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Discretio in Middle English Spiritual Advice, c. 1350–1450


This dissertation shows how the "discernment" discourse in late medieval England shaped the form of thought and the form of life for enclosed religious, and how laypeople in their turn used it in the same way. The term discretio, latinate and monastic in origin, was already centuries old by the time it began to be used to sharpen specific technical definitions in vernacular contemplative advice. Additionally, it had a double meaning in these texts: a monastic sense, which I call "ascetic prudence," or the moderation of ascetic exercises; and a visionary sense, discretio spirituum, a spiritual gift that helps individuals trace the source of their impulses and visions. In both of these applications, the mechanism of discretio differed depending on who was using it. When others like spiritual directors and theologians used signs to test a dévot's practices or visions, he used what I call "semiotic evaluation" or "semiotic discernment"; when the dévot him- or herself tracked the trajectory of internal impulses or mindset, he or she used what I call "hermeneutic evaluation" or "hermeneutic discernment." Middle English contemplative texts used both of these mechanisms to teach their audiences the proper form of thought and the proper form of life, though they usually did not name discretio explicitly (though occasionally translating it as discrecyon or wis).

More importantly, these texts reframed discretio for a wider audience. Rather than describing a purely self-directed spiritual gift, discretio represented in the newer context of the papal schism and various continental heresies a way for spiritual directors to test and delimit the spiritual authority of their advisees and readers. Clerically-authored works like The Scale of Perfection, The Chastising of God's Children, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, and The Myroure of Oure Ladye demonstrate how this worked for their increasingly mixed religious and lay audiences. Translating discretio from a latinate to vernacular context, however, did not limit it to a discourse of clerical authority. Vernacular readers learned that although they should rely upon their advisor's judgment for maintaining the proper form of life, they ought to regulate their own form of thought. The works of two renowned English female visionaries, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are cases in point. They show that the late medieval English discernment discourse was unstable and incoherent, and that non-male practitioners could use it as a tool to think through theological problems and questions of spiritual authority. Ultimately, discretio in Middle English spiritual advice enabled rather than limited vernacular readers' spiritual authority and the literary expression of their sometimes-singular forms of life.

My introduction explains the state of current scholarship on discretio and explores the historical usage of the Latin term and its translation into Middle English in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Most scholars characterize discernment as comprised of only discretio spirituum, and describe it as a late medieval male professional (clerical, medical, and inquisitorial) discourse that especially targets female dévots and visionaries, and their spiritual authority. I demonstrate, however, that there is more to the practice than a set of criteria formulated by male professionals for testing the authenticity of others' spiritual experience, which I designate "semiotic evaluation." Early Christian authors like John Cassian and Augustine of Hippo deploy terms depicting the objects of discretio in order to describe the regulation of one's own thought, which I call "hermeneutic evaluation." Early Middle English texts like the Ancrene Wisse and Richard Rolle's Form of Living also use varied terms to describe this self-regulation. These texts set a precedent for late medieval English discernment, which inherits a wider range of valid spiritual authorities.

The first chapter, "Teaching Discretio in Advice for the Contemplative Life," discusses the dissemination of discernment in its dual mechanisms, semiotic and hermeneutic evaluation, through The Scale of Perfection, The Chastising of God’s Children, and The Cloud of Unknowing. The authors of these vernacular works propose different forms of discernment based on readers' presumed level of contemplative expertise. To counteract any misdirected religious enthusiasm in novices or intermediate (Proficient) contemplatives, Hilton in the first part of the Scale and The Chastising of God's Children emphasizes the spiritual director's expertise in semiotic discernment, obedience to which results in the reader's ascetic prudence and maintenance of the correct form of life. The Scale's second part and The Cloud of Unknowing, however, introduce hermeneutic discernment as the Perfect contemplative's self-regulation of thought, the mastery of which is equivalent to the height of contemplation itself. Thus, these latter works argue that hermeneutic discernment confers on the Perfect authority to lead potentially singular lives since correct form of thought leads to the correct form of life.

The second chapter, "Discretio as Form of Thought," focuses on the assumption of spiritual authority by a particular reader, Julian of Norwich. Analogous moments in the Short Text and Long Text attest to her use of hermeneutic discernment, and a specialized type of discernment that I call affective discernment, by revealing the formal traces of the process of her personal contemplative experience. I show that in the Short Text, Julian uses the word "stirrings" to mark moments of doubt about her expertise in discretio spirituum, which then become the very framework for her Long Text. These moments in which discerning the spirits operates most clearly in the Short Text actually reveal a theological crux, the disjunction between the coexistence of a loving God and human sin, which she exposes in the later text. Indeed, the same passages on discernment are reconfigured in the Long Text into the visions of the Lord and Servant and of Mother Christ in order to reconcile this theological disjunction. Julian, therefore, uses hermeneutic and affective discernment as intellectual tools to work through her theological doubts, and as spiritual ones to confirm the Holy Spirit's guidance in the translation of her visionary experience into legible texts. Moreover, she demonstrates that discretio is not merely a clerical instrument of surveillance and authorization: any contemplative reader could gain spiritual and literary authority by mastering discernment as a form of thought.

The third chapter, "Adapting Discretio," explores how monastic writers alter discernment to respond to the mixed lay-monastic readership of Sheen Priory and Syon Abbey in the early fifteenth century. I use Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ and four works composed for the Syon-Sheen monastic complex––the Speculum devotorum, the Speculum inclusorum, The Myroure of Oure Ladye, and The Orcherd of Syon––to show how the Sheen and Syon brethren taught discretio for various religious exercises, and particularly for holy reading. Because Syon-Sheen ministered to its community members through books, applying discernment to reading was an essential skill for their contemplative practice. Like the fourteenth-century spiritual directors before them, these writers advocated for the use of different types of discretio based on the reader's religious status: semiotic discernment for lay readers and hermeneutic discernment for monastic readers. This vocational separation allowed lay readers to use imaginative sentential biblical interpretation to act "meekly" toward the text, while it allowed monastic readers to use self-reflection prompted by the text to order their thoughts. The separation of discernment's senses along vocational lines reveals how Syon-Sheen simultaneously strove to become the center of English devotional life while also policing the boundaries of spiritual authority, which now belonged in gradations even to the laity. Discretio continued to be tied up in the discourse of clerical authority into the fifteenth century.

The fourth chapter, "Unifying Discretio," deals with the ramifications of discernment’s vocational divide in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. I argue that an exemplary layperson, Margery Kempe, seeks to establish her semi-religious lifestyle by unifying the two types of discretio in her Book. She uses "lay" semiotic discernment, ascetic prudence and meekness to text and to spiritual advisors, to attain to the higher level of "monastic" hermeneutic discernment, or knowledge of self and of God. Like Julian of Norwich before her, she uses hermeneutic discernment as an intellectual tool to examine her own theological crux: the basis of the spiritual authority conferred on herself by mystical speech. In Book 2, Kempe creates a disjunction between God's authority and that of her spiritual director in order to investigate whose judgment ultimately authenticates her speech. She concludes that God's judgment relativizes all human judgment, which undermines the utility of using discretio to authenticate her speech to begin with; but even so, discretio is useful as a means to articulate this understanding. The demonstration that God's authority stands behind her mystical speech establishes her text's authority and the validity of the mixed contemplative life that she pursues.

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