the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for June, 2006

The Mercy Seat: Spatial Politics

Posted by gninja on June 29, 2006

Not the kind of carving you’d find on a rocking chair in your granny’s house:


The questions, of course, are: why is a monk mooning us, and what could this possibly mean? As I talked about in a previous post, the carvings on misericords were intended for the eyes of clergy and, due to their location on seats in the choir, would not have been visible to a church’s congregants. What’s more, during a service, these images would have been obscured by the bodies (and more specifically, the behinds) of the standing clerics. And should this fact not convince us thoroughly of their intended concealment, the carvings would also have been out of sight when the seat of the chair was pulled down. To clarify, this is an image of the seats in the up position:


Knowing their intended audience (and the audience for whom they were not intended), we can surmise more specifically what the purpose of the misericord images was. Obviously, their purpose extends beyond the purely functional, for if such were the case, these leaning-shelves for the relief of praying clergy would have been left unadorned.

Culling through some images of misericords, I found that depictions of knights are fairly prevalent:


As are portrayals of haggard women and hybrid sirens:


(Yes, the image immediately above is a woman, and, yes, she is presenting her genitals.)

What should immediately alert us to the social implications of these images is that they are representations of non-clerical figures intended for the gaze of the clergy. We know this because of their location: misercords were situated in the choir of a church, an area cordoned off to the public by a choir screen. So, here:


This portion of the church was visible to the congregant (through grating or an open door), but it was physically inaccessible to them. So, even before we get to the concealment of misericords images by monks’ and clerics’ behinds, we have a form of visual subjugation of two social groups (knights and women) to another social group (the clergy). And, remember, medieval society was organized into three orders–those who pray, those who fight, and those who plow–the praying and fighting sectors of which were always in competition for the upper hand.

Think of the gaze as a potential tool of dominance and the image as an inactive agent lacking the inherent capacity to control its reception. Now, sure, images are also powerful and can hold such an emotional sway that they impel us to acts of iconoclasm or veneration or consumerism. In which case it could be argued that images are not inactive agents, but instead agents who move us to act. But, as is something of my mantra, context is what matters, and beyond the most basic forms of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, there are very few forms of representation that have intrinsic meaning. In the case of misericords, there was an actual combative relationship between the clergy and the nobility, and there was gender inequality. So when we see images of groups for whom the clergy felt an antagonism, given over to the exclusive gaze of the clergy, there is little doubt that the images are at the will of their beholders.

And, to drive home the point, these images were then smothered under the asses of the clergy. Not only was this dynamic known to the monks and artists of these images, but it was also cause for joking, as seen in the above image of a monk bending over to reveal his behind. Pleasant, no?

No doubt you’re wondering how the misericord carving can function as an assertion of power over other social groups if these other social groups cannot even see the images. Good question. Certainly, from the perspective of the Church, it was important for those who fight and those who plow to be know their (lower) place, and public art often did communicate this message. Note, for example, the Notre Dame tympanum including King Louis VII paying obeisance to Mary and JC, while the bishop remains standing and on the dominant (right hand of Christ) side:


So, yes, public art was used to proclaim the authority of the Church. In the case of misericords, however, I believe the intention was to perpetuate belief in the legitimacy of the Church’s superiority among its own ranks. Not only did many monks and clerics start off as sons of noblemen (and thus might have a natural sympathy for the group into which they were born), but many of them may also have taken Biblical exhortations to humility a bit too seriously as well. But it was images like these that were instrumental in maintaining the clerics’ sense of power and authority over the laity.

A final note. There are examples of this kind of visual power brokering going on today, but I can’t quite locate the most appropriate analogy– if anyone can think of one, by all means let me know. The best I could think of is this: an airplane. Imagine an airplane, with its coach section and first class section divided by a curtain. Now imagine images and caricatures of the people sitting in the coach section silk screened on the first class seats. Not the best analogy (because, thankfully, it’s imaginary), but you get the idea of what a vulgar declaration of power this is.

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Posted by gninja on June 27, 2006

Not a manuscript:


Is it fitting or just plain annoying that the Medieval Art Historian suffers chronic computeritis? Yes, these last few days have been another installment in the saga of the decrepit Gwen. But I’ll have a new post in the next two days or so.

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The Mercy Seat: A Teaser

Posted by gninja on June 22, 2006

Known as misericords, these were literally devices offering mercy to the monk at prayer. Every day, eight times a day, monks were required to attend the Divine Office and pray, standing, for long periods of time. In order to offer some level of alleviation to the physical strain, hinged seats were created so that, when in the up position, a small shelf projected outward. The monk could then take some pressure off his feet, but still remain upright, by leaning against this shelf.


