Jessica Brantley

title.none: Desmond and Sheingorn, Myth, Montage, and Visuality (Jessica Brantley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.015 05.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jessica Brantley , Yale University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Desmond, Marilynn, and Pamela Sheingorn. Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 344. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-472-11323-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.15

Desmond, Marilynn, and Pamela Sheingorn. Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 344. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-472-11323-2.

Reviewed by:

Jessica Brantley
Yale University

Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea comprises a puzzling amalgamation of fifteenth-century texts and images. Framed as a letter from the one-off goddess Othea to a young Prince Hector, the "epistle" is made up of one hundred exemplary stories drawn from classical myth, each presented as a systematic assortment of text, gloss, allegory, and illustration. In their engagement with the classical past, the work's glosses, its allegories, and (not least) its pictures illuminate the workings of a peculiarly medieval hermeneutics. Ancient stories drawn through such texts as the Ovide moralisé, the Roman de la Rose, and the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César are made to deliver a series of ethical lessons for the Trojan prince, and narrative exemplarity is further complicated by prophecy, as he is treated proleptically to visions of his own future, and even his death. But unfamilar as its composite form and its interpretative methods may initially seem, Christine's exercise in textual and visual mythography presents an irresistible occasion for studying many of the aspects of medieval culture that most interest twenty-first century readers.

Marilyn Desmond and Pamela Sheingorn have published an exciting new study that uses a modern analogy--Sergei Eisenstein's theory of cinematic montage--to explain the effects achieved by this complicated work. Myth, Montage, and Visuality argues that the Epistre Othea (and indeed any illuminated manuscript of the period) creates "a readerly subjectivity that qualifies as cinematic" (2). As their book's title indicates, montage is the most revealing parallel Desmond and Sheingorn find for the composite Othea: "Montage, in its refusal to authorize a linear argument in visual terms, offers a critical category for exploring the decentering possibilities of visual experience" (45). They develop the comparison by focusing especially on two early and important manuscripts of Christine's collected works: one made for Jean, Duke of Berry (Bibliothèque Nationale MS fr. 606), and the other made for Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (British Library MS Harley 4431).

After a short Introduction, the book begins with a justification of its analogical methods. "The Cinematic Experience: Iconography in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" draws direct connections between medieval ways of reading and modern strategies of representation, connecting film theory to manuscripts through the early development of art history as a discipline. Eisenstein's desire to locate cinema within the history of painting, Erwin Panofsky's demonstrable interest in the medium of film, and Aby Warburg's use of lantern slides and study-tableaux (known as Mnemosyne) are connected in a fruitful, if complicated, way. Desmond and Sheingorn argue both for the limitations of Panofsky's famous iconological methods and for the advantages of Warburg's--unsung and even unrecognized--mnemotechnic ones. The connections with Eisenstein or cinema are not necessarily close to the surface of the argument here; given the evident pertinence of Warburg's Mnemosyne, the medieval arts of memory might be considered a kind of "cinema" closer to home, and the voluminous work on medieval mnemotechnics would therefore be relevant (beyond 249 n. 51). Moreover, if we are to reject Panofsky's iconological methods, it is not clear how we are to understand his close relation to the cinema. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that these connections are pertinent and illuminating--fruitful enough, in fact, that their implications might be still more thoroughly explored.

With the next chapter, "Constructing Masculinities," analysis of the Epistre Othea begins in earnest. Desmond and Sheingorn argue that the Duke's and Queen's volumes propose an alternative to the images of masculinity promoted by manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose, reworking particularly "the castration crisis, the death drive, and the fetishism of the female body" (52). In an exploration of the myths of Narcissus and Pygmalion, for example, the authors illuminate by means of an unconventional iconology the cultural assumptions not reproduced but overturned by Christine's mythography. The radical position of these two versions of the Othea becomes clearest in comparison with later ones, particularly a 1460 Burgundian version that "reinscribes the categories of normative masculinities" (84) to celebrate "masculinity as masquerade" (53). Here and elsewhere (notably in the book's short afterword), the authors' reading of the afterlife of this text reveals the powerfully revisionary intentions of its original program.

"Envisioning Desire" explores the capacity of Christine's mythography to "queer" the construction of medieval sexualities. From the homosexual relations figured (or denied) in the stories of Orpheus and Ganymede; to the homosocial world implied by Diana and her followers; to the bestiality of Pasiphae, Andromeda, and Circe; to the double-bodied Hermaphroditus--everywhere Ovidian myths confront the subject of outlaw desire. Desmond and Sheingorn astutely read visual details from the Ovide moralisé, such as the drooping figures of Ganymede and Hyacinth, against corresponding images in the Othea. Although Christine erases homosexual relations among men and denies or subdues any suggestion of bestiality, her rewritings of heterosexual desire benefit nonetheless from their alliance with the queer. Othea teaches us (and Hector) to substitute the story of the interinanimated Hermaphroditus for Paris' abduction of Helen as the ideal of heterosexual union, for example. Although the authors' analysis raises a few unanswered questions--could the image of women reading suggest, not sexual license, but the chaste image of the Virgin learning from St. Anne to parse Isaiah?--the chapter is an especially persuasive exploration of the significance of this marvelous material.

The next two chapters, "Engendering Violence" and "Visualizing Rhetoric," explore the emotion of anger and its expression in violence through Christine's reading of mythological material. A critique of violence arises from the poignant stories of Procris and Coronis, especially when such accidental violence of men against women is juxtaposed against the deliberate masculine violence of warfare. The stories of Hecuba and Thamyris raise the spectre of violent feminine agency, and the accounts of Pallas Athena and Arachne, Latona, and Ino defend the possibility of angry feminine emotion. Feminine agency is explored most directly in its rhetorical guise through the stories of wise women Diana, Ceres, Isis, and--at most extended length--the sibyl who instructs the Emperor Augustus in the coming of Christ. These figures unmistakably mirror the goddess Othea herself, and even the woman writer whose invention of the deity gave her an authoritative platform from which to deliver ethical instruction. But although Desmond and Sheingorn claim Othea provides a "voice-over" for this montage of images (192), the analogy with Eisenstein is only implicit by this time. It could be explored more explicitly, since violence is a constituent part of theories of montage in film--both in subject matter and method. The powerful spectatorial emotion induced by the clash of images in a cinematic montage seems especially apt for thinking about the ways in which the images and texts of the Epistre Othea perform agency for the viewer, and perform subjectivity for the reader.

Desmond and Sheingorn do not attempt a complete account of all aspects of Christine's text--the Epistre Othea is too rich and complex for that. But they offer a provocative set of ways for modern readers to approach it, and their monograph is a welcome addition to the growing number of full-length studies to treat this intricate work. Although the cinematic analogies they offer initially do not structure their subsequent analysis in a systematic way, the interdependencies of the modern art forms offer a useful framework for thinking about the formal and hermeneutic innovations of this quintessentially medieval text. As the authors themselves explain: "As complex intertextual and intervisual artifacts, manuscripts and early printed books of the Epistre Othea offer visions of identity, sexuality, desire, and emotions that remain legible and coherent" (241).