Maria Dobozy

title.none: Starkey, Reading the Medieval Book (Maria Dobozy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.004 05.10.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Maria Dobozy, University of Utah,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Starkey, Kathryn. Reading the Medieval Book: Word, Image, and Performance in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm. Series: Poetics of Orality and Literacy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 239. $50.00 0-268-04108-3. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-04109-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.04

Starkey, Kathryn. Reading the Medieval Book: Word, Image, and Performance in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm. Series: Poetics of Orality and Literacy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. Pp. xiii, 239. $50.00 0-268-04108-3. ISBN: $25.00 0-268-04109-1.

Reviewed by:

Maria Dobozy
University of Utah

Kathryn Starkey has given medievalists a fascinating and multi-disciplinary investigation into the dynamic process of artistic production and literary reception by examining a uniquely illuminated manuscript fragment of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm. This thirteenth century Munich-Nuremberg manuscript dates from a period when "listening" and "reading" implied a variety of concepts and practices. Now Willehalm may not be at the top of everyone's reading list, but this study tells us why it should be: it offers important lessons in the production and reception of manuscripts, and a historical approach to the way medieval artists and readers created meaning via artistic forms. Extremely well researched, the book reflects the author's broad knowledge of medieval literary and pictorial conventions in both religious and secular manuscripts. Starkey has packed a great deal into this book: the new subjectivity of the narrator, the relationship of text and image, and most importantly, extensive deliberations on the impact of writing on aural reception that allowed audiences to shift away from performance to reading reception.

Starkey examines the reception of Wolfram's Willehalm in a multimedia format or, as she puts it, in a hybrid medium. Pointing out that both image and text need to be "read," Starkey more than anyone else has looked at the sensory language of Wolfram's text that enabled audiences to create their own mental images of scenes and of topics the characters talk about. This sensory language she then compares with the illuminations to discover the programmatic parallels in text and image. Her great contribution is to find reproduced in pictorial representations those images conjured up by the text. Her thesis then, is that the manuscript "deals explicitly with the transition between orality and writing, demonstrating as it does the innovative development of a consistent hybrid language in which word and image maintain a symbiotic relationship" (13).

Part one lays out a close reading of the text itself revealing in detail Wolfram's thematization of communication and media. Part two analyzes the interpretative program of the images. However, as far as analysis and argument are concerned, the book is actually in three parts following Starkey's tri-fold focus on the three layers of plot and characters, narrative frame, and the manuscript format which encompasses both the specific text and illustrations in the Munich-Nuremberg manuscript. Her examination of these elements is intended to demonstrate the transition from reception via live performance to reception via a reading process that is aided by the images in the manuscript.

The analysis of Wolfram's text and story reveals for the first time in detail his thematic concern with media and with a narrative strategy in which narrative layering, changes of voice, and shifts in perspective yield an understanding of the subtle aspects of the major themes. Willehalm is certainly about the timely issues of love and religious-political strife, but all three layers are consistent in stressing the overarching aesthetic of communicating and creating meaning. This major theme problematizes the use of multiple languages, gestures, and ritual acts by the characters in their attempts to communicate. At the plot level characters are each shown to express their own perceptions, intentions, and decisions using all means at their disposal including speech, multiple languages, conventional gestures, and participation in ritual acts. The same holds for the narrative level. The narrative strategy shows changes in voice and shifts in perspective by the characters that reveal their motivations and deliberations (712).

Next Wolfram's narrative frame is shown to be an innovation. The narrator, identifying himself in the first person as Wolfram, has become a subject as Starkey perspicaciously points out. Lacking the third person narrator's authority, he acquires the status of a character, and his perspective becomes one among several. At the same time the narrator has control of the story and mediates between the characters, between the audience or readers and the story, and between image and text. This excellent analysis of the narrator's intrusions shows how Wolfram specifically warns his audience of his difficult style, his limited knowledge of French only to emphasize that they are completely dependent on his mediation. Thus he attunes his audience to the major theme of the poem, namely the complexity of communication between cultures and religions, but also between author and audience. The narrator-author in the text thus becomes the pivotal link between poem and audience. Because the narrator is now self-conscious and interprets like a performer, he can supplant the customary mediator, the live performer. This is the crux of Starkey's argument connecting this illuminated manuscript to readers and defining it as an intermediary point between the customary live performance of romances (like Wolfram's Parzival and Hartmann von Aue's works) and the increasing practice of reading for pleasure without the mediation of a performer.

There are several convincing connections between text and images. Starkey argues for an interpretation that reproduces in the pictorial program that which is highlighted and thematized in the narrative. Consequently, this program does not reproduce action but rather the interactions of characters, the dialog situations, and also the narrator's intrusions. For example, in an excellent analysis of the visual representation of dialog, images indicate the speaker by showing an enlarged hand in a speaking gesture. Then in order to demonstrate how alternation of speaker roles and topics is depicted in accordance with the narrative, she focuses on the Gyburg-Terramer dialog and image series in which Gyburg's father asks her to return to her religion and people. They discuss her reasons for her conversion, and his reasons for his religious allegiance and his war against her. As father and daughter face each other in figures 9 and 10, their hands point to the items they mention. In fig. 9a Gyburg speaks of God as creator of the sun and the waters as they point to a sun above them while a spring flows below her in correspondence with the text. Thus the images make visible the content of the spoken word, that is, topics talked about but often not even portrayed on stage because they occur in someone's mind. For example, when Willehalm accuses his sister at court of adultery with Tybalt, the image in figure 1a shows two figures embracing and Willehalm next to them speaking. Starkey's conclusion is persuasive: the program of illustrations presents a nuanced, sophisticated interpretation of the text that was intended for a discerning patron and audience.

