03.03.07, Dimmick, Simpson, and Zeeman, Images, Idolatry and Iconoclasm

Main Article Content

Joel Fredell

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.007


Dimmick, Jeremy, James Simpson, and Nicolette Zeeman, eds.. Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England: Textuality and the Visual Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 250. ISBN: 0-19-818759-9.

Reviewed by:
Joel Fredell
Southeastern Louisiana Univ.

This collection of essays presents itself in a very promising way. Its topics are both currently fashionable and undeniably central to late medieval England. Its contributors include an impressive gathering of eminent medievalists. Its publisher has given the volume an elegant design and some decent plates. Warning bells might tinkle at the tripletized topics of the title, or the origins of the volume in a conference. In fact, some problems do show up that one might expect from conference proceedings on a hot area of study. It may be too much to ask that such a project should provide exemplary coverage of the huge potential range the announced topics could explore. Here the mix consists, with one exception, entirely of literary scholars working on texts. Even the lone art historian takes up imagery in manuscripts of a literary work. Nonetheless, most of the essays included here are as strong as its distinguished group of contributors promises.

The essays in the volume are as follows: an Introduction by the editors; James Simpson, "The Rule of Medieval Imagination"; L. O. Aranye Fradenburg, "Making, Mourning, and the Love of Idols"; Nicolette Zeeman, "The Idol of the Text"; David Aers, "The Sacrament of the Altar in Piers Plowman and the Late Medieval Church in England"; Ralph Hanna III, "Langland's Ymaginatif: Images and the Limits of Poetry"; Nicholas Watson, "'Et Que Est Huius Ydoli Materia? Tuipse': Idols and Images in Walter Hilton"; Rita Copland, "Sophistic, Spectrality, Iconoclasm"; Sarah Stanbury, "The Vivacity of Images: St. Katherine, Knighton's Lollards, and the Breaking of Idols"; Michael Camille, "The Iconoclast's Desire: Deguileville's Idolatry in France and England"; Wendy Scase, "Writing and the 'Poetics of Spectacle': Political Epiphanies in The Arivall of Edward IV and Some Contemporary Lancastrian and Yorkist Texts"; Brian Cummings, "Iconoclasm and Bibliophilia in the English Reformations, 1521-1558"; David Wallace, "Afterword."

The editors indicate immediately that they hope to weave together scholarly strands they exemplify with Margaret Aston's England's Iconoclasts and Michael Camille's The Gothic Idol (1). Anyone familiar with these two major, but very different, books may see the challenge in these ambitious lines of inquiry. Scholars are not just finding their way between the contending methods of traditional and cultural historicism. A thousand years of medieval societies, and their various relationships with non-Christians, produced innumerable perspectives on questions of visual and verbal representation, hierarchies of spiritual presence in icons and idols, epistemologies that can account for neoplatonic reception and ghostly revenants. To write knowledgeably on these questions individual scholars must grasp an intimidating number of cultural threads from theology, philosophy, faculty psychology, art history, literature, political theory, and more. Thus in the relatively brief format of a book chapter (or conference paper) on these topics, striking a balance between a particular and its cultural context can be difficult.

And then there is the offstage presence of contemporary theory, profoundly engaged with problems of the visual. Despite the huge body of theory that has accumulated around cultural models for iconology and visuality (semiotics, the spectacle, the gaze, fetishism, and so on), the volume is almost shockingly lacking in postmodern theoretical context. Only one essay deploys Lacan, Zizek, and Guattari/Deleuze; another briefly calls on Baudrillard; two cite Derrida's Specters of Marx; otherwise the major contemporary voices on visuality and representation simply do not appear. Instead, most authors seem determined to tease out their theory from the medievals themselves and fellow medievalists. Such a strategy is probably best for the brevity of a book chapter, though a bit worrisome. As many have noted, postmodern theorists have a foolish habit of ignoring the evidence from the middle ages. If medievalists do not engage with this larger discussion, we can expect further avoidance despite the astonishing wealth of information our field could provide.

