Fortress Press

The Mystified Letter: How Medieval Theology Can Reenchant the Practice of Reading

The Mystified Letter

How Medieval Theology Can Reenchant the Practice of Reading

Craig Tichelkamp (Author)


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Reading has become a problem--not just of attention, comprehension, or growing rates of illiteracy, but of politics, society, and religion. The questions of how and what to read are not just matters of taste. Answers are often indicative of one's entire view of culture, church, and the cosmos, as well as the impasses of religion, reason, and moral vision. As a result, reading has become divisive and uninspiring. Reading has become a drag. The Mystified Letter offers a hopeful alternative to this malaise--a theology of reading centered on mystical encounter. It retrieves medieval Christian reading culture to build a constructive case for a mystical theology of literature.  

The mystification of literature in twelfth- and thirteenth-century monasteries and schools involved rhetorical, aesthetic, liturgical, and theological strategies that invested reading with a sense of ineffability and unintelligibility, wonder and awe, a disposition that applied not only to sacred but even secular literature. The Mystified Letter explores how litera (a Latin term meaning both "the letter" and "literature" itself) came to be a site of the sacred. By showing how medieval theologians, especially the Victorine monks of Paris, came to see the letter as a vehicle for encounter with the unknowable, unspeakable, and illegible God, The Mystified Letter shows how the practice of mystical reading can treat some of the spiritual ailments affecting both the church and the academy, and explores how we can foster reading cultures around the mystified letter today.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781506486734
  • eBook ISBN 9781506486741
  • Dimensions 6.25 x 9.25
  • Pages 204
  • Publication Date December 5, 2023


Stemming from a profound sense that reading is in crisis, Craig Tichelkamp's splendid new volume offers a creative, novel, and persuasive constructive proposal rooted in the Middle Ages and, more precisely, in the sacralization and enchantment of reading in the monasteries and schools of the high Middle Ages. Deeply informed historically and written with elegance, Tichelkamp's work proposes practices of mystical reading that address contemporary maladies in academic and ecclesiastical reading cultures in ways captivating not only to medievalists but to all who find the notion of the "mystified letter," be they religious or not, profoundly right and compelling. Highly recommended.

Kevin Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Harvard Divinity School; author of Medieval Christianity: A New History

Craig Tichelkamp offers a trenchant diagnosis of the weariness, aridity, and incomprehension that too often attend reading today, both in our churches and at the university. Like the educational reformer Ivan Illich, Tichelkamp turns to the medieval school of St. Victor to remind us that the experience of reading was once charged with mystery. He offers hope that reading can again prove to be rejuvenating, personally transformative, and communally rich. Reading Tichelkamp's own stirring book proves the point.

Ann W. Astell, professor of theology, University of Notre Dame

Tichelkamp's study triumphs as an invaluable contribution to the field of medieval Victorine Studies. More broadly considered, his adept treatment of the Victorine inheritance of Dionysian mysticism, as it pertains to the school's development of a theology of the "letter," will be useful for historical and systematic theologians alike for years to come. Within this broader project, moreover, The Mystified Letter will also serve as an important resource for those who are specifically interested in the thought of Thomas Gallus, whose contributions to the development of a theology of reading within that context are here introduced by Tichelkamp with exquisite clarity and captivating prose.

Katherine Wrisley Shelby, author of Spiraling into God: Bonaventure on Grace, Hierarchy, and Holiness

In The Mystified Letter, Tichelkamp succeeds in making a persuasive, accurate, and quite worthy case for a "re-enchantment" of the practice of reading by retrieving the mystical ethos of reading that existed in monastic communities during the Middle Ages, specifically within the culture of the Victorine School in twelfth-century Paris. Such a retrieval, as Tichelkamp correctly explains, is not the imposition of a more "traditional" set of values onto the effects of contemporary culture; rather, it is the distilling of essential ideas and practices for the "radical" renewal of understanding: here, the author utilizes the medieval monastic understanding of reading as a sacred, potentially mystical relationship between the text and the reader and among a community of readers. Tichelkamp rightly reminds us that in medieval schools, reading both sacred and secular literature was a practice that allowed spaces of mystery and incomprehensibility, that welcomed communion and conversation, but that did not always seek--as we do now--the absolute surety of specific interpretation, forms of analyses that tend to incite division and disagreement. The medieval world regarded the text as sacred and capable of spiritual inspiration as well as moral transformation, which depth of thinking about reading, Tichelkamp argues, we must attempt to recover. Reading, he enthuses, must again become an imaginative as well as cognitive experience, the occasion for wonder and awe and delight, and not only, as happens now too often, simply for technical and perfunctory purposes.

For Tichelkamp, the generally medieval but specifically Victorine ease with a mystical sensibility in all matters of life--that is, beginning with the mundane and literal but then seeking and looking beyond the apparent to the unseen and the ineffable--is an attitude that must again be cultivated not just in churches and schools but in contemporary culture altogether. He wants to shock contemporary culture out of its apathy, indifference, and sullen antagonism toward reading and to regain the sense of mystery and wonder that has always been present in the written word, at least as medieval thinkers argued. As the Victorines taught and Tichelkamp recommends, readers should again "ramble" and "wander" along literary paths--fiction, poetry, drama, and all other forms--not always seeking an "answer" or the correct "interpretation" but rather allowing the dignity and the phenomenon of the text to be present before the reader, salvaging the text from constant deconstruction and destabilization. Reading need not always have just the goal of completion in mind: sometimes, as the Victorines taught, it is sufficient just to linger over a verse or a phrase or a description and revel in that singular moment.

This is a worthy text not only for educators and institutional leaders who have been frustrated with the disaffection with reading that has pervaded current mores, especially among the young, but for anyone who hopes to (re)gain the mystical wonder of the text and the transformative power of reading.

June-Ann Greeley, professor of languages and literature, Sacred Heart University