McIlwain, Margot

title.none: Hindman, Sealed in Parchment

identifier.other: baj9928.9510.004 95.10.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: McIlwain, Margot, New York University, Institute of Fine Arts

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Hindman, Sandra. Sealed in Parchment. Rereadings of Knighthood in the Illuminated Manuscripts of Chretien de Troyes. University of Chicago Press, 1994. $16.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-226-34156-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.10.04

Hindman, Sandra. Sealed in Parchment. Rereadings of Knighthood in the Illuminated Manuscripts of Chretien de Troyes. University of Chicago Press, 1994. $16.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-226-34156-9.

Reviewed by:

McIlwain, Margot
New York University, Institute of Fine Arts

In their 1938 study of Arthurian iconography (*Arthurian Legends in Medieval Art,* London and New York, 1938), Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis puzzled over the fact that the majority of illuminated Arthurian manuscripts were written and decorated, not by Parisian artisans, but instead by Picard scribes and Northern French and Flemish painters. It seemed that the wealthy nobility of Picardy, Artois, Hainaut, and Flanders had "a special enthusiasm for Arthurian legend" at the end of the thirteenth century, and therefore "the artists of this region became the first regular illuminators of Arthurian texts (p. 89)." Their products, however, "lacked the extreme refinement and sophistication of the best Parisian artists (p. 89)," and the relationship between text and image in these manuscripts, according to Loomis and Loomis, seemed whimsical at best: "Sometimes designers must have read a book in substantially the form we have it but felt no obligation to adhere in all respects to its indications: as a result they produced at haphazard various novelties (p. 8)."

In many respects Sandra Hindman's *Sealed in Parchment* confronts this negative evaluation, based on questions of style and composition, which persists today in discussions of Arthurian manuscripts (see for instance: Alison Stones, "Arthurian Art Since Loomis," in *Arturus Rex* Volume II. *Acta Conventus Lovaniensis 1987.* Leuven, 1991, esp. p. 24). Looking beyond the sometimes awkward handling of figures in the illuminated manuscripts of Chretien de Troyes' romances, Hindman argues that the "novelties" of iconography, dismissed as "haphazard" by the Loomis', in fact responded to the specific concerns of the contemporary Picard and Flemish nobility who favored these texts. For the modern reader, therefore, the peculiarities in the illustrations provide some of the most compelling evidence for understanding the reception of Chretien's texts within this audience.

There are 44 extant manuscript copies of Chretien de Troyes' four Arthurian romances, according to Hindman. 32 manuscripts contain complete or nearly complete versions of the texts, and about one-third of these are illustrated. The poems themselves were composed in the latter part of the 12th century, but no manuscripts survive from the author's lifetime. All of the illustrated copies date from between 1275 and 1325. Some of these contain as few as a single image. For instance, there are two illustrated copies each of *Erec et Enide* and *Le Chevalier de la Charette (Lancelot)*, and none of these contain more than three miniatures (although, one copy of Lancelot is incomplete). *Le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain)* also survives in just two illustrated copies, one incomplete with seven remaining miniatures and the other with ten. For *Le Conte del Graal (Perceval)*, the last of Chretien's poems, and its continuations, however, there are five extant illustrated manuscripts, and four of these contain more than fifty miniatures each.

For Hindman these manuscripts reflect change -- change in the socio-political fortunes of the northern aristocracy and change in the medieval culture of reading. She uses the motif of the knight, the profession common to all of Chretien's protagonists, to track this change. In each of five chapters she considers how distinct social identities for the knight seem to have dominated the way in which individual texts of Chretien's poems were illustrated, read, and understood. Thus in chapter 1, *Li Clerc*, she focuses on the "religious dimension" of *Le Conte del Graal (Perceval)* and its continuations as she sees them developed in one of the earliest manuscripts (Paris, BN, MS fr. 12576). In chapter 2, *Li Bacheler*, she considers the two illuminated manuscripts of *Le Chevalier du Lion (Yvain)*, as exemplars for the pursuits of the youthful knight (Paris, BN, MS fr. 1433 and Princeton University Library, Garrett MS 125). In chapter 3, *Li Seigneur*, she returns to *Le Conte del Graal*, arguing that the Mons manuscript (Bibl. de l'Univ., MS 331/206) uniquely promotes Perceval as a model for "the male head of a household." Chapter 4, *Li Combateur* focuses on one copy of *Erec et Enide* (Paris, BN, MS fr. 24403) in which the illustrations prompted a "rereading" of the text "as a story about the martial prowess of the knight." And finally in chapter 5, *Li Roi*, Hindman returns again to *Le Conte del Graal*, examining the two latest manuscripts, both decorated in Paris, for their unusual emphasis on the role of King Arthur in the rubrics and miniatures (Paris, BN, MSS fr. 1453 and fr. 12577).

