09.03.06, Stanbury, The Visual Object

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Elizabeth Scala

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.006


Stanbury, Sarah. The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 291. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4038-2.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas at Austin

Sarah Stanbury's essays on visuality and the gaze in medieval literature have long established her as the premiere critic on "regimes of the visual" in the Middle Ages. Her new book, The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England, goes a step further, illuminating the vexed preoccupations of an entire culture with the legitimacy and dangers of devotional objects as seen through the language of various of its texts.

Focused on the period 1380-1450, Stanbury's book "examine[s] the dynamic image culture of late medieval England through the responses of its textual commentators," those whose testimony to lost images survives in its rhetoric. Stanbury describes a late medieval culture "keenly attuned to and ever troubled by its 'culture of the spectacle'" (5). In the examples she analyzes, Stanbury shows the predominance of expressive language about seeing and the desire to which it bears witness, noting a marked attention to "the representation of visual experience" in literary texts (6). Surveying works of fiction and historical non-fiction, devotional treatises and handbooks, as well as sermons arguing the case for and against images, Stanbury reveals their ambivalent status in medieval culture and affective piety, a growing and heated debate that eventually erupts in Reformation iconoclasm.

This study demonstrates the complexity of images in both orthodox and heterodox discourse. The debate about the proper and improper uses of representation was not limited to one kind of representational form but could be wrought in images itself, as she shows in the manuscript miniatures adorning one copy of Lydgate's Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, which depict various forms of image worship and idolatry. But the features of the image debate are complicated in other ways too, especially in their critiques of and anxiety about capital and social status. Luxury images commissioned by the rich "come to signify not the ethics of sacrifice but the pleasures of the marketplace" as they "transform stories of apostolic poverty to spectacles of luxury" (12). In a study that is richly historical, Stanbury ties the reform debate to the logic of commodities and the structures of sexuality targeted in later theoretical formulations of the fetish, a variously defined object but one that is always loved too much. Her book not only treats secular and devotional topics but also how the very thinking about images in religious discourse transcends this binary opposition between the worldly and the religious to show the intimate relation of the devotional and market forces. Thus one of the most impressive things about Stanbury's book is its means of making religious images a rather sexy topic. We return to a more fully religious sensibility in reading her version of medieval culture, but it is one that looks far different from the "quiet hierarchies" of the Robertsonian era or the complacent pieties of others.

As we have come to expect, Stanbury shows herself a careful and compelling reader of visual culture and its desires--she traverses the demands of historical limitation and transhistorical connection extremely well. As such, her book begins by defining the "premodern fetish," using a term made notorious by Freud and Marx that wasn't heard in English before the enlightenment and that originates in mutated form in the medieval period only in fifteenth-century Portuguese travel logs (18). But the "perverse attachments" to the material enchantment of the fetish names a similar relation to material images in late medieval culture that had to be disciplined by Reformation iconoclasm (19). Reading the historical arguments of William Pietz and Anne McClintock on fetishism (which they link to particular moments in Renaissance and nineteenth-century Imperialism, respectively), Stanbury shows how their commodity distinctions are related to late medieval image debates in which Lollards, for instance, are increasingly concerned with the market value of objects (23)--"richly decorated images [that] offer a mirror to the mercantile self, short-circuiting spiritual exchange with a market trade" (23). Saints in statuary are thus ornately depicted by their benefactors "to justify his or her worldly pursuits," and they further work to divert money from the poor (24). With attention to the image industry in the late fourteenth and mid-fifteenth century, she emphasizes that "the gap between the object and self collapses in many acts of donation" then as now (28): "a gift to the image is a gift to the self" as in chantry foundations and donations (29). And she traces the personal inscriptions and marking of gifts in the fifteenth century as a set of self-commemorating gestures (29).

But these gifts do more--"Participating in an incarnational economy [they] articulate the problematic interchange among money, images, and spirit that fueled the image debate" (30). The prayers offered for lay endowments (31), so troubling to the iconoclast Lollards, repeat the logic of the economics of indulgences: are these endowments offerings or payment in advance? Stanbury thus shows that these texts are "versed" in the image debate and that the image debate itself is intimately related to other compelling anxieties of late medieval culture.

One of the additional benefits of Stanbury's theoretical angle of vision is the widening of relations normally foreclosed to Medieval Studies. Not only does that mean that Stanbury can use materialist and psychoanalytic theory in historically nuanced ways that uphold and traverse alterist modes of thought, she also problematizes rather attractively strict lines of periodization. She shows how, repeatedly, what we have taken as "modern," "Reformation," and "sixteenth-century" began earlier and remains dependent upon the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She makes unclear (and reveals as arbitrary) where medieval and early modern begin and end (see her very neat dismantling of Pietz on p. 31).