Frequently, the underpart of the seat, which you see in the image above, depicted figures and scenes we would not expect to see in the domain of the Divine Office.


These images could take the form of grotesques or babewyns (hybrids), lascivious vignettes, or even scenes of quotidian lay life. In my next post, I'll discuss the function of these images, why they'd be permitted in a sacred space, and, perhaps of most interest, what they have to do with a monk's buttocks.

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Multivalence: Ely Cathedral

Posted by gninja on June 20, 2006

Similar to the bottle of wine mentioned in the previous post,objects of medieval art could bear any number of meanings, depending on their context. However, unlike the bottle of wine, objects that are created to be seen have a more significant role as conveyors of meaning. That’s not to say the bottle is purely created as a functional object. Nor is it to say that art objects lack any function at all. Rather, it’s useful to think of all things as artifacts with greater and lesser capacities as receptacles for meaning. Oftentimes, the relationship between purpose as practical function and purpose as symbol is an inverse one, with objects whose purpose is to be of use possessing a lower capacity as symbol. Think of a plate, as in the kind of plate on which you eat dinner. Now think of how many different meanings that plate has– sure, it changes according to context, perhaps, and according to the designs on the plate, material from which it’s made, etc. But, really, there’s only so much we think of when we think of “plate.” Now, sure, such is not always the case, and function is not always something which inhibits an object’s ability to bear meanings (see, for example, the first chapter of Baxandal’s Patterns of Intention— he talks about the process of designing a bridge in Scotland and the technical matters which shaped its form, but also what the form conveys). In any case, the point here is to illustrate the scale according to which objects function as signs.


Getting to Ely Cathedral, then. First, a quickie background. A seventh century Anglo-Saxon princess named Aetheldreda established a monastery on the site where the current cathedral stands. According to legend, after hiking about, using a dry rod as a walking stick, she lies down on the ground to retire. Upon waking, she finds that the dry rod has taken root and budded forth, producing an ash tree where a church dedicated to the Virgin is subsequently built. Aetheldreda eventually becomes a saint, and her remains are kept in a reliquary in the monastery, which is destroyed, rebuilt, and then renovated after it becomes the seat of a bishop and hence a cathedral.


I had put up this image, from the vault shafts of the structure (the space in between the arches):


On the left is a floral figure, prior to bloom, and on the right, the final vault shaft with the floral figure in bloom. These, however, are the first and last shafts. There are several others in between showing intermediary stages of the blossoming. Here’s another image (and thanks to whomever it is that’s working for the Australian National University “Rubens” artserve site— these images are fantastic and not to be found elsewhere).


As examples of multivalence, Paul Binski has shown how this flowering sculpture works remarkably well. I should note that Binski doesn’t use the term multivalence, but it works, and I like it.

Let’s start from the loosest association– Christological typology. There are several biblical references to flowering rods and blossoming forms which are used throughout 11th and 12th-century architecture. The first of these is Aaron’s rod, which, like so many other typological symbols, prefigures the crucifixion of Christ. The second reference would be the Tree of Jesse, in short, the representation of Jesus’ genealogy. As you can see, it was wildly popular in art. At the same time, we are looking at the lapidary representation of an organic form and living process, that is, the blossoming of a flower depicted in stone. Certainly, it’s more arcane, but it’s possible the sculpted work here invokes the double meaning of the Latin gemma, meaning bud or jewel. Such a double meaning would be important insofar as the flower bears ambivalent meaning: on the one hand it has positive connotations, such as in the ever-blossoming flower of virginity etc; on the other hand, organic forms are always seen as mementos mori in Christianity. Here, the death that always accompanies the organic is forestalled by its representation in stone. Arcane, I know. But religious officials would have been keen to something like this. To be honest, the Christian meanings bound up in the blossoming flower are many. Far too many to cover here. So let me cut to the next part.

Aetheldreda. If we recall, a climactic point in her hagiography is the miraculous flowering ash tree. Certainly, if one were attending this cathedral, the story of Aetheldreda would be near the surface of one’s conscious thoughts. Visiting shrines and relics was a big deal, and the presence of a relic in a sacred structure always (if its autheticity wasn’t disputed) conferred legitimacy and pretige upon a church. For an anthropological take on why this is so, read Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane (it was written in the ’60s and can feel a bit New Age-y, but it remains to this day a useful study on how to think about sacred space). So, considering our context, the legend of Aetheldredra would, it seems to me, have to be the first thing that comes to our minds, and, pragmatically speaking, the most important association the custodians and patrons of this church would want it visitors to make.

