Book Review–Imprisonment in the Medieval Religious Imagination, c. 1150-1400

Megan Cassidy-Welch, Imprisonment in the Medieval Religious Imagination, c. 1150-1400. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 216pp. $80.00. 

Megan Cassidy-Welch’s monograph provides a detailed and lucid examination of the different ways in which English, French, and German Christian religious writers invoked and exploited prison imagery to encourage spiritual reform on both an individual and a communal level during what she describes as ‘the long thirteenth-century’. Within the introduction, Cassidy-Welch draws attention to recent studies which have addressed the use of imprisonment as a penal strategy in the West and, from here, indicates that the temporal parameters of her study match the most significant period of development in European prison history. Cassidy-Welch, however, posits that the originality of her work lies in a commitment to move away from investigating how prisons operate in a judicial or legal context. Instead, the study concentrates upon how the image of the prison was utilised to foster harmonious relations between Christ and his fallen people in the post-lapsarian world. In each of the ensuing chapters Cassidy-Welch thus demonstrates the diverse ways in which medieval Christian thinkers portrayed the prison as an essentially reformist and salvific space since, separated from the temptations of the outside world, prisoners had an ample opportunity to devote themselves to continuous prayer, contrition, and praise of God.

In chapter 1, Cassidy-Welch focuses attention on the use of prison imagery in literature pertaining to Benedictine, Cistercian, and Dominican communities. The chapter is divided into two parts, with the first part looking at the actual incorporation of prison spaces into larger religious houses, and the latter section focusing on the figurative use of the image of the prison in rules written for those adopting a religious life-style. Her discussion of Aelred of Rievaulx’s Latin account of the Nun of Watton’s life provides a spirited exploration of how monastic figures utilised prison confinements to punish dissident members of the community (in this case, a nun who had committed sexual sin). Moreover, by outlining how God forgave the sinner within this space, Aelred also shows the prison to be a site of forgiveness and grace. In the second section of the chapter, the discussion turns to the prescriptive texts directed towards female anchoresses. Here Cassidy-Welch indicates that these religious women were encouraged to envisage the anchorhold as a prison cell and argues that this metaphorical alignment was seen as productive, since it engenders an imaginative space wherein the incarcerated subject can focus on her human sins and, in prayer, turn contritely back towards God. Cassidy-Welch also sets forth a compelling argument about the relevance of prison imagery for a virginal audience, arguing that the image of a contained space is apt for individuals who are keen to preserve and promote their own bodies as impermeable spaces. The material in this chapter is certainly rich, however, readers who are familiar with feminist scholarship on enclosure in anchoritic literatures may find this section is largely synthetic of debates that are already current within the critical field.

In chapter 2, attention shifts to the representation of prison in hagiographical texts and, in particular, the cultic devotion to the French Saint Leonard of Noblat in the community of Inchenholm, Germany. Here, Cassidy-Welch offers an unprecedented and insightful study of the myriad ways in which the German community came to venerate and uphold this figure in their pietic devotions. The opening section highlights how imprisonment often formed a central part of the experience of martyrdom as narrated in both textual and visual accounts of early Christian saints’ lives. She argues, however, that Leonard’s association with the prison operates quite differently. Rather than experiencing a period of imprisonment in his own life, Leonard was celebrated for his miraculous ability to liberate any prisoner who called upon his name from their confines.  By analysing a range of textual accounts of Leonard’s life, Cassidy-Welch highlights that the various anonymous hagiographers who recorded Leonard’s power often characterised the prison space in diverging and dramatic ways so as to emphasise the power of the commemorated thaumaturge. By heightening the austerity of the prison, and associating the place with torture, pain, and physical difficulties, these religious writers emphasised Leonard’s merciful and powerful disposition. Cassidy-Welch’s study of Leonard’s cult is certainly detailed and innovative. It is, however, perhaps unfortunate that Leonard’s vita is treated in isolation, since a comparison between this figure and other Continental saints who also liberated prisoners from prison (namely Saint Eligius and Saint Germanus) may have opened up fruitful ground for a more nuanced enquiry into the ways in which devotion to the saints could be used to inspire hope in the lives of incarcerated subjects.

Chapter 3 concentrates specifically on the ecclesiastical prisons which were used to hold subjects charged with heresy in thirteenth-century France. Cassidy-Welch highlights how orthodox Inquisitors used these prisons for coercive as well as punitive purposes. By using torture methods, and subjecting the accused heretics to harsh conditions, the authorities hoped that they would encourage heterodox thinkers to abjure their dissident beliefs and, instead, re-align themselves with the orthodox Catholic Church. The chapter covers an eclectic range of sources, combining texts in which prisoners reflect on their imprisonment with those in which Church officials addressed the state or conditions of the prisons. The argument set forth concerning the important interrelationship among fear, memory, and imprisonment in vanquishing heresy is persuasive. While this chapter will be of certain interest to scholars examining the containment of medieval Continental heresies, the ideas offered here may also provide a useful conceptual and methodological framework for those interested in the social treatment of Lollards in fifteenth-century England, where the use of imprisonment as both a penal and coercive strategy needs greater exploration.

Chapter 4 declares itself to be concerned with the representation of prison in didactic texts, particularly exemplum texts, sermon literature, and hagiographical narratives. In some respects this is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book; the material set forth seems disparate and the central argument – that the prison is an image which signals social exclusion and thereby generates spiritual inclusion by fostering a prayerful proximity to Christ – is largely repetitive of the material in the opening two chapters. The chapter does show, however, that these ideas reverberate through a range of genres and appear in literature which was not specifically directed towards religious communities, or communities of prisoners. The prison, then, was an image that could be used to aid the spiritual development of the lay masses. The final chapter is, again, an extremely detailed and coherent discussion of how imprisonment became commonplace during the Crusades. The particular group of texts which Cassidy-Welch focuses on are historiographical and biographical accounts of King Louis IX, who was held as a prisoner of war in the thirteenth-century. Here she concentrates on the fact that, in this historical scenario, the monarch’s imprisonment was imputed with shame. Yet, she highlights how redactors of his life skilfully circumvented the negative aspect of his imprisonment and, instead, constructed an image of Louis as a pious and penitent man who held the potential to become a royal saint.

Overall the book is extremely interesting in its exposition of the multiple ways in which prisons – whether they be literal, metaphorical or hagiographical – were understood to play a part in the reformation of Christian subjects in the later Middle Ages. One of the strengths of the study is certainly the rich range of material it addresses; the work will be of interest to scholars of monastic rules, anchoritic discourses, hagiographical texts, sermon literatures, exempla, autobiographical testimonies, and records of heretical trials throughout the Continent. The European and Latin primary sources which Cassidy-Welch discusses are translated into modern English throughout, thereby making it extremely easy for Middle English scholars who are not familiar with these languages to gain a good grasp of the wide-range of material covered within this nuanced and sophisticated work.

Katherine Frances


Katherine Frances is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Manchester. Her doctoral research focuses on the interrelationship between memory and identity in late medieval prison narratives.

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Book Review–Imprisonment in the Medieval Religious Imagination, c. 1150-1400 by Katherine Frances is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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