03.04.21, Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques

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Axel Bolvig

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.021


Bovey, Alixe. Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Pp. 64. ISBN: 0-8020-8512-1.

Reviewed by:
Axel Bolvig

This is a richly and brilliantly illuminated booklet about an extensive subject. The 59 illustrations -- all in colour -- are very instructive. They constitute a goldmine for everyone with an interest in "the other medieval world." All the monstrous figures appear in medieval manuscripts in the British Library, and this booklet is an elegant appetizer and introduction to the Library's illuminated manuscripts. It is a bit more difficult to adopt an attitude to the text. The author writes that she will explore the pantheon of medieval monsters in images from manuscripts seeking their roots in antiquity, the Bible, and in the imagination of artists, authors, and scribes (6). The text is too short for any serious investigation, and that is not its intention, but we must consequently content ourselves with a fine preliminary introduction to the grotesque world, though one which is, nevertheless, rather a narrow path to an understanding of this fascinating world.

Alixe Bovey insists that nowhere are the monsters more abundant than in illuminated manuscripts, "which collectively preserve more medieval art than any other type of object" (5). Of course it is impossible to prove this assertion quantitatively, but the world of monsters in art outside and inside churches is huge, and probably not smaller than that in manuscripts. One should also draw attention to the medieval wall paintings teeming with grotesque figures, in which one can find hundreds of grotesques and indeed thousands of images that do not belong to traditional iconography (see www.kalkmalerier.dk [search droleri] and www.medieval-image.org).

In this book, as promised at the beginning, Bovey describes the roots of the grotesques from antique authors to Mandeville's Travels, from the Bestiary to the Bible, from Dante's Divine Comedy to Psalters and Books of Hours. Yet it is difficult to find out if there is a difference between the individual sources. The reader needs indications of eventual deviations in the representation of monsters within different sources and media. The author writes that whereas book production originally had been dominated by monasteries, from the thirteenth century it was possible to commission manuscripts from professional scribes and illuminators in the towns (43). These illuminators and their patrons loved fabulous grotesque imagery. One is tempted to ask to what degree these late medieval grotesques and monsters corresponded with their roots. Is there an unbroken link from Pliny's writings to the Rutland Psalter's illuminator, whose work "boasts many monsters with a clear pedigree in the Plinian monsters" (p. 51)? Which creatures are we looking at? We can use neither analogy nor traditional iconography, inasmuch as "the attempt to create a system of descriptive categories for that which exists to resist and confound systematization involves an obvious contradiction" (David Williams, Deformed discourse. The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature [Exeter, 1996], 107).

The author points to an interesting subject: the relationship between written stories and painted images. Artists had to imagine what the verbally described monsters looked like. Two different images of giants with enormous fan-shaped ears indicate that visual representation is creating an independent monstrous world (10-11). In response to the assertion that medieval illuminators had to imagine the verbal description, one might point to Rudolf Wittkower who has argued that one of the two images has obviously been derived from a source different from the text ("Marvels of the East: a Study in the History of Monsters," in Rudolf Wittkower, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols [1987], 5).

The subject is of especially crucial importance to illuminated manuscripts, with their close relationship between word and image. One would thus like to learn more when reading that "other grotesques interact directly with the text" (50). To what extent are our linguistic translations of the visual configurations correct or adequate? Bovey writes about an illustration in the Rutland Psalter that "an arrow shot from the bow of a hunched creature is about to hit the bottom of a sciopod, who is oblivious to the imminent strike" ?(51). On the same image Michael Camille comments that the letter "p" of the Latin word conspectu (meaning to see or penetrate visually) enters the anus of a prostrate fish-man by joining up with the arrow shot by an exotic archer (Image on the Edge [1992], 22). The interrelationship between word and image is complicated and apparently mutual. I would like to ask, is it a Plinian blemmya who is standing with a bow and an ancient sciopod who is being shot in his anus by the arrow? Or have they established quite a new late medieval life in the nearness of a text? And do they represent the same connotative world when they appear in other media, e.g. wall paintings liberated from the linear text? Both can for example be seen facing each other in the Danish church of Raby (www.kalkmalerier.dk [search 123-2344, 123-2348, and NF-0758]). In Voldby church one find a crowned blemmya standing with a long arrow or a spear pointing at another crowned blemmya. Behind him a man is lying on his back with his legs spread. Before the picture's restoration he had undoubtedly exposed his bare bottom (www.kalkmalerier.dk [search Voldby-10]). There are quite a lot of similarities between the two images in the Rutland Psalter and the Danish wall painting. But maybe they connote two complete different meanings.

These remarks advocate interdisciplinary research about monsters and grotesques in manuscripts as well as in other media. On this task, one can make a start in Bovey's booklet.

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Axel Bolvig