Multivalence, then, is borne out here as a network of numerous significations known only to those participating in or belonging to a certain community (here, the Christian community familiar with the hagiography of Aetheldreda). While the flowering ash tree of Aetheldreda’s story is the primary assocation we are to make, without the other floral / flowering associations swimming around in the heads of congregants of the church, this imagery would merely be the representation of this part of one saint’s story. Instead, it is that and more; it is both event and representation that unite the story of this local saint with the larger legend of Christianity, the mega-narrative that brings characters together into the same script through the use of common motifs. It’s not that every meaning is known to every viewer. That’s not necessary for the image to communicate an effective message. What’s important here is that the primary message being conveyed or story being alluded to is supported by a web of associations that furthers its permanence and preeminence in our minds.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a modern advertisement (which I am not endorsing) for Kenzo’s Flower perfume. How many (oh my God how many!) associations can we draw from this image, and how many of them do we actually, explicitly acknowledge to ourselves when we come across this ad in a glossy magazine?


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Multivalence: A Preamble

Posted by gninja on June 17, 2006

In his most recent publication, Becket’s Crown,Paul Binski addresses various images that have multiple, overlapping meanings, or, “multivalence.” I believe that, unless there is evidence pointing to a single specific meaning, most images do possess multivalence and are informed by numerous cultural and contextual factors. This is not to advocate a kind of interpretive anarchy (this is a terrible turn of phrase; I’ll have to think of a replacement), in which anything can mean everything. Rather, I endorse a moderate approach that sees an artifact as containing a finite number of significations, each of which can be emphasized according to form and context.

For example: a bottle of red wine.

Situated at a table set for a dinner of steak and greens, it represents earthy health and even national pride (see Barthe’s essay on “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies). Yet, that same bottle, set beside caviar and cigars becomes a sign of pretension and elitism, perhaps. In the hand of a tipsy homeless person? We associate it with inebriation and dissolution.

But this bottle of red wine does not inherently mean any one of these things; its meaning ensues from what our cultural presumptions and its contextual accompaniments impose upon it. At the same time, and returning to what I had said above, denying “interpretive anarchy,” picture our bottle of red wine in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and we become confused. What does this mean here? There is no immediate answer, and we have no way of locating a meaning for this bottle of wine (aside from just that: bottle of wine) until we are given some justification for its presence.

What does this have to do with medieval art?



These images, taken from the interior of Ely Cathedral, are discussed in Binski’s book, and provide a useful illustration for intentionally simultaneous multivalence in medieval images. In my next post I’ll discuss how these vault corbels are laden with numerous religiously and mythologically informed meanings. At the same time I will argue that it’s both the multiplcity of these meanings and the dominance of one specific, contextually determined meaning that makes these sculptures so useful in–not surprisingly–asserting the importance of this particular church.

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Textual Authority and the Vernacular Manuscript

Posted by gninja on June 15, 2006

(In a previous post, I discussed how the use of rubrication to highlight the words of Christ and the application of embellished scripts to chapter headings and conclusions served as conventional indicators of a text’s authority. Simply put, the more important a text, the more effort by scribes and illuminators put into ensuring that its message was communicated clearly. This included highlighting significant words or verses and dividing the text or argument into visually and conceptually digestible units.)

If visual devices that proclaimed the high intellectual value and authority of a work were employed in manuscripts that contain scriputral texts and works by auctores, what are we to make of the presence of these devices in a manuscript whose principal content is neither?

Take a look at this image:


No doubt you notice how elaborate this folio is.


What is it?

This image comes from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (MS M126) and is a manuscript containing John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (my bibliopgraphy can be found here: thesis-bibliography.doc). This extended poem of 33,000 lines is divided into eight books and a prologue. It was begun–according to Gower, at the behest of King Richard II–in 1386. The text begins with the complaint of a lovesick youth called Amans, who is visted by Venus and a Confessor, known as Genius. Seeing that he is so despondent in both his lovelorn status and disappointment with the affairs of his world (the Confessio Amantis, in several sections, is fraught with political overtones) the pair compel the lover to confess his feelings. The following seven books, then, proceed as an alternation between the lover’s confession and traditional tales of love. These tales are broken up thematically into seven different books, each one devoted to a deadly sin. As the text is intended to be instructional, for Amans and ostensibly the reader, each book contains heavily moralized stories dealing with the protagonists’ embodiment or sagacious rejection of the Deadly Sin at hand.

