Richard W. Pfaff

title.none: Binski, Becket's Crown (Richard Pfaff)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.006 06.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard W. Pfaff, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Binski, Paul. Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, for the Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2004. Pp. xvi, 343. $65.00 (hb) 0-300-10509-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.06

Binski, Paul. Becket's Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England 1170-1300. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, for the Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2004. Pp. xvi, 343. $65.00 (hb) 0-300-10509-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard W. Pfaff
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

To do justice to this extraordinarily brilliant book would require years of testing its hypotheses and reflecting on its conclusions. This is not because its structure is complicated. Indeed, Paul Binski sets out a conveniently, almost suspiciously Scholastic, exposition of the four parts or "Paths of Enquiry," as he terms them, around which the book is organized, each part being subdivided into two or three chapters. The object of the whole is to attempt to answer, for the "long thirteenth century" he posits, the question "What was the 'imaginative universe' of early Gothic art and architecture in England up to about 1300?" (xii). The Prologue in which he explains this structure is so uncommonly helpful as to form a virtual precis for the entire book, and will therefore be extensively quoted (without specific page references) in the next four paragraphs, before one major question is addressed to the author and one seriously adverse observation directed at the publisher.

The first path follows "a cluster of ideas grouped under the title 'Edification,' because that term captures something of the potential or actual relationship between church building and the formulation and propagation of ideas." The primary edifice in question is the cathedral at Canterbury, under the twin impetuses of the rebuilding of the east end after the disastrous fire of 1174 and the preparation of an adequate shrine space for what its monks came to realize would be a major pilgrimage site after Becket's canonization the previous year. It thus has what Binski terms "a very high specific gravity," in the light of which he considers two major buildings that follow quickly in its wake, the cathedrals at Lincoln and Salisbury.

Church building would appear to be a primary theme also of the second section, which contains substantial chapters on Ely, Wells, and (though destroyed) Becket's corona (the title aria, so to speak, of the book). But the section's heading, "Sanctification," points to a somewhat different thrust, that of the interplay between more formally structured sainthood and the work of "school-educated magistri employed both by the Church and by public power." This is, as Binski acknowledges, country explored by Beryl Smalley and Vauchez; the particular contribution here is a rather surprising and entirely insightful emphasis on (St.) Edmund of Abingdon.

A different kind of interplay, that between a variety of visual images and the improved pastoral care aimed at by the prolific ecclesiastical legislation of the early thirteenth century, is the main concern of the path entitled "Regulation." Here the author finds, and exploits, certain "creative loopholes that enabled the public arts of the Church to flourish as they had never done before, as for example in regard to the art of the sacraments." As might be expected, some of the images thus produced went beyond what church authorities found tolerable, as with a "crux horribilis" (in effect, a Y-shaped crucifix) condemned by Ralph Baldock, Bishop of London, in 1305.

Censorship of that sort expresses positive as well as negative feeling, and it is that term, "Expression," which Binski gives to his fourth and final path. The expression (in the primary modern sense of the word) chiefly addressed here is that of smiling, even laughing, as this is exemplified in many images of Gothic painting and sculpture. One would want such a consideration to center on the Angel Choir at Lincoln, and so this one does (albeit in a final chapter which, somewhat too cursorily, attempts to examine "the nexus of art, theatre, and music"). Overall, the "issue of affect: intellectual and emotional stances towards religious images, and the embodiment or objectification of such stances in images themselves" is central here- -and in a way to the book as a whole.

As the preceding summary will have suggested, the book is so varied in its contents and rich in its suggestiveness that only a few points raised in its eleven chapters can be touched on here. One has to do with the range of material drawn on. The frequency and appositeness with which artifacts from Scandinavia are adduced (e.g., pp. 170-72) is most impressive. By contrast, Italy and even France seem a bit underplayed, but the limitation of material is most evident in Britain. A few cases of what is materially ignored include the transepts at York with their crowning glory of grisaille windows, the Nine Altars Chapel at Durham, Fountains, Rievaulx, any building in Scotland (not even Glasgow cathedral). Granted, this is already a long book and considers an enormous range of material, so it may be unfair to ask for anything more; but one comes away from the book with the uneasy impression that England south of the Humber estuary and Scandinavia form for the author something of a discrete cultural unit, and one wonders how widening the range of examples would have affected the flow of his main argument(s), if at all.

