It took root as a suggestion, tripped off the tongue.[1] At Oxford University, undergraduates are required to write a commentary on the venerable Middle English Troilus and Criseyde as part of their final exams. There’s something temptingly purgative about the task: twenty-five lines, cut from context, demanding dissection, splicing, the scalpel of literary-critical labour applied without the contaminating dullness of “context.” The myth of a purely technical exercise, sharp and sterile like a wipe-down hospital bed. Understandably, the commentary exam – and obviously, I don’t normally pitch it like this – can cause considerable unease among students: how do you prepare for, let alone embrace, something that feels all edge, all technique? Time and time again the challenge is to tie these varied, free-floating gestures – imagery, metre, register, etc. – together. To dredge the threads that tie our responses and encounters with literature together out from under the New Critical anaesthetic.

Last term, one particular discussion with a group of students closed with me suggesting a pretty straightforward solution: go with your gut. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve rolled the idea around my mouth, the more I like it. Now it’s routine, a part of my normal patter: once you’ve finished reading (and parsing) your Middle English, you will have a response. It will exist, and it needn’t be complex. It could be frustration, at an injustice or an incompetence, sadness, anger, unease, laughter, but it will exist. That’s your conclusion. All you have to do now – in the sixty minutes of the exam clock allotted – is to figure out how you got there, and explain it. Trace that sense, deep-seated in your gut, of what the passage means to you back to its source. Writing a commentary is figuring out what produced that feeling. Trust your emotions; they are your thread, your final paragraph. They also, by the way, remind us what is actually important about literature. Why we are all here.

Reading with one’s gut; reading as consumption; reading as feeding. These are heady ideas. They’re also not particularly new. In fact, they constitute a strand of Christian reading practice – often called lectio divina, or “divine reading” – which stretches back to the early church fathers and typified monastic practices throughout the medieval period. Gregory the Great, the first monk to carry the crossed keys of the Papacy and a cornerstone of monastic thought for millennia to come, understood the work of reading the bible as a reciprocal, organic process “that by use removes weariness […] is the more delighted in the more it is meditated on […] that in some sort it grows with the persons reading.”[2] It is capable of healing the body; the more one thinks, the more it delights: reader and text “grow” together, intertwined, reaching towards the heavenly revelation that is their source and their joy. There is a sense throughout Gregory that reading Christian scripture is an exercise in intimacy, in desire tempered with the hard labour of getting to know and sounding out the bible. This is a process often saturated with a distinctly palatable delight, the shivering prickling of interpretative taste-buds: “You will not get to know [God’s] goodness unless you taste it.”[3]

It is however in his Homilies on Ezekiel that Gregory’s ideas tread gut territory most substantially and consistently. Ezekiel Chapter 3 begins with the order, delivered from God to the prophet, to “eat all that thou shalt find: eat this book, and go speak to the children of Israel”; a demand which reverberates throughout the history of reading. “[E]verything one finds in sacred scripture must be eaten,” Gregory writes; “sacred scripture is food and drink to us.”[4] The sense of the words fill and determine us. Reading the bible is sustenance: life-determining, the difference between drought and paradise. Words have a physicality to them – in order to appreciate their density and quality, one must “open [ones] mouth.”[5] Indeed for Gregory the difference between drinking and eating is one of difficulty; the former represents “clear meanings,” accessible without further thought, whilst the latter stands for “obscure meanings, incomprehensible without interpretation.” The food of difficult passages “must be chewed in order to be swallowed […] clearly, ‘meditate, and understand’ was ordered – that is to say, chew first, then swallow.”[6] Interpretative difficulties accrue substance, accrue weight; they gain the mass of food, sliced by incisors and ground into useful paste by molars. The alluring obscenities of digestion settle at the core of lectio divina and the process of monastic reading often termed ruminatio: chew, swallow, digest, regurgitate, chew, swallow, digest. “Our mouth eats when we read the word of God, and our entrails are filled by the intelligence and the observation of that which, laboriously, we read.”[7] Turn terms, words, senses over in your mouth. Break them with your teeth. Fold them with your tongue. Embrace them with your gut. Good advice for an undergraduate, and – let’s face it – all of us.

