When going on a long journey to a distant place, it is helpful to have an experienced guide. Dante had his Virgil; travelers on the Grand Tour had their Baedekers. Religious women of the late middle ages had their own guides for pilgrimage, even though they rarely went on actual journeys. Kathryn Rudy’s book allows modern readers to visit the mental universe of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century religious women by exploring their guidebooks for such spiritual journeys. She serves as an authoritative guide through unexplored texts about pilgrimage and a group of little-studied manuscripts that were created to elicit devotional responses in fifteenth-century audiences of religious women.
Rudy has identified a genre of text that so puzzled many earlier bibliographers that they sometimes neglected even to mention the texts in descriptions of manuscripts in their catalogues. The introduction describes the author’s own journeys to discover these manuscripts by reading between the lines of bibliographic entries. Such guides to spiritual pilgrimage often took their inspiration from travel accounts written by actual pilgrims, especially to Jerusalem and Rome. These accounts were re-organized to suit the meditative needs of the virtual pilgrim; where visitors to Jerusalem often wrote their accounts following the topography of the places they saw, for spiritual pilgrims these accounts would be re-written into narrative order, so that a virtual pilgrim could contemplate the events of Christ’s life in a chronological sequence.
Rudy’s long and deep study of these books and their texts (the project has roots in her 2001 Columbia dissertation) has resulted in a satisfying and stimulating consideration of a key devotional practice performed by women in religious communities in the Netherlands. Rudy’s work highlights late medieval fascination with relics and indulgences and identifies specific women’s religious houses as centers of devotion. She also illuminates how convent buildings could stand in for holy sites, so that women could gain the spiritual merit of pilgrimage without breaking their vows. While the core materials here are texts from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the study explores how religious women used images and other objects in the pursuit of virtual pilgrimage: paintings and prints, Jardins Clos, Repos de Jesus cradles, replicas of Christ’s sepulcher, and many other items from convents can be understood in connection with these practices. The author builds here on much work done in recent years on the history, culture and liturgies of women’s communities. Those earlier bibliographers did not have that scholarship available to understand their manuscripts.
Most of the manuscripts discussed here were not only made for religious women, they also were made by religious women. While Rudy demonstrates that women in many different convents or religious communities performed virtual pilgrimages, she is sensitive to differences among orders to which individual houses belonged. She is also aware of the issues scholars have raised about the genre of devotional literature for women–its prescriptive character, its authorship by men. But her concern is with the women who copied the texts, altered the manuscripts and used them. Among the strengths of this study is that in addition to close reading of the texts, the author treats the books as hand-made objects that were handled–even fondled–by their users. Prints pasted into the manuscripts or editions were hand-painted; miniatures were kissed with enough consistency to abrade the image; marginal notes or rubrics instruct the original readers to respond to the texts, often with movements of their body; some notes indicate specific locations in a convent where a particular section should be read. (Rudy’s interest in measuring readers’ responses to books may be familiar to readers of the Journal of the Historians of Netherlandish Art, where her essay on using densitometers to gauge patterns of wear in books may be found in Volume 2.)
The body of this book is organized into an introduction and four chapters. In addition, there are 11 appendices with descriptions of manuscripts, transcriptions of relevant texts and translation of those texts. While 17 different texts copied by religious women form the core of the study, many more manuscripts are plumbed here, as the author locates the origins of texts, compares sources, and considers other sorts of devotional literature aimed at the religious.
In Chapter One Rudy considers the process by which a travel account by an actual pilgrim is transformed into a guidebook for the spiritual pilgrim. This chapter discusses a variety of objects or images included in manuscripts that attest to late medieval devotion to pilgrimage and relics, including pilgrims’ badges or images of key relics (nails, wounds) reproduced to actual scale Chapter Two, dedicated to “Interiority,” defines characteristics of texts written expressly for virtual pilgrimage. These focus on the Passion and establish stations for devotions–places where specific passages were to be read or prayers were to be said. Feminine pronouns and forms of nouns proliferate through these books as do second person phrases that speak directly to Christ or to the Virgin Chapter Three examines “Exteriority: Somatic Pilgrimage Devotions.” It details how pilgrimage was performed bodily in some convents, with specific locations in the monastic complex imagined as sacred topography. Readers were often instructed to walk around the monastery a set number of paces or otherwise measure the steps or timing of a pilgrim’s journey.
The final chapter, “A Wider View” treats similar devotions in other parts of Europe. (Confusingly, the chapter headings here are mislabeled with the title of the previous chapter.) This chapter traces the rise of the Stations of the Cross for the laity and makes the case that printed versions of these guides for virtual pilgrimage were as accessible to lay people as to the religious, thus the devotional practices performed in the context of the religious sphere spread beyond it.
The appendices give the reader another virtual experience: of these unpublished texts. The descriptions provide key information about the books. Careful transcriptions of the middle Dutch and notations of rubrics or corrections in the originals are accompanied by translations into English. (In addition to the transcriptions, several tables summarize the relationships between texts.) These transcriptions and translations will surely serve other scholars interested in pilgrimage, relics, and indulgences, not to mention scholars seeking to understand the lives of religious women. The translations are very readable and even colloquial; this for example, is from Vanden berch Synay, about a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai: “it is the habit of the Greeks to burn many candles in their churches–and I’m not making this up–because they think that they cannot worthily serve God without plenty of lights” (p. 270).
Passages like this in the spiritual pilgrimage literature construct word pictures that the reader can vividly imagine. Rudy’s book serves as a guide not only to these texts, but also to the manuscripts, their owners, their behaviors and their outlooks. This is a journey worth taking.
Lake Forest College