the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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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