11.12.07, Morrison, Imagining the Past in France

Main Article Content

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

The Medieval Review 11.12.07

Morrison, Elizabeth and Anne D. Hedeman. Imagining the Past in France: History in Manuscript Painting 1250-1500. Los Angeles: Getty Publications , 2010. Pp. xvii, 366. ISBN: 978-1-60606-029-2.

Reviewed by:
M. Cecilia Gaposchkin
Dartmouth College

In 2010 the John Paul Getty Museum put on an exhibition curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Anne D. Hedeman, entitled "Imagining the Past in France: History in Manuscript Painting: 1250-1500" which explored illuminated manuscripts of late medieval French vernacular historical texts (the exhibit ran from Nov. 16, 2010 to February 6, 2011). The exhibit brought together some of later medieval France's most important and sumptuous manuscripts from Paris and other world collections. The exhibit and its catalogue made a cogent and coherent historical argument that could just as well have been made in a classic monograph. As such, the essays and catalogue entries herein add up to more than the sum of their parts. The exhibit, and now the catalogue, argues that from the thirteenth through the fifteenth century--that is, during the critical period of state formation--secular historical writing played a vital role in defining the idea and the ideology of "France," and that the illuminated pictorial contribution to these secular histories performed crucial work in defining history and thus national identity.

It is perhaps worth noting that I (regrettably) did not have the opportunity to see the exhibit, and so this review is based only on the catalogue and focuses primarily on the essays and catalogue entries and the larger scholarly contribution they together make.

The volume itself, following a forward, preface, and introduction, is divided into two main sections: "Essays" in which a series of first- rate scholars investigate questions raised by the premise of the exhibition; and "Catalogue " which presents the manuscripts and other art objects of the exhibition. The second section is divided into four chronological parts: Drawing the Vernacular, 1250-1315; Collecting the Past, 1315-1400; Enriching History, 1400-1500; and Beyond French Manuscripts. The catalogue entries are authored by Elizabeth Morrison, Anne Hedeman, Elisabeth Antoine, R. Howard Bloch, Keith Busby, Joyce Coleman, Erin Donovan, and Gabrielle Spiegel. Structured chronologically, the catalogue develops arguments about the shifting functions of vernacular text and secular illumination within the context of ideological development. These arguments are explicitly laid out in short essays preceding each section. The catalogue entries then connect these larger historical and art historical trends to specific analysis of individual objects and image cycles. Finally, judging from those manuscripts that I am otherwise well familiar with, the catalogue entries are up-to-date summaries of present knowledge, contextualized importance, and relevant bibliography, and can thus serve as a first reference for anyone working on any of these manuscripts or the texts and/or images associated with them.

The editors' preface presents the underlying conceit of the exhibition: starting around 1250, secular, vernacular histories appear in increasing number, and were often highly and sumptuously illuminated. By secular, the authors seem to mean made for a secular audience; not treating solely or purely secular subject matter, since they include, for instance, vernacular bibles and miracle stories. They present a striking contrast to the long tradition of Latin liturgical and devotional manuscripts which were often the focus of artistic embellishment and have also been treated more fully by modern scholarship. The end-point of 1500 was chosen in part for dynastic reasons (in 1498, the death of Charles VIII marked the end of Valois lineage) and in part because by that date the "linguistic and geographic boundaries of France as we know it had largely taken shape" (xi). Strikingly, these parameters also bring into focus a number of the truly great artists of the period, including Mahiet, Jean Bondol, the Limbourg brothers, the Boucicaut Master, and Jean Fouquet, indicating the extent to which this new form--the secular vernacular history--was truly a locus of innovation and prestige.

The Introduction (1-7) lays out the core historical and art historical questions raised by the very premise of the exhibit. The first is: what did the later Middle Ages mean by "history"? In the period under consideration, the term history (histoire, or estoire) could mean, as it does for us, the record of past events, or it could engage elements from the imaginary or imagined past (for instance, the history of Arthur or of Troy). Thus the medieval period considered a wider variety of texts to be "historical" than we would, including hagiography, the romances, and some poetry. The Middle Ages also considered the original Latinity of a source to be authoritative, the translation of which would also be considered "history." As the vulgate Bible was translated into the vernacular, it too belonged to the corpus of vernacular history. And finally, the term estoire could also refer to images. The second question raised by the premise of the exhibition is: What is France? The authors quickly trace the development, from 987 to 1498, of an increasingly connected (though perhaps not unified) "France", territorially, linguistically, and culturally. Here, the idea of a "growing sense of nationalism," (6) fostered by the events of the Hundred Years War, is important to the authors; as is the growing prestige of the French language, both within the territory of nascent France, and beyond. Finally, the exhibition explores aspects of the history of manuscript painting, how painting helped interpret and reinvent the past, both with and in tension with the texts it accompanied.