Starkey's theory that the images interpret the text is supported by additional evidence: The colored initials not only organize the text by indicating a change in topic or shift in voice but also are located in the image so that they explicitly connect text to image. Some of the same conventions are also found in a few other manuscripts that also attempt a deliberate integration of text and image. For example Starkey notes similarities with the Sachsenspiegel, a lawbook, and Thomasin von Zirclaria's Welscher Gast, a conduct book--all very different genres.

To the extent that the visual program presents the content of speech, something that cannot easily be acted out, Starkey correctly challenges "the assumption that a strict dichotomy existed between performance and writing" (3). The images are in a sense an attempt to make visually concrete what cannot be acted out but are visual nevertheless. In this sense and in this sense only does the illuminated manuscript replace the performer. Since reception by audience during live performance was both aural and visual, visual reception of illuminations does not easily replace the aural.

Issues of performance are more complex than even the author recognizes. To be sure, Starkey is concerned with the production of the manuscript in question, but also with the transmission of the written word. By Wolfram's time, the composers of courtly literature are all literate to some degree. The transition in this period is not merely from oral performance to writing, but rather from oral composition to written composition, and from composition during performance by illiterate oral poets, to live performance of written texts, read or memorized, and thirdly, from aural reception of written courtly poems to reading reception. Starkey's purpose is to find a space for illuminations. But because this transition is so complex, it is certainly difficult for Starkey to devote much space to it when her main goal is to understand the connection between text and image in a singular manuscript. Nevertheless the ramifications of her claims are worth rehearsing quickly from a broader performative perspective.

The medieval performer, the author of courtly poems, as well as the composer of melodies were often the same person. Since performers exchanged material and presented poems from many sources, audiences were familiar with the distinction between the narrator and the performer. Even though the performer can embody the narrator, for in essence every performer narrates a story and mediates between audience and the material he or she presents, Starkey assumes that because Wolfram dissolves the clear distinction between the author (referred to in the third person) and the narrator by naming himself in the first person, he becomes the primary voice imposed on reader and performer (88-9). This elision of author and narrator she claims, eliminates the separate space available for a performer. The loss of this space thus makes it difficult for a performer to impersonate Wolfram because the performance creates a "discrepancy between what is heard and seen" (90). She goes on to state that "the audience must participate in the fiction and accept the adopted identity of the performer." This is not necessarily the case. A performer does not have to take on the persona of the narrator; instead he can distance himself and play on it. A good performer can move in and out of roles at will. In fact, with the author-narrator named, the most likely strategy for a singer would be to play the role of Wolfram while keeping the audience aware of the impersonation. Sophisticated audiences were accustomed to following such a double perspective. (See Maria Dobozy, "Beschenkungspolitik und die Erschaffung von Ruhm am Beispiel der fahrenden Snger," Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 26 (1992): 353-67.)

A second issue concerns the historical perspective of the argument. Starkey is certainly correct in assuming right from the beginning that in this manuscript image and word must be viewed together because they were intended to be understood together. They produce meaning as a unit. However, she also assumes that historically the two media had been separate and were then brought together to create a hybrid. On the contrary, I would expect movement from undifferentiated media to greater differentiation and separation of media. In fact there is greater evidence for this latter process of development than for Starkey's view. Early German poems such as "vom Rechte" do not separate a listing of law from poetic form. In addition, the history of music and performing arts reveals minimal differentiation in music, poetry, movement and representational art in Europe until the seventeenth century (See Kurt Blaukopf, Musik im Wandel der Gesellschaft. Grundzge der Musiksoziologie [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1996]). Also Starkey herself cites linguistic evidence that leads in this direction because the concepts of "hearing" and "seeing" and the terms for "writing" and "painting" or "drawing" belonged to the same semantic field (104) and were thus not nearly so evidently compartmentalized as we consider them today.

The question of the use and reception of this particular Willehalm manuscript is a very difficult one. Starkey has suggestions. She has demonstrated that audiences were receptive to the shifts in voice and speaker crucial for tracking the competing perspectives of the characters and for following the arguments between irreconcilable religious and political parties. That any untrained, non-professional reader or even a professional reader benefited from a few graphic clues on the page to indicate some of these shifts is proven by the function of the initials. It is thus possible that this manuscript was read by those literates who are not used to reading and collecting all the information a written text contains and who therefore used the images to guide their understanding of the text (12). Undercutting this thesis is the unstated, yet implied recognition as Starkey's analysis shows, that the text is primary. In figure 4 Willehalm is shown sorrowing in all three registers and the cause in each case is represented by different figures that reproduce the metaphoric language of the narrative. The identity of these figures Starkey determines by careful reading of the text (138). Her procedure proves that precise knowledge of the text is necessary to recognize the verbal images in the poem, to recognize each figure pictured and the relationship of the figures to each other. Therefore, the images play a supporting role. And since one additional, important characteristic of a written text is its repeatability meaning that it can be re-read silently and aloud almost the same way many times, two additional possibilities would fit with Starkey's evidence: An audience might have looked at illustrations while a professional performer or reader read the text, or, more likely, once the owner's household had heard the poem several times and knew it well, the text and images could become the basis for discussion and interpretation. But to suggest that "this manuscript may have been used to teach orally and visually literate audiences how to read" (13) is not supported by the evidence.

Nevertheless this book is ground-breaking. Starkey's interpretation of the Willehalm text is novel. Moreover she has discovered a unique program in this manuscript that reveals the way in which Wolfram's Willehalm was listened to, interpreted, and enjoyed. This book is a significant contribution to our understanding of the dynamic period in the thirteenth century during which authors, artists, and audiences reflected on medium, on literature, and on the storytelling process. And perhaps most importantly, it is an incredibly stimulating book for medievalists of all disciplines.