Felice Lifshitz

title.none: Camille, Image on the Edge (Lifshitz)

identifier.other: baj9928.9310.011 93.10.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Felice Lifshitz, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Florida International University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1993

identifier.citation: Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Essays in Art and Culture. Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. 176. ISBN: ISBN 0-948462-27-2 (hbk) ISBN 0-948462-28-0 (pbk).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 93.10.11

Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Essays in Art and Culture. Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. 176. ISBN: ISBN 0-948462-27-2 (hbk) ISBN 0-948462-28-0 (pbk).

Reviewed by:

Felice Lifshitz
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Florida International University

In a few days, it will be Halloween. Across North America, in suburbs and inner cities alike, witches, goblins, monkeys, monsters, clowns and every conceivable imaginary image which can possibly be reduced to a costume will take center stage. The "marginals" of real-life society will also be depicted, as numerous bourgeois women dress as prostitutes and gypsies. And the "marginals" of society will themselves seize the spotlight in Greenwich Village and on Miami Beach, where flamboyant drag queens will parade in costume down the very center of the busy city streets. It is the great merit of Michael Camille's new book to bring to the general attention of medievalists precisely the sort of "marginal" world that, on October 31, will take center stage. It is the great failing of the book that Camille, having brought the margins to the center of attention, insists on using post-modern theory to re-imprison "marginalia" in a donjon more brutal than the oubliette in which, ignored, they had previously languished.

"Marginal art," after well over one hundred pages of analysis, turns out to be meaningless, like carnival, a mere "carefully controlled valve for letting off steam....[which] often served to legitimate the status quo" (p. 143). In Camille's view, even the most apparently subversive marginalia and even the most apparently subversive carnavalesque behavior functions in "complicity with the social order." Likewise, the men in matching white tights, white stiletto heals, naval dress jackets and dress hats who will parade arm in arm on Miami Beach this coming weekend will not be truly challenging anything about society.

It is the measure of a successful book that it can engender debate; Camille's book will certainly do that. The substance of the book, the evidence which Camille brings forward, is new, stimulating, indeed fascinating; the discursive strategies which he himself applies to make sense of the material will offend some and thrill others, but whichever side of the fence one falls on, everyone will be grateful for the opportunity to think about and discuss some of the most important issues facing scholars today. The study is densely-packed with ideas, most of which are highly debateable; only a fraction of the issues raised by Camille will be addressed here, for the book deserves to be read by the widest possible audience. Indeed, only by reading the book for oneself, and seeing the illustrations, can one begin to comprehend what Camille is talking about.

The organization of the book is brilliant. Camille leads the reader into the subject matter along a road that leads, imperceptibly, from a few cute and almost predictable figures sketched in the margins of some Gothic manuscripts, to the realization that images at least surprising and at most shocking blanket the usually-ignored edges of hundreds of manuscripts, and lurk on the less-prominent surfaces of tens of architectural monuments. A man uses a pulley to indicate the proper position of a verse omitted by a scribe and added at the bottom of the page (p. 24). The instruments of the Passion join a Crucifixion in the margins of a Book of Hours (p. 29). Knights run away from snails (pp. 32 and 35). Monkeys and lions and other beasts cavort and even copulate in a number of manuscripts. One almost thinks, so what? But little by little, exclamation points begin to collect in the margins of the reader's own copy. A naked man extends his posterior towards a monkey mounted on a peacock and, patting his exposed buns, invites the monkey to insert a spear into his anus while a toucan-like creature with an enormous beak penetrates the man's anus, and this in the margins of a Book of Hours (p. 49)! The figure of a man is carved on the bottom of a misericord such that his flared nostrils would sniff at the buttocks of whoever sat down in the choir stall (p. 94). A crouching gentleman defecates turds that are carried ceremoniously by a page boy to a lady (p. 112). And so on and so forth.

Then there is the matter of what it all means. Throughout there are a series of illuminating apercus in connection with individual examples, and Camille never fails to relate the marginal images either to the text at the center of the page, or to the more frequently studied sections of the cathedrals and monasteries. Rather than cite Camille's many insights, I repeat that the book deserves to be read; it is short enough to be finished in a single sitting. But all his individual insights are incapable of supporting the enormous general edifice that Camille erects around them. There are perhaps tens of unsupported and sloppy generalizations scattered throughout, yet all of those are subordinated to yet another level of argumentation, that of the overarching theme of the book: that no marginal art ever challenged the "absolute hegemony" of the system (p. 160).

I am reminded of Brigitte Cazelles' "The Lady as Saint. A Collection of French Hagiographical Romances of the Thirteenth Century," and of Caroline Bynum's "Holy Feast, Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women." Camille, Cazelles and Bynum all adhere to a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if- you-don't" methodology which turns every "marginal" into a victim, and robs women (just to take one example) of the ability to speak for themselves by denying the evidence that they have in fact done so, and by neutralizing or even inverting all non-victimizing portrayals. Cazelles publishes a large number of romances whose heroines are female saints. In some of the romances, the women are pinned by the male gaze, undressed, dissected (sometimes literally) and silent; Cazelles is perfectly justified (though not necessarily correct) in seeing such literary images as anti-woman. But in many of the romances, the heroines are powerful, eloquent, active, and ultimately triumphant; these Cazelles either ignores in her extensive commentaries, or twists into statements of hostility towards females. Bynum has been recently criticized by K. Biddick in Speculum 68 (1993) 389ff. As for Camille, he writes: "Binding ladies in the lists as spectators of unending games of male prowess, pitting them against men in marital jousts, giving them the upper hand in the popular marginal image of Phyllis riding Aristotle, or making them the luxurious sirens that drop their distaffs to cavort with any man who comes along - women are clearly the victims of a deep misogyny in medieval marginal art, which seals them into oppressive simulations of their social position" (p. 127).

It seems that, for Camille, whether a woman is shown on top of a man, on the same level as a man, or underneath a man, the depiction is to be considered unflattering to the woman! This discursive strategy, which is illogical in any case, depends entirely on the assumption that "these images are made, for the most part, by and for men" (p. 127). Yet that premise is manifestly false. On what basis does Camille assert that the embroideresses who created the Bayeux Tapestry, including its two rich borders, were only following male designs (p. 126)? And how can he ignore the fact that two of the three marginal artists whose names are known to him are women, one of whom depicted herself at work in one of her margins (pp. 147-149)? If there is little warrant for claiming that the images were made by men, there is none for the notion that they were made for men. Named female patrons are ubiquitous in Camille's study, and unnamed ones can be assumed for most of the Books of Hours which form such a large portion of the evidentiary base, for these codices,

So in the end, all of the previously little-known "marginal art" brought together by Camille does not lead to the re-thinking of any old cliches, inherited from the revolutionaries of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, for whom the "Middle Ages" was a world devoutly to be overthrown. Despite page after page of evidence of irreverent, iconoclastic, even outrageous marginal images produced during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Camille still believes that "the medieval image-world was, like medieval life itself, rigidly structured and hierarchical" (p. 26). If, in the end, all these outrageous images in fact "work to reinstate the very models they oppose" (p. 30), someone had better stop the Halloween paraders in Greenwich Village with a little initiation into post-modern theory, before they waste their time making costumes for yet another counter-productive though cathartic display.