William J. Diebold

title.none: Henderson, Early Medieval

identifier.other: baj9928.9411.001 94.11.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William J. Diebold, Reed College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Henderson, George. Early Medieval. Series: Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 29. University of Toronto Press, 1993. (paperback). $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8020-6984-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.11.01

Henderson, George. Early Medieval. Series: Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 29. University of Toronto Press, 1993. (paperback). $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8020-6984-3.

Reviewed by:

William J. Diebold
Reed College

The conventions of book reviewing demand that the first part of the review (and its bulk) be devoted to an assessment of a book's content. Remarks concerning the book's form, be it the author's style, the proofreading, or the finished volume's appearance, are relegated to the end. Reviewers tend to privilege content; criticisms of form are thought pedantic, not really serious (as a result, they are traditionally deprecated as "quibbles"). In the case of last year's reprint of George Henderson's 1972 Early Medieval, however, this convention must be discarded, for the book's production is so egregious as to make it useless for its intended audience, students of early medieval art.

Simply put, a good number of the book's 150 illustrations are illegible, some grotesquely so. The perfectly serviceable black-and-white half-tones of the original edition, well printed on a slightly-glossy stock, have been photo-mechanically reproduced on an off-white, non-glossy stock in the new reprint. The result is something with which every professional art historian is familiar, for it looks just like what medium-quality xerox machines were capable of a decade ago (today's machines can produce results far superior to any photograph which appears in the reprint of Henderson's book). The quality of the illustrations in the reissue of Early Medieval reaches a nadir such as I have never seen in a professionally-made book. Everyone will have their "favorites:" figure 71, allegedly a page from the Marmoutier sacramentary of Abbot Raganaldus, looks like a black-and-white photograph of a distant galaxy; figure 12, the altar frontal from Basel, now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, resembles Ross Bleckner's paintings of the 1980s; figure 61c, a coin of Constantine, is simply a solid black splotch. (Those who remember the quality of the photographs in the first paperback edition of Ernst Kitzinger's Byzantine Art in the Making will wonder if there is a conspiracy at North American university presses to prevent interesting books on early medieval art from falling into the hands of students.) Other aspects of the book's appearance, while not as devastating to its utility as the miserable photographs, are unfortunate. For example, the size of the text block is identical in the 1972 and 1993 editions, but the pages of the latter are an inch higher and wider: the unfortunate result is the new edition's ungainly appearance, with margins too large and a typeface too small for the page. Again, the impression is of a book photocopied in an era before xerox machines with enlarging/reducing capabilities were common.

This last criticism of the book's design is truly a quibble, and thus should perhaps have been placed at the end of this review, but it does make one wonder whether the University of Toronto Press has any interest in attracting readers. In any event, the reprint of Early Medieval is simply unacceptable for undergraduate students, who must be the book's intended audience. The quality of the photographs rules it out, especially at the hefty price of $19.95 (for contrast, my copy of the 1972 edition was priced at $1.95). Likewise offputting for students is the bibliography (not updated from the original edition); its frequent reference to French, German, and Italian sources (to say nothing of texts in Hungarian and all of the Scandinavian tongues), many of them in hard-to-find journals and essay collections, makes it essentially unusable for the American undergraduate. These fundamental problems with the reprint of Early Medieval are surprising, because art history has, until now, been well served by the Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching. The series has made available the exceptionally useful source collections on Byzantine, early medieval, and Gothic art edited by Cyril Mango, Caecilia Davis-Weyer, and Teresa Frisch respectively. These volumes, of course, are all without pictures, but other art-historical volumes in the series, including Katzenellenbogen's Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, Kleinbauer's Modern Perspectives in Western Art History," and, exceptionally well-done in respect to images, Shailor's The Medieval Book indicate that the University of Toronto Press can produce a more-than-acceptable book at a reasonable price. All this history makes the production of the reprint of Early Medieval that much more of a disappointment.

And disappointing it is, because Henderson's book is quite a good one. Like the other volumes in the distinguished "Style and Civilization" series in which it originally appeared (notably Linda Nochlin's Realism, and John Shearman's Mannerism), Early Medieval is no traditional survey. Henderson's early Middle Ages run from the fifth century to the Gothic in western Europe. Henderson divides this material into six chapters, thematically unified rather than chronologically defined. In the first he lays out his idea of what is distinctively early medieval. This is basically a familiar tale of the mixture of the Christian, classical, and barbarian traditions, but Henderson is exceptionally skilled at showing how these three elements were combined in very different ways in a wide range of medieval art works. The next five chapters present different manifestations of Henderson's basic formula. One concerns the period's interest in precious materials, another its fascination with fantastic beasts. Chapter 4, on the antique tradition and the uses to which it was put in the early Middle Ages, is in many ways the most conventional, but even going over such well-worked ground Henderson has interesting insights, for he ranges widely in his choice of monuments and the ways in which he looks at them . The centerpiece of the chapter, for example, is the little-known bronze statuette of a nude man, presumably Hercules, wrestling a lion, presumably that of Nemea (listed in the book as being in the Irwin Untermeyer collection, its 1972 location, the piece is now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Henderson places this work into contexts ranging from classical Greece to twelfth-century England. In the process he considers the evidence provided by its iconography and its form. The analysis is a tour-de-force of Henderson's method of illuminating works from several angles to tell his story, although in this instance the force of that analysis in respect to early medieval art is sharply dulled if we accept, as most now do, that the statuette was made in sixteenth-century Augsburg, not twelfth-century England.1 Chapter 5, on medieval narrative, is also very well done, for Henderson has several prescient remarks (especially for 1972!) about the limits of comparing verbal and visual narrative. The book's last chapter studies one of the most important subjects of medieval art, the quintessential sign, the cross.

Henderson's treatment of the period is admirably synthetic, his choice of monuments idiosyncratic but inspired. Most of the old chestnuts are here, including Sutton Hoo, Aachen, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Vezelay (but how many books on this subject written since the turn of the century have had the courage to omit the Book of Kells and the Ebbo Gospels!), but they are interspersed with any number of less familiar and illuminating examples, particularly of the British and Scandinavian material which Henderson knows best. Ironically, it's Henderson's fascinating selection of monuments which makes the book, with its illegible photographs, impossible for even a specialist in the field to use. We (if not our students) can all call the Lorsch gateway or the evangelists from the Lindisfarne Gospels to mind when prompted by a caption, but for how many medieval art historians are the Gropina pulpit (figure 5), the facade of Echillais (fig. 17), the Snartemo sword hilt (fig. 41), or the Pruem Gospels (fig. 64) equally vivid names? Henderson's book is well worth reading and would be ideal for intelligent undergraduates, but it will be the lucky (not to mention exceptionally diligent) instructor who will be able to dig up enough second-hand copies of the original for his students; by contrast, any teacher who assigns the 1993 reprint will do a disservice to students on tight budgets, not to mention to the discipline of art history.

1 I am grateful to Charles T. Little, a curator in the Medieval Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for information concerning this statuette.