What does it mean to contemplate? In the Middle Ages, more than merely thinking with intensity, it was a religious practice entailing utter receptiveness to the divine presence. Contemplation is widely considered by scholars today to have been the highest form of devotional prayer, a rarified means of experiencing God practiced only by the most devout of monks, nuns, and mystics.
Yet, in this groundbreaking new book, Eleanor Johnson argues instead for the pervasiveness and accessibility of contemplative works to medieval audiences. By drawing together ostensibly diverse literary genres—devotional prose, allegorical poetry, cycle dramas, and morality plays—Staging Contemplation paints late Middle English contemplative writing as a broad genre that operated collectively and experientially as much as through radical individual disengagement from the world. Johnson further argues that the contemplative genre played a crucial role in the exploration of the English vernacular as a literary and theological language in the fifteenth century, tracing how these works engaged modes of disfluency—from strained syntax and aberrant grammar, to puns, slang, code-switching, and laughter—to explore the limits, norms, and potential of English as a devotional language. Full of virtuoso close readings, this book demonstrates a sustained interest in how poetic language can foster a participatory experience of likeness to God among lay and devotional audiences alike.