None of these stories is original. However, Gower proves an adept compilator in the way in which he organizes the arrangement of these tales thematically, and in the way he uses language. The Confessio Amantis is a macaronic work: that is, it is a single work combining more than one language. In this case, Gower has written in both Middle English and Latin. It is important to note the use of Latin in this secular poem. True, the division of tales into the Seven Deadly Sins is informed by Christianity. And the moralization of the tales is also predicated upon a Christian system of behavioral regulations. However, the content of the tales is by and large secular, and, for a society so entrenched in and circumscribed by Christianity, this work could in no way be mistaken for a religious text. Returning to the language, then, the use of Latin (the language of authority and religion) would have been seen as highly irregular here. And indeed, the Latin verses are in prose form (thus distinguishing it from the rhyming, poetic Middle English verses), and they are the words of a narrator who provides overtly moralized synopses for each tale.


Why language and division?

I have focused here on the use of Latin and the the tematically organized arragement of the Confessio Amantis because these are the most glaring signs that the author, Gower, was up to something. In addition to various other aspects of the text, the circumstances of the poem’s commission, and Gower’s bibliography, it is clear to me that he had an agenda. That agenda was to heft up the reputation of this vernacular collection of love stories to that of something with intellectual merit and gravitas. And, indeed, there is a large section in the middle of the poem devoted to a scientific and philosophical discussion. Which brings up Aristotle– the medieval method par excellence of ensuring that people would find you serious serious. They were insane for Aristotle.


So…what’s with the image?

Returning (finally) to the image above, I can point out some ways in which Gower ensured that even the visual presentation of his text conveyed its lofty nature. (Gower almost certainly had a hand in devising the original mauscript for this text, and this manuscript is a close descendent, of the original one, from the same scriptorium– meaning it probably reflects or even emulates the original design.) Note the rubrication. Throughout the manuscript, it is used only for the Latin and for character markers, denoting lines spoken by Genius and Amans in their dialogues. This use of character markers is more than just convenient: the Dialogue was a literary and philosophical genre dating back to antiquity, which in the Middle Ages was considered pertinent to high intellectual matter. Then there is the embellished initial ‘A’ in gold, marking the beginning of this section of text. There is also the miniature, one among 110 in this manuscript–an extraordinarily rare, high number of minitaures for a vernacular manuscript. These, too, are used as tools for division, marking off the most significant tales. The one we see illustrated here comes from the prologue of the poem, a section recounting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, interpreted as representing the devolution of society or the four empires of man. However, since the miniatures merit a discussion of their own, for now, it is important to draw our attention to the way in which this manuscript contains visual devices, once reserved exclusively for scriputural and “serious” authoritative texts in order to confer authority upon Gower’s poem.

This method is something we see every day, and while it’s not necessary to research the manuscripts of John Gower’s works, doing so is one way of becoming keenly attuned to it. Watching something that looks like a news report but feels fishily like an endorsement for something (be it Product X, Candidate Y, or Issue Z)? Our way of fitting one kind of content into the estimable framework of something reliable and authoritative. Happens all the time. Well, many of our medieval ancestors were mavericks at that game.


NB: this post has been the briefest of brief summaries of an argument I made in my BA Honors Thesis, A Fifteenth Century Manuscript of the Confessio Amantis. I would like to post it online and provide a link to it from here, when I can. The content will be available for anyone to read and use for research. Although it is unpublished and lacks an ISBN I do ask that anyone who references it provide the appropriate citation.

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Update on Non-Update

Posted by gninja on June 14, 2006

A brief note to the medieval art history fans out there in the ether.  My trusty computer, Gwen, ceased functioning.  But the old gal's up and running again, with a shiny new OS.  A new post shall follow shortly.

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Rubrication and Textual Authority

Posted by gninja on June 8, 2006

Recently I mentioned rubrucation as an organizational device in manuscripts, and while it is a simple enough tool in its description, it has a semiotic function that requires a more thorough explanation.

In brief: rubrication was the application of colored ink (usually red; from the Latin rubrico, “to color red”) to certain parts of a text. Notably, red letters were used to indicate direct quotes from Christ.

As an aside, I found this as Wiki’s entry for Red Letter Edition. Uh… “invented” in the 19th century? Sorry, but illuminators have been rubricating Christ’s words for at least a thousand years now. Grr.