In this consumptive cycle the ideas of early Christian thinkers like Gregory were passed, as it were, from gut to gut down the centuries. Ruminatio remained a cornerstone of monastic culture for more than a millennium after Gregory, with too many examples to attempt a comprehensive catalogue here. One particular medieval monk stands head-and-stomachs above the rest, however. Writing for the benefit of his cloister settled in the vallée d’Absinthe (renamed Claire Vallée) near Langres, the great reformer Bernard of Clairvaux has left us with one of the undisputed treasures of medieval monastic culture in his extensive sermons on the biblical Song of Songs. The very first sermon, taut and exultant at the coming project, opens with the declaration parate fauces – “prepare your jaws!” From the beginning, the work of reading is the work of feeding, a cycle of mastication and digestion. Bernard goes on to promise that “Solomon has bread to give that is splendid and delicious, the bread of the book called the Song of Songs. Let us bring it forth then if you please, and break it.”[8]

For Bernard the beauty of the Song of Songs – an old testament exchange between a bride and groom, yearning and desirous – exists in its sweetness, the delights which its consumption offer to the reader, that they “may find pleasure even in the laborious pursuit of what lies hidden, with a fascinating theme to sweeten the fatigue of research.”[9] As the sermons progress, it becomes clear that the sweet edibility of scripture is more than seasoning; it is the driving force, the clear aim and intent, of reflection on the bible: “[T]he soul that is sincere and wise will not fail to chew the psalm with the teeth as it were of the mind, because if he swallows it in a lump, without proper mastication, the palate will be cheated of the delicious flavour, sweeter even than honey that drips from the comb.”[10] The hasty reader may swallow down the precepts, but they will miss the taste of them, the delight of the ruminant. Chewing a honeycomb is hard work. Its pliant waxy frame falls easily into clods and clumps, compacted masses that embrace and cling to teeth. Every compression squeezes them like hands on clay, springing new breaches of honey from deep inside. The taste encases the mouth, the tongue, the senses – sweet, too sweet, too sweet for words, thoughts. Eating pure honey is exhausting, is overwhelming, an experience that leaves you both drenched and parched. Bernard’s “laborious pursuit” of reading ends here: not in technique or reason, but in the oblivion of taste.

Bernard finds different terms to express this unspeakable joy. He looks to the Bride’s exclamations in the Song of Songs, writing that “it is the affectus, not the intellect, which has spoken, and it is not for the intellect to grasp. What then is the reason for these words? There is none.” No reason – not without reason, but beyond reason, in excess of reason, lost in overwhelming desire. We could, perhaps, call it the poetic – a resonance above and beyond and without technicality or division. “The love of God,” Bernard continues, “does not stop to consider the order, the grammar, the flow, or the number of words it employs, when it cannot contain itself.”[11] Desire and sweetness of this kind tramples fences, eludes capture; it is wild, violent. It is barely communication, escaping grammar and syntax. Instead, “the Bride thinks it no robbery to take to herself the words of the Prophet: ‘My heart has belched a goodly theme,’ since she is filled with the same spirit.” Her words – passionate, disordered, and unclear – are a belch. They are involuntary, the fragrant aftermath of a sweetness tasted, enjoyed, digested. The proof of her goodness lies here, momentarily ejaculated from her gut.

Her belch is one among many, part of a tradition – Moses, Jeremiah, David –, and is the flavour Bernard and his readers seek. “Breathe it in,” he writes, “the sweetness it exudes is that of one who rewards justice, sweeter than balsam.”[12] Poetry and burping: Freed from the proprieties of analytic meaning, burping ceases to be a poorly-suppressed dinner table embarrassment, becomes something else: a full-throated rattle of enjoyment, echoed from deep inside ourselves. Real praise. Bernard, then, teaches to eat, enjoy, saturate ourselves with literature. He also suggests that literature is, or could be, already a burp – always already the liberated result of consumption, digestion, regurgitation, defecation. We are linked, headily, to the mouths, guts, and arses of those who came before us.

The burp may erupt from the mouth, but it does not originate there. The mouth is only the final, and most obvious, link in the alimentary chain. To ruminate means to open our entire selves to literature, a gesture marked by both trust and desire. We open ourselves to the text, offer up the soft depths of our viscera to its explorations. Emotions are lived in the body, experienced as symptoms. The winding pain of heartache or the buoyancy of joy corroborates for us the medieval theory of literal love sickness. Reading with the gut invites literature to do what it will with us, for better or for worse. It enters us, fills our insides to the bursting point, leaves us swollen and disoriented. It can make us sick, or joyous, or leave us with one hell of a hangover. At the same time, our guts threaten to take everything from the text; to crush words in our coils, to constrict, snake-like, meanings and senses, to drain it of sustenance, until only waste is left. A gut embraces with the kind of longing that can destroy. The threat of annihilation is complete, the fearsome promise of a gut that will always want more.

