Lay Spirituality and Vernacular Theology in Late Medieval Literature

Felisa Baynes-Ross, Fordham University


In the fourteenth century, the increased availability of religious instruction in the vernacular transformed the hierarchical relationship between clerics and the laity and created the theological discourses later called lay spirituality. “Lay Spirituality and Vernacular Theology” investigates these changes in the religious manuals and poems of the later Middle Ages. Scholars have suggested that the laity remained dependent on clerical supervision, but I demonstrate that vernacular authors of the period share religious authority with their readers and that this ramifies into a more complex and distinctive lay spirituality. My work builds on theories of vernacular translation that see vernacular theologies as negotiations between clerical, Latinate and lay, vernacular culture. My analysis of the dialogue form in religious treatises such as Book to a Mother and The Lyfe of Soule and in poetry such as Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Pearl and Cleanness, however, demonstrates that vernacular writings do not just receive ideas from clerical culture passively. In exploring various modes of dialogue, these texts also open up new lines of theological inquiry and chart a new course for laypeople’s spiritual and intellectual aspirations. In the religious manuals, dialogue collapses traditional boundaries between lay and clerical roles, allowing laypeople to contribute to spiritual meaning-making and to exercise authority on Bible reading. In its performance of dialogue, poetry stakes its claim on some of the most controversial issues in religious thinking in fourteenth-and fifteenth-century England. Rather than enforce the boundaries between the religiously orthodox and heterodox, these works engage with heterodox thinking to develop alternative models of living that promote lay spiritual autonomy. Dialogue becomes a mode of being in the poems, dismantling the hierarchies of religious hegemony and transforming the very discourses that marginalize lay thought and spirituality.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Theology|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Baynes-Ross, Felisa, "Lay Spirituality and Vernacular Theology in Late Medieval Literature" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10598884.