In any case, rubrication was also used for titles, chapter headings, and chapter endings. So, for example, the begnning of a chapter would have such words in red as “Incipit liber 2…” as in the case of this 9th century manuscript, a collection of episcopal epistles and laws (or so I gathered from the very little Latin I could cull).


Another example would be this manuscript, a 13th century collection of works by Boethius and Aristotle.

In this case, an authoritative text has not only been given the honor of a floriated, rubricated title, but it has also received the marginal comments of numerous readers refusing to allow their philosophical heroes to rest in peace. Although a topic for another time, I do love this image because it is an illustration of just how interactive medieval manuscripts were– if you spent as many ducats as they did on a book, you were sure to bequeath it in yourwill, thereby ensuring that later generations would profit from the manscript… and that they’d eviscerate your marginal comments long after you were gone. But I’ve digressed.

So, the extra effort put into including painted chapter headings, section divisions, etc was reserved mostly for authoritative texts, often ones with complicated theoretical or philosophicl arguments that benefited from any number of visual forms of organization.

Eventually, as one might expect, what began as a visual tool to enhance facility of reading became a conceptual device to highlight the authoritative nature of the text. People automatically came to associate rubrication and textual division (divisio) with works of a lofty quality or elevated content.

Interestingly, I’ve seen evidence (though I cannot be certain that others would agree with me) in late medieval manuscripts of a conscious effort to usurp this marker of importance. More specifically, I’ve had the opportunity to study vernacular manuscripts containing what would have been considered frivolous or unimportant material employing the devices of authority to proclaim their own importance. This, however, will be left alone for now and discussed in my next post.

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Canon Tables

Posted by gninja on June 6, 2006

Canon tables are a fairly neat little convention seen in many medieval bibles. As an invention, they are attributed to Eusebius, a 3rd-4th century bishop of Palestine and major player in the First Council of Nicaea. Whether or not there is truth in this attribution, its association with an early Church Father nonetheless testifies to the importance of canon tables in the written tradition of the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels (the canonical, as opposed to the apocryphal, ones).

In short, a canon table is a tool of concordance. Because the four Gospels differ from one another, a table was created to show which verses are shared by each or some of the Gospels, and where these verses occur.

Here’s an example of a canon table:


These, much like a table of contents page, were most often placed at the beginning of a manuscript, and it was not uncommon for multiple canon tables to be included.

Canon tables, however, are not merely a nifty convenience, but they also serve a less practical and more conceptual purpose. If you recall, I had mentioned in my last post that a medieval reader would be attuned to certain signs in the manuscript. For example, the layout of the text and the script– just two of many, many possible signs– conveyed to the reader what kind of literature or writing she was about to read. (I must pause here to name-drop in order to emphasize how useful the work of AJ Minnis and MB Parkes is to supplying us with an understanding of medieval textual organization and presentation. Strikingly, neither of these men is an art historian. They, like so many scholars of manuscript studies, are literary theorists.)

One of these signs is indeed the canon table. Because the Bible is the ultimate auctoritas,the manuscript containing the words of the Bible would be given the most careful and deliberate treatment, whereas the manuscript containing a set of lyrics and romances would be given a more casual look.

Think of it in terms of a meal. A meal is something we eat. But a picnic comes with a set of signs very different from a holiday meal. (NB: I am describing in the following the Americanized ideals or models with the full recognition that such are paragons and not necessarily typicalities.) The picnic comes with: basket, blanket, paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery, disposable cups, hand-held food, and a more laid back attitide of the participants. A holiday meal–let’s say Thanksgiving–comes with: a table with fancy table-cloth, the special family silverware, fine china, foods that require different utensils, and participants who engage in formalized rituals (e.g. naming the things for which we are thankful). If we saw a picnic layout, we would not approach it with the same demeanor as we would a Thanksgiving spread, and vice-versa.

So it is with texts, and even moreso for manuscripts, which were unique and often illustrated. The canon table was a tool that not only helped readers find concordances among the Gospels, but it also reinforced the authority and eminence of the text. Immediately upon opening the manuscript, and without reading a word, the reader would confront an elaborate table. And like the fine china and sparkling crystal glasses at the Thanksgiving meal, the table would prcolaim “imporatant!”

Of course, this is a Bible, and it seems that such a sign would be unnecessary– everyone knows (or knew) that the Bible was, well, The Good Book. True, but such a truth does not inhere in the text itself, but rather the traditions, laws, and institutions that are built up around it. People never automatically thought the Bible was the ultimate textual authority. It took years for such an authority to be established, and the creation of an elaborate, finely decorated, and painstakingly organized manuscript tradition for Bibles helped establish the text’s authority. Of course, so too did many other conventions within Christianity.

