03.09.26, Kamerick, Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages

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Jacqueline Jung

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.026


Kamerick, Kathleen. Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages: Image Worship and Idolatry in England 1350-1500. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xi, 292. ISBN: 0-312-29312-7.

Reviewed by:
Jacqueline Jung
Middlebury College

"To adore images is one thing; to teach with their help what should be adored is another. What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant, who see through them what they must accept; they read in them what they cannot read in books." When Pope Gregory the Great, in a letter chiding Bishop Serenus of Marseille for having smashed holy images in an attempt to save his recent converts from idolatry, insisted that images could and should be tolerated in the Christian Church because of the immediacy with which they could teach the unlettered of essential doctrinal truths, he could not have known that his statements would become the standard justification for Christian images for over a thousand years. Yet for all the repetition of this argument in medieval sources, recent scholarship on medieval theories and practices involving the visual arts has revealed that the function of pictures as reminders of sacred history and teachers of doctrine - in other words, as visual equivalents of texts - was only one of many purposes of art. Fundamental essays by Celia Chazelle and Lawrence Duggan have questioned the extent to which the Gregorian claim was accurate even in its own time, pointing out the problems and inconsistencies in contemporaneous uses of images and in later interpretations of the dictum; important books by Hans Belting, Michael Camille, Mary Carruthers, David Freedberg, Cynthia Hahn, Jeffrey Hamburger, Herbert Kessler, and Sixten Ringbom have demonstrated the complex and multifaceted ways medieval images worked to interpret and complicate textual referents, allowing viewers to gain access to the divine in ways that transcended and superceded words. The region of East Anglia has yielded an exceptionally rich and complex array of sources on late medieval image use, as studies by Paul Binksi, Eamon Duffy, Gail McMurray Gibson, and Pamela Sheingorn have made clear.

It is into this latter group that Kathleen Kamerick's volume Popular Piety and Art in the Late Middle Ages seeks to fit. As Kamerick explains in her introduction, the aim of her book is to demonstrate the variety of complex, and often contradictory, attitudes toward and uses of holy images in late medieval England through an examination of a large and diverse array of primary source texts. Chapter 1 enumerates the objections to images raised by Lollards and describes in detail their justification by traditional Catholic theologians, while Chapter 2 deals with attitudes toward images articulated in less lofty domains, namely vernacular instruction literature for parish priests, sermons, and devotional works for the laity. Whereas the first two chapters address ideas about images mediated through explicit textual discourses, the following pair takes us into the domain of actual image use by ordinary laypeople in the towns and parishes of East Anglia. In Chapter 3, Kamerick describes the ways laypeople engaged with images, through a study of both surviving material artifacts and of wills enumerating individual bequests for the lighting and maintenance of favorite statues. In contrast to such displays of private and personal relationships with figural objects, the material laid out in Chapter 4 shows us the ways such images functioned in the public sphere, as the goals of pilgrimage and mass devotion with important and often controversial economic implications. Chapters 5 examines the significance of visual images and material works of art in the mystical experiences of late medieval women, especially Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, while Chapter 6 turns to the kind of images laypeople encountered in the intimate domain of private prayer books, and the kind of reading and beholding practices these images set into motion.

As this brief overview makes plain, Kamerick has undertaken an ambitious and wide-ranging project, encompassing a daunting array of issues and problems. The volume reveals meticulous research into the primary sources; in particular, the discussion of wills in Chapter 3 provides us with many specific, often very touching, examples of ordinary people's engagement with their favorite holy things. While reading this book, however, one is continually reminded of its origins as a dissertation. Much of the text is expository and descriptive rather than analytical; many paragraphs read like extended footnotes, listing facts and summarizing arguments with no substantive analysis or contextualization and little sense of clear conceptual focus or cohesive argumentation. One wishes that the author had done more to tighten up the often plodding and repetitive writing. More importantly, she needed to have taken into consideration the vast literature on the complex relation between art and piety in the late Middle Ages that has accrued since she completed her dissertation in 1991.

Because the author displays no substantial awareness of the rich secondary material published during the past decade - and makes no effort to situate herself clearly within it - the purpose and contribution of her book are difficult to ascertain. Her Chapter 3, titled "Fair Images in the Parish," deals with precisely the same kinds of materials and issues that Duffy discusses at length in his magisterial study The Stripping of the Altars, but no account is taken of this volume in either the text or the notes. Paul Binski's article "The English Parish Church and Its Art in the Later Middle Ages: A Review of the Problem" (Studies in Iconography 20 [1999]: 1-25), which deals with similar materials, is likewise absent from the discussion here. With the exception of Chapter 5, where Kamerick briefly introduces a handful of Continental women mystics, no comparanda appear either from Continental Europe or from the earlier Middle Ages to support or to complicate her picture of late medieval East Anglia. Nor does Kamerick make use of the theoretical models developed by art historians such as Belting, Freedberg, Kessler, and Hamburger for understanding and talking about historical (and current) viewer response. Thus K.americk ends up introducing us, with great and obvious effort, to materials and issues that are already well-known, only to arrive at a conclusion-that images did not function only or primarily as "books of the illiterate" -that has been a commonplace in medieval art history for many years.