In each chapter Hindman compiles a formidable amount of evidence in support of her "rereadings" of Chretien's texts. She subjects the individual manuscripts to close scrutiny, considering the physical characteristics ("size, nature of parchment, and evidence of use"), textual content (within Chretien's individual texts and within the manuscript as a whole), pictorial content, and the *mise-en-page* (i.e., the design of the page, including the placement of text, pictures, and rubrics). To this she adds material from contemporary social and cultural history. The structure of the chapters follows a single formula. First, Hindman outlines Chretien's story. Then she considers the relationship of the images to the narrative. She considers specifically how the socio-historical context might have effected the themes picked out in the illustrations. And finally, she examines the design of the manuscript and the types of subjects depicted for insights into the changing practical uses of the texts "at a time when oral and written modes of thought still coexisted (p. 8)."

One of the more interesting features that Hindman's study reveals is how often the dominant theme of the illustrations seems at odds with the dominant theme of the narrative. For *Erec et Enide*, for example, the critical literary debate usually centers around the relationship of the title characters and what this "conveys about ideals of love in chivalric society (p. 129)." In chapter 4, however, Hindman argues for a reading that emphasizes Erec's role as "an accomplished warrior or *combateur* (p. 129)" rather than a lover, based on her examination of one of the illuminated manuscripts, which was made in Picardy, possibly in Arras, around 1300 (Paris, BN, MS fr. 24403). The three images that illustrate *Erec et Enide*, the themes of the two accompanying texts (both epic poems), and the 17 illustrations for these all emphasize "excellence at arms" over romantic pursuits. Since the profession of arms in Picardy in the 13th century was shifting away from aristocratic privilege, Hindman argues that these combat-heavy illustrations must have responded to the nobility's nostalgia for a Picardy free of mercenary soldiers.

The image of the knight, clad in armor and mounted on a horse, appears in the majority of miniatures illustrating Chretien's romances, and in many of these the figure engages in combat against other knights, giants, and animals. The same types illustrate epic poems and prose romances of the same period, and the repetitive character of much of this imagery is enough to deter most art historians, as well as literary scholars, from a closer examination. The insistence on a more nuanced reading of these images in relation to Chretien's texts is, therefore, much to Hindman's credit. But her interpretive method, based as she explains in her Introduction on literary criticism's "new philology," clearly yields more convincing results for some of the manuscripts, such as the Paris *Erec et Enide* discussed above, than for others. Sometimes her "rereadings" of individual programs of illustration seem forced in order to conform to the tidy distinctions set out in the chapter outline.

For instance, in chapter 1 she suggests that the relationship of text to image in a *Conte del Graal* manuscript made in Picardy around 1275 (Paris, BN, MS fr. 12576) reflected the popularity of religious professions in this region at a time when the "interrelated feudal and clerical systems in provincial France" were in "crisis." Indeed, this is the "most overtly religious" of Chretien's poems, and in the miniature following the final continuation of the story (fig. 17), Perceval has shed his armor, kneels at the center of the image, and prays before the Holy Grail, which an angel hands to a woman, perhaps Ecclesia, at left. Hindman argues that this depiction illustrates and emphasizes the passage at the end of the text in which Perceval is described late in his life as a cleric, worshipping day and night before the Grail. A good part of her argument hinges on Pereceval's attire in the miniature. I would not agree, however, that Perceval is dressed in "clerical garb," since his non-descript belted robe, which is dark blue, appears to be fashioned according to the same model as the secular garments worn throughout the corpus of Arthurian illustrations. This miniature certainly punctuates the tale of Perceval's quest with his "ultimate triumph as a Christian knight (p. 37)." Since most of the other 27 illustrations feature Perceval or Gawain fully clad in armor, however, I am not convinced that this miniature and a few other spiritually-oriented scenes would have weighted the reception of the whole poem in favor of the "social viability of the clerical life (p. 13)."

For the most part, I found Hindman's "rereadings" compelling if not always completely convincing. *Sealed in Parchment* provides a compact introduction to many of the issues that concern both art historians and literary scholars with interests in secular manuscripts, and her analyses activate the images for the general reader in a much more satisfying way than discussions that focus on stylistic and iconographic relationships alone. Hindman's book is even more useful for the scholar, however, when read in tandem with the two-volume corpus of Chretien's manuscripts published just a year before Hindman's book (Keith Busby, et al., eds. *Les Manuscrits de Chretien de Troyes: The Manuscripts of Chretien de Troyes.* 2 vols. Amsterdam, 1993). Hindman does not include a handlist of the illuminated manuscripts, which would have helped in sorting out the discrepancies between her Introduction and the chapters in terms of numbers of manuscripts and miniatures. Since the list would have included only eleven manuscripts, it would not have required much extra trouble. All of the manuscripts, however, not just those with illustrations, are described in great detail in the catalogue of Busby, et al., and the subjects of all the miniatures are listed in a separate appendix.