The clearest exception to these habits here is (Louise) Aranye Fradenburg, who approaches the idol as a philosophical problem of a high order. Summary will not do justice to her argument, but I would like to sketch a few points to tempt those less inclined to read Fradenburg's piece -- dense, entwined with contemporary theory, but consistently revelatory. Fradenburg cuts to the quick on the problem of idols: their (presumably false) assertions of presence (as objects which contain spirit) raise the larger problem of representations which seem to contain transhistorical meaning or even the spirit of their makers -- authorial presence in a volume of poetry or God's presence in the law tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The familiar problem of the signifier for medievals and moderns, in other words, shifts its valence when understood as material artefacts haunted by the specter of spiritual presence. One common locus for this valence is the memorial object -- funerary portraits, or our modern equivalents in photographs and videotapes, which can take on talismanic powers for mourners. The origins of idols were regularly located by early writers in funerary sculpture, and medieval icons often became fetish objects in popular miracles like the holy statues which cry or bleed. Fradenburg summarizes these Western struggles with idolatry as an attempt to come to terms with our own mortality in the face of the signifiers which create our identities and then survive us as their referents. Much of the terminology here does get uncoupled from its medieval referents, disconcerting despite its internal consistency. Also, Fradenburg's attempts to enfold the story of Exodus and Judaism into a history of the symbolic order can sound like the massive systems of Jean-Joseph Goux. But if anyone were to redo Goux, and it should be a medievalist I'd say, Fradenburg would be an excellent choice.

Michael Camille has quoted postmodern theory extensively and made sweeping analyses of cultural history in The Gothic Idol. His willingness to do so is one reason the editors hold up this book as a model and forerunner to the present volume: Camille apparently represents those medievalists using discourses allied with the new cultural historians, by way of contrast with Margaret Aston's distinguished form of more traditional analysis. Despite Camille's deft use of contemporary theory, however, his work relies first and foremost on archival work, as do Aston's groundbreaking studies of the pheonomena grouped around the term "Lollardy." For his contribution in this volume Camille returns to his own groundbreaking work on Deguilleville, here the Pelerinage de la vie humaine. This return is very welcome, since his survey approach in The Gothic Idol required him to move through his material quickly. Camille argues, with some solid evidence, that Deguilleville conceived his poem as an illustrated work, and may have overseen early manuscripts and their program of miniatures. He then builds a case from those minatures that "Deguilleville's theory of idolatry is rooted in a notion of response" (155). The vivid presence of respondants in the programs is striking, and very resonant, since theories of epistemology tangle themselves so readily with the debate on icons as well as traditional attacks on icons.

The most Astonesque challenge here to new cultural history may be Nicholas Watson's piece on Walter Hilton. Watson proposes a taut interchange between Hilton's Scale of Perfection and the Cloud of Unknowing. He argues that the Cloud specifically responds to Book I of the Scale, and that Part II of the Scale responds directly to the Cloud-author's criticisms. The issue at hand is Hilton's apparently idiosyncratic discussion of the "idol of the self," developed in an early work entitled De imagine peccatti. Watson examines the development of this idea in Hilton's writing with meticulous detail. The response by the Cloud-author receives less attention, though enough to support the larger argument about response. Still, what is striking about Watson's evidence is how much it points to a highly developed, but isolated, discussion of a burning issue. The broader cultural history of the period only brings us to the shores of Hilton's thinking. Wendy Scase, though alert to contemporary ideas of spectacle, also zeroes in on a closely-defined cultural moment and text, The History of the Arrivall of King Edward IV and its representation of what Scase calls "political epiphany": the king's witness to a miracle that reinforces his role as divinely elected ruler.

Three of the articles here go for a broader cultural history with some success. Rita Copeland begins by insisting that her connections between ancient and medieval ideas of sophistry are NOT "tendentious," a bit surprising as an opening stragegy for an eminent scholar of rhetoric (113). She does provide a detailed and useful account of the term as it evolved in the scholastic curriculum, and she raises some interesting points about spectrality in connection to medieval ideas of sophistic rhetoric. However, her attempts to trace relationships between sophistry and iconoclasm seem remarkably forced, even tendentious (124). Sarah Stanbury provides a fine review of the well-known incident in Henry Knighton's Chronicle that describes two accused Lollards burning an image of St. Katherine. Stanbury uses this incident as a springboard for the debate on images in relation to their value and circulation as commodities. To do so, she interweaves a psychoanalytic view of hagiographic excess and iconoclastic response (the attack on the icon of Katherine, for instance, is a "thinly veiled rape") with analysis of contemporary texts attacking rich images and with some brief material history of cult icons (142). The arguments are richly suggestive, but underdeveloped and insufficiently sorted given the very different kinds of evidence she presents in this brief chapter. Brian Cummings provides an exemplary account of the problem of mimesis as it played out in the arguments of William Tyndale and Thomas More about words versus images. He also makes a provocative argument for a history of early-modern biblioclasm -- principally public book-burnings -- that undercuts simple oppositions between the mimetic power of words and images or the history of iconoclasm we extract from those oppositions. If there is a weakness here, it is Cumming's habit of deconstructing arguments himself rather than showing in detail how the participants (mis)understand these philosophical problems.