The fact that this book not only contributes nothing new to the discussion of late medieval art and piety, but does not even represent the current state of research makes its inclusion in a series called "The New Middle Ages" perplexing. Nor are Kamerick's discussions of actual works of art useful. Without either a firm conceptual footing or acknowledgement of artistic activity beyond East Anglia, Kamerick seems at a loss as to how to approach the objects and images she reproduces. Her superficial descriptions of sculptures and illuminations suggest discomfort with the practice of visual analysis (see 76-84), and many statements reveal an understanding of the visual materials that is limited at best. In her discussion of Books of Hours, for example, Kamerick expresses surprise to discover that although "primers [Books of Hours] are usually and rightly associated with the laity, . . . clerics also owned prayer books that use images" (183), without seeming to realize that the Book of Hours first came to the laity from monastic devotional practices. She also finds it odd that, given the complex layout of many medieval prayer books, "the reader must flip back and forth through the pages," a process that "seems clumsy" to her and leads her to stretch for alternatives (166); more extensive research into medieval manuscript design and reading practices would have revealed that careful handling and slow engagement in the reading and looking process were normal for medieval users of books. (In this respect one wonders why Kamerick thinks that medieval book design is necessarily more awkward than that of a scholarly publication such as her own, where the reader likewise has to flip back and forth to get from the text to notes to images and back again.)

Whereas Kamerick displays little awareness of her own position within a larger literature, she is often jarringly candid about her stance with regard to her primary sources. She clearly plays favorites with her medieval authors; so, for example, in Chapter 1, after she spends seven pages summarizing Roger Dymmock's defense of images and then moves on to Walter Hilton, we read: "Dymmock explains with excruciating and unconvincing exactitude how people worship with latria here and dulia there, but Hilton faces the fact that people will blunder" (37). One wonders why an author whose whole book sets out to "explain . . . how people worship with latria here and dulia there" would be so flippant about the same project when undertaken by a medieval author. In dealing with actual practices and beliefs, Kamerick all too readily passes judgment on what to us may seem strange behaviors, such as the recitation of prayers before indulgenced images, without clearly distinguishing her own voice from those of her subjects. A statement such as this - "More notorious are the often spurious indulgences that cite dubious authorities for days, years, or centuries of pardon first granted to unnamed or unknown kings" (169) - sounds needlessly polemical without some reference to medieval thinkers sharing the same opinion.

Underlying, and to some extent determining, these weaknesses in the details are two significant conceptual problems. First is Kamerick's assumption, long since put to rest in the scholarly literature, that "high" and "popular" culture in the Middle Ages were completely separate domains, hence her surprise to find that "[d]espite their questionable origins, such indulgences [as those described above as "spurious"] appear in simple and elegant prayer books alike, attesting to their broad appeal to and acceptance by many levels of medieval society" (169). Yet if Kamerick's book has anything to teach us, it is that the medieval boundaries between "high" and "popular" culture were fluid and permeable, if they existed at all; throughout the volume we read of "high" discourses that defend the use of images and "low" ones that challenge it, and we read of an astonishing array of attitudes toward and uses of images in various media among both laypeople and clerics. What, then, is "popular piety?" Is it the piety of Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, both inarguably extraordinary women? Or of the ordinary individuals whose wills ordered the lighting of candles in front of favorite statues? Or the clerical compilers of sermon exempla? Or the educated men who composed passionate attacks on and defenses of holy images? (In clarifying her stance on this issue Kamerick would have benefited from the useful overview of the problem provided by Bob Scribner in the 1996 volume Popular religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800, edited by Scribner and Trevor Johnson.)

No less problematic is the assumption embedded in the book's subtitle, which springs up explicitly in numerous passages throughout the book, namely, Kamerick's inexplicable opposition of the synonymous terms image worship and idolatry. For all the shortcomings in the conceptual cohesiveness and clarity of her book as a whole, Kamerick has done an admirable job of assembling a great number of primary source materials, some unpublished, that deal with images. The data she presents, both textual and visual, show us the complex and multifaceted ways in which late medieval English people used and thought about images, and confirms that the line between legitimate image devotion and idolatry was no more tangible than that between "high" and "popular" culture. Indeed, perhaps less so, as Kamerick's sources teach us, the only thing separating image devotion from image worship, or idolatry, was the stance of the commentator. That is, all evidence reveals that the medieval people who hugged, kissed, spoke to, struck, and cried before holy images did not think of themselves as worshipping the image; it took outside observers who disapproved of such behavior to make that judgment. Yet although Kamerick explains repeatedly the medieval distinction between latria, the highest form of honor due only to God, and dulia, the reverence owed lesser beings such as saints (and images), she does not herself adhere to this distinction when discussing her sources. Thus she typically slips between describing examples of image devotion as image worship (latria, hence idolatry), surely a move to which her late medieval subjects would have vehemently objected. It is not clear whether Kamerick herself does not understand the distinction or if she simply cannot conceive of image devotion as a legitimate form of religious expression. This conceptual murkiness comes to view in sentences such as "Legitimate image worship depended on the devotee understanding the distinction between latria and dulia" (47) - a passage that makes no sense because, if we distinguish between latria and dulia, there can be no such thing as "legitimate image worship" at all. Through this semantic and conceptual confusion, however, we learn what, perhaps, this book was trying to show us in the first place: that medieval image theory is, and was, confusing, contradictory, inconsistent, and multifaceted. If neither the author nor her readers can make clear sense of it, why, in the end, should we expect medieval people to have done so?

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Author Biography

Jacqueline Jung

Middlebury College