But a book with wider geographical coverage would almost certainly have been a less passionate one, and one of the joys of reading it is to nod in vigorous agreement at (for example) the gusto with which Binski states, speaking of Wells, that "Strikingly few of the larger ideas can have come from France, and the constant brandishing of the yardstick of French Gothic portals of the period has been one of the less helpful tendencies" in the understanding of its west front (p. 109). Another is to revel in some of his obiter dicta, such as that Matthew Paris's "view of the papacy was not unlike Margaret Thatcher's attitude to the European Union" (150), or his characterization of the "clerical tidy-mindedness" evident in the detailed regulation of images as redolent of "the mindset of the pinafore as much as the mitre" (174).

There must be several hundred points that one would like to take up, ideally in genial conversation with the author--or, more realistically, to follow up in a good library. Here the combination of the dense brilliance of Binski's book with the Yale University Press's by now familiar manner of production is more than irritating: it is a positive deterrent to the use that a work of this quality deserves. This is therefore a matter that deserves being brought up at some little length, if only through a single example. Chapter 6, "Becket's Crown," begins with a section titled "The Inner Consecration of Life," centered initially on "the young and formidable Isabel, Countess of Arundel" (123). A patron, and apparently a correspondent, of Matthew Paris, she was also the dedicatee of Ralph of Bocking's Life of Richard of Chichester, our primary biographical source for that English episcopal saint who died in 1253.

The two paragraphs in which she figures contain a total of thirteen endnote numbers. These, in the author-date-page shorthand form now in widespread use, boil down to ten sources of genuine information. When these ten are tracked through the copious bibliography, the patient searcher finds that they amount to a) three source-references to Matthew Paris's Chronica majora in the familiar Rolls Series edition; b) the translated florilegium from Matthew's various chronicles by Richard Vaughan (1984); c) two facsimile publications by M.R. James, of Matthew's Estoire de Seint Aedwarde le Rei (1920) and Illustrations to the Life of St Alban (1924); d) Matthew's Life of St Edmund Rich in the 1996 edition and translation by C.H. Lawrence; e) A.T Baker's edition and discussion of the French version of Matthew's Life of Edmund in the volume of Romania for 1929; f) the later St Albans Chronicle, as edited by H.T. Riley for the Rolls Series; g) David Jones's presentation of Bocking's Life of Richard (Sussex Record Society, 1995); and h) the important and weighty discussion of Isabel in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1150-1300 (2001). This information, which has taken over two hours to extract and jot down (using the unavoidable three-finger method, with a lot of snappy wrist action), could have been laid out succinctly and comprehensively in footnotes requiring not many more words than are taken up by the cumbersome endnote-plus-bibliography system. And the reader would have learned a lot more.

The Yale University Press makes splendid books: the illustrations in this one--and on which it integrally depends--are beautifully reproduced, 238 of them, of which roughly a tenth are in color. It cannot be beyond the capacity of the designers of such a superior volume to allow the author to present the underlying research in a format that permits the reader to share in its communication without having to perform intellectual (and digital) gyrations. The present "Yale" format does a genuine disservice to scholarship, and a press of such international importance owes the community of serious students something more genuinely useful. (Let the people--brother- and sister-reviewers, anyhow--say Amen, ideally in reviews of others of Yale's productions.)

In the present case, however, it would be wrong to conclude on such a note of distress, however warranted. Binski's book is so illuminating, so imaginative, so provocative (an entire symposium could be constructed around many of its assertions) that even the testiest of reviewers must feel rewarded by having confronted it. This work is in effect what Henry Adams's Mont St Michel and Chartres might have been if written by someone who really knows what he is talking about. Binski's will have a higher reputation, and deserves a vastly longer shelf life.