Mary Carruthers

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

identifier.other: baj9928.9404.002 94.04.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Carruthers, New York University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. 176. ISBN: ISBN 0-948462-27-2 (hb) ISBN 0-948462-28-0 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.04.02

Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. 176. ISBN: ISBN 0-948462-27-2 (hb) ISBN 0-948462-28-0 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Mary Carruthers
New York University

By now most scholars know that Michael Camille's book about Gothic marginal art, chiefly English, of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, has stirred up interest, scandal, and protest among art historians and some other medievalists here and abroad. The overall thesis of this short but densely-packed study is that the marginal spaces, of cathedrals as of books, are an area of controlled "mayhem," of "intentional misreading," and of "class antagonism" between the (aristocratic and clerical) area of the author-text and the area of the margins, made by (lower class) artisans, some of whom were women. The debt of this formulation to Foucauldian, Bakhtinian, and Turneresque formulations carrying a vaguely Marxist stamp is apparent both to Camille himself and to any of his readers who haven't slept through the last fifteen years of "theory" debates in academia. I suspect, however, that this is the first time that "liminality" and "marginalized groups" have been treated so materially as areas of a manuscript page. And it is exactly this literalizing and materializing of metaphors, via puns and other play, that provides most of the shock value of Camille's study.

That a frank discussion (with many pictures) of activities both sexual (auto-, homo-, and heteroerotic) and scatological (farting and spitting) would shock the sensibilities of a reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement, as Camille's has done, is not surprising (see his anticipatory comments on p. 134). But Camille has also shocked reviewers, including one for this journal, sympathetic with Marxist-style analysis, by claiming that the "margins" (and, by extension, those who made the images on the edge) were not, as a Bakhtinian analysis would have it, areas of popular revolt and carnivalesque resistance to the official order(s). Camille believes rather that "Gothic marginal art flourished ... by virtue of the absolute hegemony of the system it sought to subvert" (p. 160), and -- even more shockingly -- that images at the edge are not truly subversive at all, but "work to reinstate the very models they oppose" (p. 30) in parody and pun. In other words, the supposed riot in the margins of Gothic art and architecture is in fact supportive of an effort "to give birth to meaning at the centre" (p. 48), for "[t]he centre is ... dependent upon the margins for its continued existence" (p. 10).

It is unfortunate, I think, that Camille has relied so much on post-Marxist writers for his formulations, because they often lead him into a distracting language of class rivalry and social antagonism, and away from the cognitive and ethical areas of reading and meditation on which he really wants to focus, and where in fact this study has the most to contribute. Camille states early on his hope that his book "will stimulate many annotations, additions, queries and even, perhaps, one or two doodles of disagreement from its readers, eager to make images on the edge" (p. 10). In saying this he reveals his profound understanding of what medieval margins are for: not for the conduct (whether sham or actual) of Marxist-inspired class rivalries, but to provide a cognitive locus for readerly recollection and dialogue with the engendering text at the center, whether that "text" be words (in books) or sculptural compositions (in the capitals and tympana of churches).

The margins are a place of cognitive engagement, via play of all sorts, with the central text. Easiest to see in page layout, the principle applies also to the "marginal" areas of church architecture -- the outside, to be sure (gargoyles and the like grotesques), but also such marginal interior areas as the bottoms of choir stalls and the bases of columns and arches. Camille's chapters on the "margins of the Monastery" and the "Margins of the Cathedral" bring a marginal awareness to medieval architecture that is refreshing. As he comments, "Gothic art has for too long been studied as 'rational' architectural order, while the irrational, magical impulses that also helped create its illusory transcendence have been ignored" (p. 93). But no longer, thanks to Camille's generous collection of excellent photographs.

The book is filled with amusing pictures and jests and puns, both visual and linguistic; Camille's comments on the particular details of his illustrations are a continuing pleasure (or irritation). But a careful reader would do well to carry on the author's play even farther than he himself takes it. For example, he describes how, on one page of the Rutland Psalter (c. 1260) "the letter p of the Latin word conspectu (meaning to see or penetrate visually) enters the anus of a prostrate fish-man by joining up with the arrow shot by an exotic archer" (p. 22). Good: the pun on conspectu, together with the convention of a "penetrating" look visualized as an arrow (common in literature and art), works fine paronomastic comedy in this particular case. But Camille goes on to say that "[s]uch antagonism or 'difference' between text and image is due to important changes in manuscript production" that gave the illuminator "a chance of undermining the always already written Word" (p. 22). The assumptions at work in this judgment are apparent, and, to my mind, largely irrelevant to the function of the margins in this and other medieval art.

Though I think Camille wanted to pay particular attention to the role of the margins' cognitive play in the production of meaning, his class-based theoretical vocabulary leads him away from metaphor (including paronomasia) and towards an inconsistent and clumsy socialism. The "antagonism" he notes between margin and text in the Rutland Psalter can also be explained (and rather more readily) as cognitive in function, and particularly mnemonic, a complex of puns designed to start an observant, thoughtful reader off on a meditative degustation of the text. Modern scholars have not paid sufficient attention to the medieval faith in the value -- indeed cognitive essentialness -- of oppositions. One need look no further than Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy to find this ubiquitous trope being used to develop and order a moral meditation. I would argue that the riotousness of Gothic marginalia has more to do with the perceived value of thinking via opposites, and of recollective chain-making via all sorts of puns, than with a class struggle between illuminators and scribes. It was an elementary principle that recollection proceeded via association, and that associations may develop through sameness, similarity, and opposition. Violent sexual images were thought to be particularly effective, and so "approved," as can be seen from the examples in Thomas Bradwardine's "De Memoria Artificiali Adquirenda," a Gothic text produced by exactly the culture Camille addresses in this book.

Moreover, the sexual and scatological images of Gothic marginalia should (I think) be considered particularly in the context of common medieval tropes for reading: first, that of a reader as "impregnated" by the words of a text (especially in meditative prayer) and so enabled to give cognitive "birth" through meditation to the ethical experience of a text; and second, that of reading as "food" (especially "bread") to be digested -- and excreted -- by the reader, again in the context of meditational rumination. Both these tropes are common in monastic culture, and thence made their more general way in the later Middle Ages. To be sure, pictures of outsized penises and large turds are shocking, especially in the pages of prayer books, but the mnemonic and hence cognitive and ethical value of shock (including laughter) was recognized, counseled, and cultivated, especially during the period Camille is concerned with. For "c. 1260" (the date of the Rutland Psalter) coincides with the full-fledged general revival (from c. 1235) of the artificial memory precepts taught in the Roman Rhetorica ad Herennium, which especially commended the mnemonic power of laughter (the mnemonic power of tears was always valued) and of making exaggerated, grotesque images for memory-work.

Such an analysis supports Camille's assertion that the center depends complexly for its life upon readerly play in the margins, and would enable him, rather better than do the Marxist theorists whose language he uses, to avoid merely polarizing his terms and so permanently separating the two areas of the "page" (whether of manuscript or memory). All readers can profit from the wealth of Camille's knowledge and his cognitive play in the margins of Gothic art. But in this review, I have also taken up his invitation to doodle in the margins of his book with my own conversational exclamations. In doing so, I hope to make even more fruitful the compositions (that is, bringings-together) of images and words that Michael Camille has set in motion in this lively, beautiful book.