In chapter one, Stanbury takes up various anti-Lollard texts that defend images (and even mock Lollard iconoclasts). Reading an episode from Knighton's Chronicle, she shows how "Knighton mobilizes the pleasures of romance--that is, love, sex, and violence" to brilliant effect in an anti-Lollard, historical tract (40). Like the Katherine legend itself which the Lollards attempt to parody and play upon, Knighton's story of these Lollards' image desecration repeats the failed erotic gestures of Katherine's own narrative, making her desecrators part of her own story and into the unbelievers that martyred her in the first place (40-1). In Stanbury's reading, the image burning that Knighton recounts and mocks becomes a dirty joke-- an ironic transubstantiation in which saint becomes nutritive as fuel for soup-making. Following a reading of Walter Hilton's enormously popular "vernacular meditative romance," The Scale of Perfection, Stanbury ends the chapter with attention to saints and their tokens (returning to Katherine and her wheel). These tokens work successfully to move viewers to the abstract level of signification visual images are supposed to address (the ideas of God behind them) and fail by compelling a kind of adoration of their own (becoming icons).

Chapter two reads a remarkably preserved object, the Despenser Retable, in Norwich Cathedral. This painted five-panel oak altarpiece was preserved as the underside of a table during the Reformation. Reading the painted scenes that focus on Christ's body in the context of the retable's frame, which uses the heraldic devices of local nobles, Stanbury reads this object and its packaged Passion narrative as "hieratic, hierarchical, and above all local" (79). Laying out a narrative of order and increasing ordering in the Passion story, the retable is framed by a social order that situates the object as a social text, a "symmetry between faith, authority, orderly worship, and powerful patronage" that made frame and painting "an elegant unit" (89). This chapter studies an object and imagines the gaze once focused on it as a materialist preface to a series of specific literary readings of fictional objects of a similar gaze.

Chapters three, four, and five position Chaucer at the center of Stanbury's study, offering a new means of reading Chaucer's descriptive artistry, his interest in classical texts and their histories, and the pilgrimage context of the Canterbury Tales. Stanbury situates Chaucer's principal work of the 1380s and 1390s within the heated debate about idolatry and orthodox uses of devotional images. The analysis here offers new readings of texts one expects to appear here, like the Knight's Tale and Troilus, as well as surprising new insights on the Clerk's Tale and the Prioress's Tale. She reads Chaucer's well-known ekphrastic descriptions (in the Knight's Tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Legend of Good Women) for the way they imitate Christian gazes on devotional objects and safely distance this potential iconoclast action on historically distant pagan objects, putting his images "at a historical and devotional remove" (102). Stanbury here explains elegantly what has long perplexed readers of, say, the Knight's Tale, whose images of the pagan gods shift before the viewers (and narrator's) eyes to become a surrounding landscape, even a statue come to life. The Knight's continued "intrusion"--ther saugh I-- into the text is thus explained not in terms of Canterbury narrators and their ironizations or subtle critiques of chivalry as an institution but as part of the vexed relation to images in culture generally, precisely "at a time of increasingly heated controversy about Lollardy and signs of devotion" (106). One of the delights of Stanbury's book is its way of thinking about Chaucer's historicism-- his concerted turn to the pagan past and its conventions and languages--that become increasingly important to the age of humanism.

Next, Stanbury gives us other means to read the pilgrimage the Canterbury Tales records but never completes, by rereading some of its tales as "haunted" by the journey's presumed end: "ritual performances of the sanctified body" (124) in the Clerk's Tale (chapter four) and the Prioress's Tale (chapter five). She offers original readings that attend to these tales in new ways, seeing them not merely as "political theater." Moving from devotional-like stories in the Canterbury Tales to the squarely devotional and highly popular Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ by Nicholas Love, chapter seven examines "Love's choice to translate a highly visual enactment of the gospels [at a] time when the literal uses of devotional images in worship had become the subject of impassioned and even high-risk debate" (172). In bringing Christ's life to life, as it were, the Mirror turns against Lollard invective and gives us "a complex affirmation of an image culture" (189). Her final chapter turns to Margery Kempe, situated in the fifteenth-century culture of the "flourishing growth in the production of devotional artifacts of all kinds, with a correlative interest in visible bequests" (192) and she reads her Book as "a quixotic and highly-localized fifteenth-century benefactors list" (193).

The most ingenious of her chapters by far, it is also the least convincing as Stanbury tries to show not the literal names of individuals inscribed in Margery Kempe's Book but the ways the "Creature" the book chronicles goes on to donate exorbitantly (and thereby establishes her public identity) by means of the many souls she saves (193). Kempe's discussion with Jesus Christ, her visionary animation of him, links her Book to Love's certainly, but in this chapter I felt the absence of the drama in Stanbury's study most keenly and wished for a chapter on the miracle plays instead--perhaps as an alternate and stronger East Anglian conclusion to the entire study. Stanbury is well aware of the importance of the drama, uses drama scholarship in her notes and periodically throughout her study, and more pervasively deploys the rhetoric of drama, theater, and performance across the entire book. Even going so far as to cite the Tretis on Miraclis Pleyinge, "a Wycliffite condemnation of the performance of miracle plays, [that] condemns the 'living' quality of theater as even worse than the 'deadness' of devotional images" (174- 75), she here directly hits upon the drama's potential importance to her study, but merely raises it in contradistinction to Love's defense of devotional scenes. The three-page section on "Liturgical Drama" that appears here concerns the Prioress's Tale (169-71). That she never addresses the drama further, nor explains why she has chosen to bypass this literary form, is perplexing precisely because of the terms of her fine analysis of the culture of the image and its liveliness in the period that she delineates.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Scala

University of Texas at Austin