Erotic Discourse and Early English Religious Writing. Farina, Lara. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 179 pp. ISBN 978-0-312-29500-4.

REVIEWED BY: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

In one of his essays, Montaigne indicated that he read the books in his library only during the day and reserved the nights for sleeping, since, as Alberto Manguel writes, “he believed that the body suffered enough during the day for the sake of the reading mind.”[1] Regardless of the “many pleasant qualities” of books, Montaigne wrote that there was

no good without effort; it is not a plain and pure pleasure, not more so than others; it has its discomforts, and they are onerous; the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, and grows weary and sad.[2]

It can be argued that the entire point of Lara Farina’s book is to demonstrate the exact opposite of Montaigne’s belief here—that, conversely, in the act of reading, the body is not at all inactive and sad, but is rather affectively engaged and pleasurably (even, erotically) activated, and therefore reading is always charged with certain psychosomatic effects and there is no such thing as “passive spectatorship” or “pure intellection” (pp. 1, 2). Further, reading is an act always situated in and somehow connected to the affective, moral, social, and other economies of the world, and therefore is never really solitary. Concentrating on four works of devotional literature from the tenth through thirteenth centuries—the Old English Christ I, a sequence of Advent hymns; Ancrene Wisse, a conduct manual for anchoresses; the “Wooing Group,” a collection of prose prayers; and Thomas of Hale’s poem the Love Ron—Farina illuminates, through an examination of texts not typically attended to in either medieval or contemporary histories of sexuality, “the early, vernacular contexts for erotic, affective devotion in England” (p. 3). More ambitiously, Farina sets for herself the task of rethinking the history and ethics of pleasure, especially with regard to reading—as event and mode of eventfulness—and to the ways in which the erotic “is embedded in other social relations, such as those we might recognize as educational, architectural, political, or economic” (p. 3).

Given how much scholarship on early medieval English literature presupposes the non-presence of fully developed forms of interior subjectivity (such as those we recognize as having been developed, say, along with the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, or earlier, in the work of authors like Shakespeare), and also given the mainly general assent, following Hugh Magennis’s 1995 essay “No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry,” that early English culture was mainly discomforted by sexual themes, Farina’s book, along with the work of only a handful of other scholars, makes an important contribution to the study of sexuality in early English literature. But even more importantly, Farina’s book attends to a subject woefully neglected in studies of early English religious writing: the history of affective desires that are not easily captured within the monolithic terms of male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, straight or queer. And this means Farina’s book also represents a significant historicized intervention into current discourses (prominent, especially, in queer studies) on affect and feeling that are attempting to delineate the ways in which, in Erin Manning’s words, “the senses—touch in particular, but always in implicit interaction with other senses—foreground a processural body.”[3] Farina is also interested in the ways in which the texts she analyzes “are argumentatively engaged with particular social spaces of reading (private or communal, internalized or exposed, Latinate or vernacular),” and she hopes to demonstrate “the inseparability of erotic fantasy from the body, and from the body as it is produced by spatial negotiation in particular” (p. 14). In this sense, Farina’s book is also an invaluable contribution to what might be called the social history of the communal, spatialized erotic.

In Chapter 1, “Before Affection: Christ I and the Social Erotic,” Farina explores the relations between monasticism, asceticism, and the erotics of devotional reading, and within an historical milieu—the Anglo-Saxon monastery—that is traditionally believed to exist “before” the rise of affective theology (typically located in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Continental monastic theology). Christ I, a tenth-century sequence of hymns from the Exeter Book, is a particularly provocative choice for analysis since it does not include explicit (or even implicit) representations of sexuality (as do the Anglo-Saxon Riddles, also included in the Exeter Book), but Farina reminds us that “erotic aspects of literary texts are not reducible to representation alone” and “the use of literary texts to perpetuate erotic relations in the world of the reader, including the relation between reader and text—broadens the scope of what we may consider erotic in Old English literature.” And if we believe that eroticism is “invisible” in Anglo-Saxon texts, that is partly a failure of our ability “to discern the right conditions for erotic reading, conditions that are both material and subjective,” yet which do not necessarily participate in a psycho-cultural world in which the interiority and privacy in which we assume the erotic unfolds, “is taken as natural or given” (pp. 17, 19). Although Christ I, likely intended for male readers (and also likely read aloud) definitely plays “with enclosures and privileged grounds for sexualized representations”—in particular, with relation to the Incarnation of Christ within Mary’s partially disclosed body—the “spatialization” of the body and its eroticism is developed within an Anglo-Saxon context of communal reading, and therefore, the erotic (if even “restrained”) pleasures that the text offers is “part of the communal drama of reading a liturgically related text” (p. 32).

