The Medieval Review 10.10.05

Faleer, Robert A. . Church Woodwork in the British Isles 1100-1535: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. Pp. xxi, 449. $100 ISBN 978-0-8108-6739-0. .

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi
NYU
li203@nyu.edu

The result of what the author describes as a career-long interest, Robert A. Faleer's Church Woodwork in the British Isles, 1100- 1535. An Annotated Bibliography comprises an imposing amount of information on anything related to wood in British ecclesiastical environments from medieval into early modern times. Covering all types of wooden elements, both decorative and structural, in the period that led to the Reformation and consequent wave of iconophobic destruction, the range of entries in Faleer's Bibliography indicates not only the substantial amount of surviving material available for study, but also the vastly greater wealth of items that must have been irreparably lost in the years following the break with Rome. Painted wooden panels, altars, seats, pulpits (and the list could go on) were not simply whitewashed as the majority of mural paintings were, and a quick glance through the section that Faleer devotes to "Painted Altarpieces and Reredoses" [113-150] reveals that the majority of studies focus on a rather limited amount of relevant works (the Thornham Parva and the Westminster Retables, for instance, or the Wilton Diptych) basically because this is what has survived, mostly per aventure, hidden in a stable or used as a cupboard, luckily upsidedown. Much more, of course, has vanished.

Faleer's Bibliography is here, though, to remind us of what is left in terms of misericords, statuary, roofs, roof-bosses, and so on. Comprising eight chapters--dedicated respectively to the Furnishings of the Choir, Presbitery, and Nave; to Structural Woodwork; to Screens, Roods and Rood-Lofts; to Tomb Fixtures, Statues, and Movable Furnishings; to Transplanted Continental Church Furnishings and Altarpieces; and to publications devoted to multiple subjects--Faleer's imposing work covers all aspects of woodwork and offers a panoramic view of available critical stances on them. If I were to summarize the appeal this volume has for me, I would say, for instance, that it shows how scholarship on the subject has changed over time from a more holistic approach in the nineteenth century to the more specific, highly technical (even technological) one of the early twenty-first century. I would add that I greatly enjoyed reading online several of the articles included in this Bibliography: thanks to the author's accurate listing of databases, especially the open access ones, readers can use the Internet (whose benefit to scholarship can still seem almost miraculous) to find full texts of many of the cited works. I would also say I was reminded of a number of themes- -among others, the link between misericord decoration and the implementation of the Divine Office (53)--on which I would like to read more of the comprehensive range of literature Faleer has compiled. Mostly, I found this Bibliography worthy in that it stimulates reflection not only on what is already there to be read on the ample subject of British ecclesiastical woodwork, but also on further possible thematic, contextual, and other in-depth analyses of objects whose use and iconographic relevance might not be as well established as one may think. Glancing through the section on misericords, or roof-bosses, one realizes how little after all we know concerning such extraordinary artifacts and how much still remains to be done to continue the efforts of the many scholars who have already tried to "read" and understand them. Robert Faleer's exact cataloguing puts his entries in dialogue; his balanced annotations tend to establish connections and open up virtual discussions making this Bibliography the commendable result of what must not have been an easy task.

The result has, naturally, also a few shortcomings, though amply exceeded by its merits. One limitation is the lack of a glossary for the many technical terms that recur in the entries. In his Introduction, Faleer states that his Bibliography is meant "to serve as a research tool for both scholar and enthusiast," adding that "while extensive knowledge of medieval woodworking and construction terminology is not a necessary prerequisite to use this resource, a handy historical architectural guide or glossary will be most helpful to the user to facilitate a deeper understanding of the terminology" (xii). But an "enthusiast" might not have such a guide at hand and might end up being rather confused wondering what "corbels," "poppy-head finials," or "parclose screens" are. Another imperfection, in my opinion, is that whereas in most cases Faleer's annotations and comments are his own, in at least a couple of instances (entry 29 on p. 13 and 30 on p. 14) he refers to "forthcoming" books and, not having seen them firsthand, reproduces the publisher's online descriptions, in one case quoting them word-for-word. While it is understandable that the author might label with the tag "not seen" some of the bibliographic items which he still rightly includes in the volume for the sake of providing a complete list of what has already been published, I am not totally convinced by the inclusion of books which are still not available to the public, unless Faleer had had the opportunity of reading the manuscripts and reporting on them, which does not seem to be the case. Finally, I wish the author had adopted more consistent descriptive parameters in order to avoid discrepancies in the amount of detail provided in each entry. Most of the time, Faleer's comments get to the core of an article's or book's thesis, enabling the reader to grasp the content quite clearly and rapidly; in some instances, though, his annotations are vague and rather nondescript, referring in general to "the paintings" or "the misericords," whereas it would be useful to know exactly which ones are discussed and analyzed in the scholarly work being described. Of course, in such cases Faleer may simply be commenting generically on a "generic" book or article.

As stated above, these are petty flaws and do not diminish the value and relevance of Faleer's Bibliography in the least. I gathered evidence of its usefulness while reading it and finding a number of items I took note of for future reference in my own research, in particular regarding the links between misericord or roof-boss iconography and manuscript decoration ("many English misericords...resemble the decorated initials of medieval manuscripts," entry 95, p. 39; "these sophisticated artifacts may have been the product of a well established central workshop stocked with patterns taken from Bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts and French and Italian pattern-books," entry 373, p. 161). I was also stimulated to look further into the suggestion that "the bench-end carvings" of a Norfolk church and the N-Town Mary Play "might be somehow linked" (entry 375, p. 162), or into the carved depiction of "leatherworking tools" (entry 259, p. 106) in a misericord which inserts a very mundane reference to trades in a presumably sacred set of images. Every reader, like me, will find his or her favourite "food for thought."

On a more technical note, I fond the bibliographic references to be extremely accurate, and I particularly enjoyed Faleer's careful and constant description of the iconographic apparatus in each item. This, along with the indication of online open- or restricted- access versions of the items listed, makes this volume an easy-to- consult and effective research tool. The volume is illustrated by three (pencil?) drawings of misericords and one roof-boss by Leah Faleer.