2008 Book of Year Citation
Text of Citation Given to Book of Year Award Winner
Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance
in Late Medieval England
The 2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature Book of the Year Award goes to Jessica Brantley for Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England from The University of Chicago Press. This year's recipient gives us a lively interdisciplinary analysis of the vernacular devotional miscellany known by its British Library designation as Additional 37049. Brantley's learned discussion of the singular fifteenth-century Carthusian manuscript considers the book as a site of private devotional reading in the late middle ages, while suggesting the many ways it sheds light on Carthusian manuscript making and communal life, as well as on Christian devotional practice, on reading habits and on performance. Brantley pithily describes the scope of her project:
Even though it is a one-off production without obvious ties to identifiable scribes, artists, or even readers, it illuminates a broad expanse of late medieval literary history. Monastic reading and civic spectacle, individual meditation and communal worship, lyric and dramatic poetry are all contained within the covers of this compendious book of imagetexts. From the universal histories with which it opens to the eremetical admonitions with which it concludes, the manuscript addresses concerns fundamental to reading and imagining both within the cell and without (25).
As her words indicate, Brantley focuses intently on a single, ornate and unique tree to reveal the contours, extent, and colors of the forest around it, while also making clear the pleasures of an attentive scholarly walk down the path of medieval devotional and performative practices. As Brantley argues more than persuasively, Additional 37049 provides a tour of "late medieval habits of thought that link reading with performance" (2).
While undeniably erudite and original, perhaps the most striking quality of Reading in the Wilderness is Brantley's contagious delight in her subject. Whether guiding her readers through the etymological connections between "pageantry" and "page" or revealing the importance of format in the three extant illustrated manuscripts of The Desert of Religion, Brantley's combination of enthusiasm and meticulous research distinguishes her scholarship. Eloquent and attractively innovative, Reading in the Wilderness offers a clear and engaging rationale for the significance of Charterhouse architecture and of fifteenth-century habits of patronage for our understanding of devotional reading. Brantley's holistic engagement with her subject also produces compelling insights into the specific combinations of word and image that make Additional 37049. Making use of traditional scholarship in creative ways, she repeatedly sheds light on "The sights and sounds of Christian liturgy" (167) and on solitary practices of devotional reading.
The intellectual labor of Reading in the Wilderness demonstrates the truth of Simone Weil's claim that "attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." Brantley's focus displays an admirable sense of cultural and historical generosity to a single, rather "roughly made" (3) fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript. Additional 37049, under Brantley's informed consideration, proves a plentiful source of knowledge on the lives of cloistered Carthusians and the lives of the greater communities they served in prayer and devotion. In tending so carefully to this particular manuscript, Brantley displays a generosity of spirit for all readers and scholars interested in the many faceted intersections of Christianity and literature.
The 2008 CCL Book Award has made history by establishing the first father-daughter pair to be recognized in this way. Unbeknownst to this year's committee before the award was granted, Richard E. Brantley received the CCL Book of the Year Award in 1984 for Locke, Wesley and the Method of English Romanticism. Twenty-four years later, the same award goes to his daughter Jessica for a very different book. CCL congratulates both Richard and Jessica Brantley, and thanks them for a rich family tradition of contributing to the scholarship of Christianity and literature.
The 2008 Book Award Committee:
Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, Westmont College
Andrea Frankowitz, Gordon College
William Tate, Covenant College