Thus the act of reading is balanced, trembling, between the delicacy of intimacy and the strength of desire. It can carry with it all the potency of sex – maybe more. As food, as drink, as burp, as fart, as shit, as piss; words apotheosise as sustenance. Boundaries dissolve amidst the overwhelming experience of reading; we wrap phrases and senses in our guts, arms, legs, mouths, anuses. The order of the body is disrupted, distinctions blur, bodies and body parts meet – improperly, dirtily, and obscenely. Small wonder that the seething mess of this experience refuses to translate neatly into the sterility of an academic exercise, or that performance anxiety – the natural result of quantifying and testing this enjoyment – hounds the twenty-first century undergraduate. We can all, I think, learn from this fundamental lesson of ruminatio: How to read excessively, profanely, with our tongues, mouths, and guts.

What has become of rumination? The term enters English usage in the late sixteenth century, and remains in use – with increasing rarity – as a byword for meditation or contemplation. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, however, the term takes on a technical meaning in the psychiatric and psychological disciplines, where it now stands for repetitive, abnormal, obsessional thought patterns. Pathologised, mastication and digestion become metaphors for depression, anxiety, for not letting go. This is hardly surprising in a culinary culture that appears less and less interested in enjoying food. Supermarket-sold, food is pulled apart and tabularised – energy, fat, carbohydrates, salt – into systems that alienate us from taste and joy. For most of us, most of the time, late capitalist food is dietetic, medicalised, abstracted from the bodily processes that bring us real satiety. Mass, texture, and flavour are all secondary to modern consumers, charged with being their own doctors and dieticians. There is no room for enjoyment, no room for the overwhelming affectus of honey. Without the promise of taste, texture, and desire, rumination loses its lustre and becomes an obstruction. If God were to demand moderns eat, it would be as a concerned parent at the bourgeois dinner table: chew ten times, then swallow. Our collective fetishisation of output or result is on full display here: the joy of process and experience are replaced with dead categories and neat summaries in nutritional values, aggregate reviews, and impact factors. In such a culture chewing serves only to prevent choking.

Academia is by no means exempt from this broad cultural trend. In my field, the technical rationalisation of literature, the full and totalising embrace of critical thinking, and the very generation of a “field of expertise” contributes unremittingly to this phenomenon. These terms may not be inherently or always desaturating or limiting, but all too often they are arranged, claustrophobically, around us: hemming us in like an isolation chamber. Left unrestrained or unchallenged, they threaten to take away the feeling of literature, to reduce emotional response to the realm of the amateur or non-professional, with all of the gendered and racially-weighted dynamics such gestures carry with them. We already have the tools – the scalpels and the anaesthetic – to place our own reading experiences on the operating table, to abstract them into technique and exercise. As (purported) experts, we are one step away from lab coats.

To overcome this, we need to make a mess. Our food and our academia rest collectively on a discomfort with filth. Against the clinician, then, all we have to offer is our gut. Insist, along with Gregory and Bernard, on the importance of the gut feeling, of the emotive response, of reading as a sequence of digestions, passed intimately through our bodies, from one end to the other. Trace back, through our bodies in all their glories, the emotional contours of the reading experience, saturated, full, dripping with honey. Like this, and with the help of the Middle Ages, we can trace a mode of readerly engagement that leaves behind the rigidities of our exams and the cool heads of our institutions, and celebrates instead the messy, desiring viscera of heartfelt reading.

The specialisations and abstractions of the academy threaten to suppress these rhythms, the ebbs and tides of our appetites, and suffocate the what with the how. The undergraduate discomfort I began with is a normal response to these conditions, something from which we who teach them – we who have all too often come to accept the terms of the academy – can learn volumes. The rush and joy of reading is worth salvaging and celebrating as the very core of consuming literature. To undergraduate misgivings, and our own buried desires, rumination offers a method and a language. Burp at God’s dinner table. Vomit your reading back up. Expel, sweet-smelling and beautiful, your conclusions. Most importantly: taste them, every step of the way. Parate fauces.

[1] For Phoebe.

[2] Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, trans. John Henry Parker (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844-1850) XX i 1

[3] Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, trans. David Hurst (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1990), XXXVI

[4] Gregory the Great, Homélies sur Ézéchiel, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Charles Morel (Paris: Éditiosn du Cerf, 1986), X 2-3. Translations into English are my own.

[5] Gregory, Homélies sur Ézéchiel, X.5

[6] Gregory, Homélies sur Ézéchiel, X.3

[7] Gregory, Homélies sur Ézéchiel, X.5

[8] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Kilian J Walsh and M. Corneille Halflants (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1976), 1.I.1

[9] Bernard, 1.III.5

[10] Bernard, 7.IV.5

[11] Bernard, 67.II.13

[12] Bernard, 67.III.5