayal of torture in medieval devotional literature. Vivid and detailed descriptions of the torments suffered by Christ feature prominently in the Latin Passion narratives, especially from the end of the twelfth century. Once again Bestbul turns to the historical context in which these narratives originated for elucidation. He argues convincingly that the "trajectory of increasing bodily violence in the narrative representations of the Passion is paralleled by and related to ... the rise in the thirteenth century of the systematic use of judicial torture, a scheme under which the human body is also subject to excruciating pain" (p. 149). The same period witnessed a significant change in attitudes toward the body. A different conception of the limits of human suffering and of the depiction of such suffering became noticeable. It is no mere coincidence that this literary phenomenon occurred in precisely those regions of western Europe where the new legal system was established. Apart from reflecting current attitudes toward institutionalized violence perpetrated against the human person, these texts established through the image of the persecuted Christ a mindset that would accept the inflicting of state-sanctioned torture on the marginalized members of society (lepers, Jews, heretics) as legitimate and even desirable. On the other hand, through the emphasis on Christ's otherness and patient endurance of pain some of these texts may even have inspired sympathy for those excluded from society, a response that dovetailed well with contemporary Franciscan attempts to reintegrate the marginalized. Another very interesting contextual reading of the representation of the suffering Christ in the medieval Passion narrative proposed by Bestbul posits a possible link between the graphic scenes of extreme violence and the growing popularity of religious movements pursuing an interior life. Finally, he suggests that these passages may also be read as consistent with the growing materialism that became so much part of the Christian culture of western Europe from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.

To conclude, Bestbul's book on the Passion narratives in Latin devotional literature undoubtedly constitutes a major work on the subject. Not only does it provide the reader with an extremely useful survey of the principal texts, but it also offers many new and very valuable insights into the relationship between medieval spirituality and medieval society. It succeeds admirably in being both a literary study and an analysis of some important features of the medieval political, social, and cultural mentalité. A noteworthy merit of this book is its accomplished and balanced application of a wide variety of literary and social theories, an approach that sets the example and points the way for any scholarly investigation into the interference and collusion between text and society.