In these cases we may see an overlap from a particular sort of conference paper -- the broadly conceived theme, the richly suggestive allusions, all part of a strategy that embraces the impressionistic potential of a twenty-minute oral presentation instead of the disciplines of short-format printed articles. Two articles try to carry over this strategy to print with mixed success at best. Nicolette Zeeman moves through a wide range of sources to discuss the text as a kind of idol itself. Anxieties about textual production, according to Zeeman, replicate anxieties about the idol's archival and memorial functions. The thesis is quite apposite to the volume and has tremendous potential for new histories of the medieval book. However, Zeeman casts a very wide net anchored by a familiar new historicist tactic: organizing disparate material around a fairly obscure textual moment, in this case Alan of Lille on the "wax nose" of authority (50). This figure starts us on a path through Macrobius, the Roman de la Rose, the Parliament of Fowls, and the Pardoner's Tale -- all this after a three-page jaunt through the House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde. Some wonderful points along the way simply can't make all this material cohere in a short chapter.

James Simpson takes us back and forth between late medieval England and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey to begin a cultural history of the Imagination from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. Fear of the imagination, he argues, entwines itself with iconoclastic habits of mind that suspect images of overpowering reason. This all reads like the stimulating and provocative romp it may well have been in oral form. Simpson's arguments do position "medievalism" well for contemporary theoretical concerns, though with surprisingly few references to non-medieval critics. Nonetheless Simpson, like Zeeman, is forced into hasty work throughout. In one section, two paragraphs cover Spenser's response -- in Books I and II of the Faerie Queene -- to the problematic relationship between fiction and imagination. A page or less can hardly scrape the surface of this question for Spenser. Nor does a single reference point the reader toward the huge discussion of this issue among Spenser scholars. Overall, the reader is left waiting for any kind of sustained analysis among Simpson's delightful, but inevitably short-lived, stimuli.

The essays in this volume that succeed, in short, do so through their commitment to close examination. Indeed, two of the best articles, both on Piers Plowman, have precious little conversation with the big triple topics of the title. David Aers builds a powerful argument for the sacrament of the altar as a central trope in the C-text of Piers, one which draws on a subtle reading of early Wycliffite thought on the fetishized eucharist. The larger sacramental question of spiritual absence and presence may hover around accusations that the Church encouraged idolatry through its spectacles and profitable shrines, as Aers notes (67). Nonetheless, Aers is giving us a substantially new reading of the C-text, and never strays from this task to ponder big questions for their own sake. Ralph Hanna's piece on Ymaginatif in the B-text of Piers starts out as if it might fit the volume's themes more fully. As he notes, Ymaginatif has long been taken to represent the cell of imagination in medieval faculty psychology (81). However, Hanna rapidly dismantles any confidence we might have (from scholars such as Mary Carruthers) that medieval scholastics had stable formulations of this faculty against which to measure Langland's personification. Hanna substitutes a reading of Ymaginatif that takes us far from the themes of the book, into "the dim area of grammar school commonplace...floating at the (possibly contested) juncture between clerical and modestly sophisticated lay culture" (86). Hanna argues that Ymaginatif instead represents a mess of "sub-learned discourse" (87) that runs throughout Piers. This move separates Ymaginatif from Reason and the Clergy rather than examines any high-flown image-generating power posited by scholastic philosophers. Hanna ends with the pointed observation that scholarly efforts to locate high learning in Langland is a self-serving modern idolatry. Attacks and strained attempts at relevance aside, this article makes a powerful case for recovering a very different world of lay learning in Langland's England.

Books of this kind are often intended as calls to action, and as such Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm serves its purpose with notable success. The question, as always, is to decide what action is most appropriate or effective. The editors of this volume have given us a distinguished and wide-ranging debate on that question, at least within literary studies. Aside from some parochialism about recent theories of visuality, Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm testify to the remarkable interdisciplinarities fundamental to medieval literary studies.

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Author Biography

Joel Fredell

Southeastern Louisiana Univ.