In Chapter 2, “Dirty Words: Ancrene Wisse and the Sexual Interior,” Farina examines the thirteenth-century “letter of instruction” to three female anchorites, Ancrene Wisse, written by a male cleric, in order to trace the moments of “conflict, contradiction, and paradox” in the text, which she believes “center on perceived relations between the privacy of anchoritic space and the eroticization of anchoritic reading” (p. 37). Anchoritism, although obviously sanctioned by the Church, gave rise to all sorts of anxieties about the heterodox thought and devotional freedoms that might occur in the private cell of the anchorite unsupervised by the larger monastic community, and thus the need for manuals of instruction specifically aimed at the lone anchor. But where this gets really interesting is in how these manuals “sought to condition the anchor’s inner disposition as much as his/her outer actions,” with special emphasis on “the devotional use of spatial confinement,” and ultimately, “[b]ody, cell, and even the world beyond the cell figure significantly in the anchoritic imagination” (pp. 39, 40). Although the Wisse is chiefly concerned with the rigorous defense of chastity—both physical and spiritual—Farina illustrates how the rhetoric of the text relies upon various appeals to the senses (e.g., silence as a type of pleasant sweetness taken into the body) that “focus on the body’s liminal spaces, its cavities as zones of sensual pleasures and commerce with the sensual world,” and therefore the “inner domain of the anchor’s body/cell/soul generates its own pleasures, and these are apparently not to be repelled or resisted” (p. 47). Given that the Wisse was also written at a time when silent reading was spreading rapidly and giving rise to concerns about morally problematic reading practices, it would be expected that the text “would struggle to cope with the ramifications of ‘emboldened’ private interpretation,” and Farina shows that it does: the Wisse continually associates the anchor’s cell with her sexualized, feminized body which, like the cell itself, is seen as a site for the “secret pleasures of a transgressive sexuality” (p. 57). And because the Wisse must continually (and somewhat schizophrenically) speak in sensual detail of certain transgressive sexual “improprieties”, it is thus “traversed by the profound fear that it may itself, quite unintentionally, become accomplice to a practice of dangerously erotic reading” (p. 60). And for every move it makes to cleanse itself of these improprieties, the text perhaps inscribes them ever more indelibly in the reader’s mind and body.

Farina turns to mystical desire and erotic economy in Chapter 3, which concentrates upon the collection of prose prayers known as the “Wooing Group,” contained in the same manuscript as Ancrene Wisse and also intended for female anchorites. These prayers, which offer some of the most direct expressions of erotic desire in Middle English literature, “perform” (gendered) mystical visions of the soul’s marriage and union with Christ (the Sponsa Christi motif), and Farina is particularly interested in the prayers’ “conceptual reliance on systems of exchange”—how they stage an “erotic commerce” with their representations of gifts and purchases “knit[ting] together anchoritism’s metaphors with its materiality” (p. 66). The “Wooing Group” gives its anchoritic readers “a dramatization of themselves as trading subjects, engaged in processes of barter, acquisition, and profit,” and these processes are “inseparable from the texts’ performance of the anchoress-reader’s ‘marriage’ to Christ and the erotic tropes connected with it” (pp. 79, 86). As the connections between economies of exchange and devotional eroticism in these prayers have not been fully analyzed before, this is a valuable discussion, especially for considering the multi-generic reach of English devotional literature in the thirteenth century. In Chapter 4, “The ‘Popularization’ of the Affective?: Friar Thomas of Hales and His Audience,” Farina returns to texts written at the scene of the monastery but for a very different audience than the male monks likely intended for the Advent hymns of Christ I. The thirteenth-century writings of Franciscan friar Thomas were “addressed to a female, aristocratic, possibly Latinate audience of nuns, including, in the audience for his Latin Vita of Mary, women who could identify with the secular experience of ‘widows and wives,” and . . . probably were married at one time in their lives” (p. 13). Through a close reading of Thomas’s one poem in English, the Love Ron (where “ron” can mean “spell,” “recitation,” or “text”), an imaginative treatment of the Sponsa Christi theme, Farina works to overturn the common assumption that this poem was crafted, not as a devotional text for professional religious, but more as a secular-like song designed to appeal to the lay public to which the Franciscans ministered. But in Farina’s view, the Love Ron does not quite fit within the Franciscan program of popularizing affective piety because it “relies heavily on imagery and metaphors . . . that stand up to fairly elaborate decoding,” and further, it does not dwell on the Passion as so many other popular devotional texts did, but stresses instead the union with God which was more the concern of mystic literature written for trained religious (pp. 98-9). And because the poem also uses architectural metaphors as stand-ins for the chaste body, desire is once again, as with all of the texts studied here by Farina, spatially emplotted within an act of reading that is itself topographically mapped out in the poem, and “the interdependence of intellection and emotion, of ‘mind’ and ‘heart,’ and body . . . is crucial to understanding the full range of reference embedded in the Love Ron’s rhetoric” (p. 103). Farina also briefly treats Thomas’s Vita Sancta Marie in order to further strengthen her case that the Love Ron was written for a trained female religious audience and there is some evidence to suggest that it was written for a group of Benedictine nuns living at a Fontevraultine priory. Ultimately, in Farina’s mind, Thomas’s two works, taken together, suggest to us “a social space where Latinate and secular culture intermingle” and also “a ‘courtly’ yet nonsecular area of meditative practice, where devotion is rehearsed in the vernacular but is shaped by, and continuous with, Latinate monastic commentary” (pp. 110, 111).

Farina’s book makes, of course, an invaluable contribution to the study of early medieval sexuality—especially in Anglo-Saxon England, where few scholars dare to tread these waters—but in my mind the real value of Farina’s work here is in how she excavates the structures of what might be called the spatialized embodiments of affective reading practices, in order to show how, in the intersections of “real” and “imagined” spaces, the body is always, even when reading, somehow in motion, and even when sad (participating, erotically, in Christ’s passion, for instance), is never inactive or still.


1. Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 15.

2. Essais de Montaigne, ed. Amaury Duval (Paris: Chassériau, 1820); quoted in Manguel, The Library at Night, p. 15.

3. Erin Manning, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. xiii.