Joyce Kubiski

title.none: Sherman, Imaging Aristotle (Kubiski)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.015 97.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joyce Kubiski , Western Michigan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Sherman, Claire Richter. Imaging Aristotle: Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Pp. xxiv, 421. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-08333-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.15

Sherman, Claire Richter. Imaging Aristotle: Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Pp. xxiv, 421. $65.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-520-08333-4.

Reviewed by:

Joyce Kubiski
Western Michigan University

Claire Richter Sherman's latest book, Imaging Aristotle: Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France, continues the author's long-held interesthin the illuminated manuscripts commissioned by Charles V in the last half of the fourteenth century. This time, Sherman's topic is the translations from Latin into French of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Politics, and (Pseudo) Economics, made by Nicole Oresme between 1372-76 at the express orders of his patron, the king of France. Oresme's text, the first translation of Aristotle into a vernacular language, has engendered a fair amount of scholarly activity over the past 50-odd years, yet a similarly thorough investigation of the images in the four richly illuminated presentation copies made for the king has not been attempted until now.

The four manuscripts under consideration are paired into two sets. The first presentation copy placed the Ethics in the first volume and the Politics and Economics together in the second volume. Sherman suggests this was the king's library edition. The second set is smaller than the first and was probably made for the king to carry with him on his many trips throughout the realm. All four manuscripts adhere to the same organizational structure of text and image. Each new "book" of the Ethics, Politics, and Economics is introduced by a miniature that varies in size from a half column to a full-page illustration. The only other miniatures are an author portrait and/or a frontispiece at the beginning of each volume.

Sherman points out that these manuscripts are the first medieval copies of Aristotle to include a comprehensive cycle of illumination. While earlier Latin editions of the Aristotelian corpus may have included a few miniatures, Sherman notes that these were usually portraits of the author, commentator, or translator placed within an historiated initial, and that they do not have the complexity, nor the integral relation with the text as the series of allegorical illustrations placed in the king's vernacular editin. Sherman's monograph on these four royal manuscripts is a masterpiece of art historical sleuthing as she investigates her topic from a variety of methodological platforms. She not only employs traditional methods of art history, such as verbal description, formal analysis, attribution of hands, and aesthetic judgments (concerns often avoided in post- modern research), but she has broadened her field of inquiry to include approaches more at home with the literary or cultural critic. In an informative introduction which examines the historical context of Oresme's translations, Sherman addresses issues of audience reception, social class, and gender roles, as well as medieval theories of rhetoric, translation, and cognition.

While Sherman's approaches are many, her focus is always on the integral relationship of text and image as co-creators of meaning. The author relies heavily on the ideas of Mary Carruthers (The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture) to suggest that the content, size and physical layout of the illustrations work as cognitive devices, in concert with the textual elements, to organize the reader's understanding and memory. Codicology is then a major concern of the author. The complete codicological structure of each volume is described in the appendices, while in her text, Sherman focuses on the illuminated "frontispieces" to Aristotle's textual divisions. Her decision to reproduce the entire folio under discussion, even when the miniature is less than a half-column in size, is laudable, as it allows the reader to personally examine her point that images operate as textual links emphasizing, defining, and glossing the text. Ironically, m} biggest complaint about Sherman's research has to do with the layout of the text and image in her own book. While I agree with Sherman's decision to discuss each title of Aristotle in a comparative format, so that the two copies of the Ethics are discussed in tandem followed by a similar approach to the Politics and Economics, this traditional approach to image analysis makes it very difficult for the reader to mentally reconstruct the layout of the manuscript. This task is made more difficult due to the incomplete information in the captions to the illustrations, which do not record the folio number. The reader has to flip back and forth between the illustrations, the list of ollustrations, and the appendix to reconstruct the structure of these four manuscripts. In addition, Sherman's attributions to the several hands who produced the miniatures are embedded in her text. The reader's task would have been somewhat easier if the codicology in the appendices had included a diagram of the gatherings. Better still would have been a complete facsimile of the manuscripts, perhaps in CD-ROM format. This would have allowed the reader to more carefully evaluate Sherman's claim that the images are often cognitively related to the text, or to Oresme's commentary, gloss, glossary of difficult words, or index of noteworthy subject located on subsequent folios of the manuscript and not necessary on the same page as the illustration. But then, this reader did not have to negotiate copyright and secure funding for a facsimile project! Another major concern of Sherman is the iconography of the miniatures. There seem to be few prototypes for these creative illustrations. They correlate most closely with the miniatures in an "Avis au roys" (Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 456), bolstering Sherman's belief that this vernacular Aristotle functioned as a "Mirror of Princes" text for the king and his court. In discussing the often complex symbolism of the miniatures, Sherman has resurrected some of the vocabulary Panofsky created to discuss allegory. Although Sherman does not consistently use his three "representational modes" of personification, personification allegory, and decision allegory for each of the miniatures she examines, her analysis of these Panofskian concepts does help to elucidate the often complex symbolic structure of the images. Sherman believes the author of this ingenious and witty program could be non other than Oresme, whose intent Sherman describes as "to present visually arresting and contemporary paradigms of central Aristotelian concepts" to a new aristocratic audience (p. 253). The artists who painted these illustrations are given little credit for the content of their work and are merely praised or criticized by Sherman for their expressive capabilities. While the evidence to suggest that Oresme was the mastermind behind the illustrative program is coopelling, it should be noted that Michael Camille (Image on the Edge), has presented a different paradigm which suggests greater involvement by medieval artists in the creation of visual content.

Sherman's book is an excellent example of the current trend in manuscript studies which closely examines the relationship between text and image. Her conclusions, placed within the cultural context of late fourteenth-century French aristocracy should be of interest to scholars in many disciplines.


Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Carruthers, Mary J. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.