It’s no mistake, then, that canon tables almost always come within an architectural framework (take another look at the image above). Not only does the table assert the authority of the text, but it also houses (pun absolutely intended) the Word of God within the structure of the Church, thereby co-opting the Word’s power for itself. To say co-opt may even be an understatement, since Christ was considered Word incarnate (the Word was actually considered the inviolate body of Christ, which was why vandalizing a Bible would be likened linguistically to injuring Christ’s body). So, really, when one looks at these canon tables, he is looking at the institution of the Church being the receptacle, the house, for the body of Christ. I can’t think of a greater power statement within the context of medieval society than that.

Note: I understand that this last paragraph has a whole lot of information in very little space. I hope, in the future, to expland upon and clarify these notions.

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Marginalia as Subversive?: Part 2 of 2

Posted by gninja on June 3, 2006

In the previous post, I described facing folios in the Rutland Psalter. While my intention is to focus on the, perhaps surprising, marginal images below the text, I made sure to characterize all aspects of the folios– not just the figures below. The reason for doing this is twofold:

1) in a manuscript even the text should be considered as an image, in that the way in which the words are written (their form, or, their appearance) carries meaning in the same way we today would use, for example, cursive for a formal invitation and bubble letters for a lemonade-stand sign.

2) standard art history practice is to describe all of what you see, to alllow the reader to get his bearings, even if you only intend to talk about a section of the image.

Specific to this work, however, I described the text because it is important to note how the illuminator has both divided text and image and created continuity between text and image.

Let’s start with division. This is a sacred text, and its inviolate nature is emphasized by the area of text remaining an organized, even, independent unit. As I mentioned yesterday, the artist has deliberately used design (i.e. the pen flourishes) to ensure that the lines of text all end evenly. The rubricated initials at the beginning of each verse establish order in the way enumerating chapters does. The letters are inscribed in a formal script, as well. Medieval readers would have been familiar with these characteristics as signs of a sacred or authoritative text– vernacular or secular texts of less serious content woud not be given such a treatment. There would be few, if any, attempts at visually dividing sections of text into verses or chapters, script would be less even and formal, etc.

However, the odd hybrid creature indicates a continuity between text and marginal image. Not only does it extend from the painted border of the text into the marginal area, but it gazes at the marginal figures as well. Thus, these two areas of the folio are separate, yet somwhow in dialogue. The very hybridity of the creature marks this folio as a site of amalgamated difference: sacred text; profane marginalia.

Proceeding, then, to the marginal figures…

On the left :

On the right:


Rather than ferret out the exact meaning of these images, I am interested in understanding how they work. For one, I do not have a proficient knowlede of Latin and therefore cannot comment on how these images may be making visual puns from words in the Psalm (Camille argues that the ass-baring figure is a play on “iuvencularum,” a combination of iuven [youth] and cul [ass], immediately above). For another, even if these images did have one specific meaning, trying to find it would be a fool’s errand. We can’t know what the artist intended, and there are far too many documents that could be culled selectively and used as proof for various different arguments.

So, where’s the beef? Or, rather, what’s the point?

Unlike miniatures or the formal painted elements within or bordering the block of text, which were usually created according to pencilled-in instructions left by the manuscript devisor (i.e. the boss), the margins were areas where the artists could do their own thing and play around. They were informal spaces for jokes or bawdy and strange images. The thing is, this was still a manuscript created by a monk, or at the very least, by someone working within a monastery workshop. So whatever the joke or subversive image may have been, it still functions in a way that reaffirms the power of the existing order.


By putting all these weird images that may even be mocking the sacred text outside of the sacred text, in a marginal space, the artist reduces the importance or the power of the image. If the image weren’t there we as readers wouldn’t even pause to think about the appropriate place of a naked guy’s ass or a man riding an oversized bird. But, because they are there, we now have reason to think about them. And where do they exist? Outside of the good, natural, superior, God-given order of the Psalm. At the same time, the saucy image (and, I should mention, there were many of these throughout the Rutland Psalter) gives the reader a sense of freedom from their naughtiness. But this is a false sense of freedom, because the reader is laughing at what the Church allows him to find funny. And he finds it funny because he knows it’s something considered abnormal or transgressive. By laughing, the reader then re-confirms the order of what is licit and illicit.

So would I say this marginalia is subversive? Absolutely not.

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