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Conceptions of the Word: The Mother Tongue and the Incarnation of God

Conceptions of the Word: The Mother Tongue and the Incarnation of God

The myth of kenosis, emphasizing Christ’s shedding of divinity and incarnation in the flesh, becomes inextricably bound up with the growth of writing and formal thinking in the vernacular. Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ articulates the conservative position on the role of theology in catering to an unlearned audience, wherein Christ’s human nature is seen as a more appropriate object of lay devotion than His divinity, since the laity are incapable of moving beyond the literal sense of Scripture. In this model, the incarnation metaphorizes the relationship between the Latinate clergy and the unlearned, as Christ’s flesh veils his true glory from merely fleshly worshippers. To Lollard thinking, by contrast, the act of kenosis itself, Christ’s gift of his divinity in humility and love, is seen as a revelation of God’s essential nature, which is more fully understood through the incarnation than by any other means. The treatise Pore Catif envisages Christ’s body as a written charter for the vernacular reader. The text of the treatise offers itself as a disposable means for finding Christ, since once the truths embodied in the text are written in the heart, the reader is made a clerk in his or her own right. Similarly, The Prickynge of Love offers the meditator dramatized images of groping in the body of Christ and consuming his flesh as a figure for the contemplation of His divinity. In this conception of the incarnation, God’s flesh is seen not as being removed from the realm of the carnal, but as hidden within it, already available to the vernacular reader capable of attaining it by a eucharistic act of eating. Both texts participate in an imitation of kenosis, in that they empty themselves of their authority over the reader in order to bring about the birth of the word in the reader’s soul. In PPl, Will’s understanding of Dowel is gained by his rediscovery of the history of human salvation and its paradoxical message of love. Kynde’s radical instruction “lerne to love” demands that he detach himself from the world, and L’s Christ is energized by essentially the same desire—not by the pastoral desire to save souls but by the wish to know their human condition. This is why, at the Harrowing, Christ can argue that he has now attained such intimacy with his “brethren of blood” that it is almost impossible for him to damn even the unbaptized to eternal punishment. Piers’s merciful vernacular Pardon is finally truer than the priest’s harsh quotation from the Athanasian creed, since only Piers (the poem’s figure for experiential understanding, the incarnation, and the vernacular) “parceyveth” the human heart deeply enough to find charity there, where clerks seek him on the surface, “by werkes and by wordes.”


New Medieval Literatures 1 (1997): 85-124.


Watson, Nicholas