Middle English Mouths

Katie L. Walter’s monograph Middle English Mouths presents an argument for the materiality of spiritual learning, development, and experience centred on the mouth in the later Middle Ages. Walter investigates a varied and innovative combination of literary sources well-known to medievalists, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, as well as medical texts, carefully analysing their translations and adaptations into Middle English for a vernacular, lay audience. By studying the status of the mouth, Walter insists upon the complex and ongoing dialogue with Aristotelian ideas of the tripartite soul (vegetable, sensible, and rational) present in late medieval medical and literary texts.

The introductory chapter outlines this tension between the importance of the mouth, taste and digestive system against the hierarchy of the senses in the tripartite soul. The second chapter moves on to reading this disruption inherent in the mouth in posture, connecting ideas of a spiritual fall with the inclination toward earth while vomiting, with sin manifested in ‘the literal collapse of the distinction between the mouth and anus and their functions’ (54). Walter argues that the dreamer’s question in Piers Plowman to Ymaginatif (Imagination), of why Adam and Eve cover their genitals instead of their mouths, can be answered contextually through the downward thrust of the mouth through digestion (75). This argument is compelling and persuasive: the idea that knowledge as food itself, if eating is understood as both a literal and allegorical process and so is inherently connected to the lower body, seems unique to medievalist criticism. This section might have been expanded with reference to Augustine’s idea of the will being separated from sexuality by the Fall, to which the appetite for food-knowledge is connected through the genitals and lower body.[1]

The third chapter discusses the mouth as the site of childhood transitions— from temporary to permanent teeth, learning to speak— and of the anxieties surrounding theology when made accessible to lay understanding, and equally clergial abuse of such knowledge. This chapter is one of the most engaged with material culture, with the physical attributes of the mouth itself being translated/transmuted into associated moral qualities, such as the solidity of permanent teeth as a stage of maturity where the child is able to speak rationally (85, 87). The chapter continues with a discussion of the troubling mastication of the Eucharist, the breaking of the sacred body in the mouth, and the resulting links to the late fourteenth-century controversies of Lollardy and Wycliffism, itself a related struggle in medieval culture to that of the mouth— a meaning sought for the Eucharist conjoining and between literalism and allegory (99). This discussion was immensely useful for contextualising the previous discussions of the Middle English mouth around and within controversy surrounding the Eucharist. The table scenes in Piers Plowman are effectively and innovatively linked to the hellmouth in the Harrowing of Hell, but the related issue of clergial abuse of knowledge could have been augmented with detail about the poem’s anxieties regarding translation (and vernacularisation), such as those discussed by M. E. J. Hughes (1992).[2] These ideas of tasting and knowledge might be usefully paired with Emma Maggie Solberg’s recent study of the Virgin Mary in medieval drama, Virgin Whore (2018: 69-70), in which the N-Town’s midwife Zelomy ‘tastes’/‘tests’ Mary’s virginity with her mouth.[3]

In the fourth chapter, Walter demonstrates that the kiss was understood as a spiritual exchange of breath (117, 121, 127) and communication of souls, but also could be a sign of lechery (118). Kisses make exterior an intentionality that is interior, and saliva’s substance can be altered according to the psychosomatic imprint of a kiss (119, 129); this has profound implications for the study of medieval ideas of allegorical cloaks and coats as a spiritual wrapping of the body (131)[4]. Haukyn in Piers Plowman, who wears a coat dirtied with sin, has his interiority exposed thus and Walter suggests this allows a new construction of self, although many Langlandians might argue that this exposure increases Haukyn’s vulnerability to the often unreliable allegorical teachers.[5] However, the following discussion of lechery as stages of somatic knowledge is compelling, as is the connection between Haukyn’s lechery and Adam and Eve’s genital covering (133, 135). The ideas about the kiss as decay of the body (141) could be linked to the mystical acquisition of leprous kisses, referred to earlier (122) and the sense in which leprosy and other visible skin ailments were stigmatised due to assumed sin and sexual transmission in the Middle Ages.

The association of the barber-surgeon’s work with the confessor’s in the final chapter is fascinating; the ideas that wounding and cutting back excess humoral superfluities of the body function as spiritually corrective surgery are crystallised in the care of the mouth. This chapter moves the allegorical and theological investigations of previous chapters into a medicalised, pragmatic sphere while reminding readers that, for medieval Europeans, this distinction hardly existed. The discussion of grammar and surgery might have been enhanced with reference to vulvic wound and chirograph imagery in many late-medieval Crucifixion illustrations, another sense in which lips might teach in their capacity to ‘clip and cut words’ (157). This final chapter adds a satisfying circularity to the study, returning to the ideas of the mouth as a site of purgation (164), sin as undigested food (169), and an over-reliance on the literal processes of the physical body as a barrier to spiritual maturation (171).

The accessibility of this volume is wonderfully balanced; it rewards a familiarity with the field, inviting many comparisons with existing scholarship and historiography, but would also form a riveting perspective for an academic reader working with non-medieval sources and periods. The material is varied but cohesive, and its range across medical and literary sources does not inhibit close reading. Overall, Middle English Mouths forms a significant addition to medieval studies and medical humanities, demonstrating the necessity of close attention to individual senses and body parts in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Works cited:

[1] Augustine, City of God, ed. G. R. Evans, trans. Henry Bettenson (London; New York: Penguin Books, 2003), XIV, 15, 16, 17, pp. 574-579; XIII, 13, pp. 522-523.

[2] M. E. J. Hughes, ‘“The feffement that fals hath ymaked”: A Study of the Image of the Document in Piers Plowman and Some Literary Analogues,’ Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. 93, No. 1 (1992), 125-133 (pp. 126-127, 130-131).

[3] Solberg, Emma Maggie, Virgin Whore. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

[4] Breen, Katharine, Imagining an English Reading Public, 1150-1400. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[5] See, for example, Watson, Nicholas, ‘Piers Plowman, Pastoral Theology, and Spiritual Perfectionism: Hawkyn’s Cloak and Patience’s Pater Noster’, Yearbook of Langland Studies 21 (2007), 83-119 (85, 91).

Hope Doherty is a Doctoral Candidate in Medieval Literature at Durham University. The working title of her thesis is ‘Wounded Flesh and Shameful Scars: Reading Medicine as Irresolute Theology in the Middle English Mary’. Hope is affiliated with Durham’s Institute for Medical Humanities, and she co-runs the corresponding medical humanities network for postgraduate and early-career researchers. Hope tweets at @EHopeDoherty 

Katie L. Walter’s book Middle English Mouths: Late Medieval Medical, Religious and Literary Traditions (2018) is published by Cambridge University Press.

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