“Meat, Metaphor and Mysticism”

In what follows, graduate student Andrea Lankin reports on a recent talk given by Professor Vincent Gillespie on “Meat, Metaphor and Mysticism,” a provocative and enigmatic title for a talk that explores the role of the body in medieval culture.

Vincent Gillespie, J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, University of Oxford, has come to GillespieBerkeley this semester as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Medieval Studies. He is teaching two courses in the Medieval Studies department, an undergraduate class (Medieval Studies 150: Dreams of Glory: Poetic Identity and Poetic Theory in the Later Middle Ages) and a graduate class (Medieval Studies 250: Vernacular Theology in Medieval England.  Professor Gillespie’s engaging January 28 talk, “Meat, Metaphor and Mysticism: Cooking the Books in the Doctrine of the Heart,” inaugurated Professor Gillespie’s visit and gave us all an opportunity to welcome him to campus.  The talk was attended by a large audience of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and community members.

Professor Gillespie has published major, field-altering works on medieval vernacular theology, a tradition of religious writing geared towards educating lay spiritual thinkers, especially anchoresses, women who enter solitary cloisters without taking formal vows.  “Meat, Metaphor and Mysticism” examines one such text, The Doctrine of the Heart, a fifteenth-century English translation of a thirteenth-century Latin guide for nuns.

Reading the Doctrine with the help of Henri Lefebre’s theories of space, Professor Gillespie explores the richly imagined world within the anchoritic body. Because anchoresses are required to stay within very small cloisters and to limit their sensory contact with the outer world, literature directed towards them is full of vivid, sensory metaphors of internal space.  These metaphors include images of the anchoress’s body as feminized household or even kitchen.  Within that kitchen, frequently disconcerting food comparisons appear and reappear: in one passage, the anchoress addressed in The Doctrine of the Heart must allegorically roast her raw heart, flavored with the lard of charity, and feed it to Christ.

One broader issue which Professor Gillespie considered is the role of translation as a mode of textual adaptation. The original thirteenth-century text, expecting a Latin-reading audience familiar with a wide range of Biblical and theological literature, quotes and interprets Biblical sources in great depth. The fifteenth-century English version, directed towards an audience with much less formal education, relies on concretized imagery rather than on Biblical exegesis as its major grounding technique. The Doctrine’s metaphors of the anchoress’s heart roasted upon an altar, and, later, Christ’s body roasted upon the spit of the cross, create power and immediacy in the Middle English narrative which the Latin version, in its more rigorous exegetical project, cannot match.

Professor Gillespie introduced his speech with a passionate defense of the relevance of humanities scholarship, quoting John Masefield on the role of the university as “a place … where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honor thought in all its finer ways.” We are grateful to have Professor Gillespie here to search for knowledge with us this spring.