Section I: Essays

Elizabeth Morrison, "From Sacred to Secular: The Origins of History Illumination in France" (9-25). Morrison explores the transitional period from 1250 to ca. 1325, during which artists had to adapt their techniques and models known from Bible and Psalter illumination to the visual and narrative requirements of the new genre. She explores examples of how artists, trained on fixed models and on the historiated initial, sought to adapt these techniques, or create new ones, for secular histories, the stories of which were not necessarily widely known, nor for which existed recognizable visual tropes. This resulted in a period of experimentation and innovation and by 1300-1325 produced a new set of visual practices that involved new ways of illustrating the text with multi-scene images, breaking up the text and marking important episodes in ways quite different from sacred illumination. Artists abandoned the historiated initial and slowly introduced the bifurcated or quadripartite division (so as to include more narrative specificity in order to properly identify the episode), and then introduced images that extended across two or more columns of a page of text, and also finally introduced the "caption" that identified the image and related it to the text.

Keith Busby, "Vernacular Literature and the Writing of History in Medieval Francophonia" (27-41). In this essay Busby takes up and synthesizes much of his previous work in an effort to contextualize the idea of French vernacular writing. Indeed, he problematizes the very idea of a French vernacular, exploring the various vernacular forms of French that emerged and competed at the time. As a literary language, the production of vernacular French does not coincide with either the medieval or the modern geographic boundaries of France, extending into the British Isles, to Italy, to the Francophone Levant of the crusader period, and, of course, to the "south," that is, Languedoc and Provence. He makes two critical points: The early version of the French language production came from what seem to us today to be "the margins": French/Wallonia, the British Isles, and the South (not the Île de France). Second, it grew out of courtly (and oral) culture, which however should not be classified as "lay" since most authorship remained clerical. Yet the context of courtly culture is key for several reasons: it helps explain the new historical, secular themes that emerge in the new vernacular, and, its oral/aural genesis also explains the early prominence of verse over prose. Prose predominated only later, in the period which witnessed the beginning of illustrating these texts. Busby also claims that the vernacular enabled a "leveling of genres" in which "distinctions between, say, history, romance, and epic became less acute" (37).

Gabrielle Spiegel, "The Textualization of the Past in Thirteenth-Century French Historical Writing" (43-51). Spiegel here synthesizes much of her definitive Romancing the Past (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1993) into this short, readable essay. Her essay also, in a sense, picks up where Busby's leaves off. She begins by addressing the social function of writing history as part of a society's search for self definition and identity. Latin historiography had long roots, but the rise of vernacular prose historiography began in the late twelfth century, patronized by a land-owning aristocratic elite whose prominence and authority were under siege by the dual forces of royal centralization and the rise of the money economy. This represents a shift in elite nobility's tastes, from epic and romance, from verse and fiction to prose and "truth" (or at least, a claim to truth). The use of vernacular prose (a traditional Latin form) also borrowed on the inherent authority of the Latin tradition. The nobility's turn to vernacular prose historiography was ideologically inflected with the desire to valorize an ethical and chivalric past now under threat by new social and political forces. The shift in the vernacular from verse to prose fostered other aesthetic and interpretive changes, including the withdrawal of authorial voice in favor of a claim of transcendent truth, from live performance (indebted to oral roots) to objectified text, as well as a shift in proclaimed function (from the intention to divert and entertain to the claim of upholding the models of an ethical past and the preservation of a purported historical "truth"). The irony is the completeness with which the ideological subversion of form was appropriated by royal and dynastic interests in the form of the vernacular prose histories written at Saint Denis and in particular the Grandes Chroniques de France, because it is here that the tradition of French vernacular prose historiography is fully realized, but now in the service of a royalized, national, and French past. Spiegel sees this as a conciliation--the adoption of the discourse of the defeated nobility's language of resistance in an effort to write a new inclusive history that reimagines the royal history by integrating the aristocratic framework. And yet the irony stands, since we now most frequently associate French vernacular historiography with the Grandes Chroniques, that great monument to French royal ideology.

Joyce Coleman, "Reading the Evidence in Text and Image: How History was Read in the Late Medieval France" (53-67). In this essay, Coleman deals with what we can know about the contemporary practices and valuations of "reading" history--whether reading aloud, publicly (and thus "hearing" history) or reading privately, and whether reading sacred and classical history (which was common) or reading "contemporary" French history (as in the Grandes Chroniques, which is less attested to in the sources). And she exploits the images of public reading, of book presentation, and of private reading that can be found in these texts as evidence of social practice and ideological importance. For instance, she examines the developing image of the university magister's Prelection (that is, reading aloud before others) to demonstrate the shift in emphasis from the reader (or lecturer) to that of those listening, reflecting the importance of a "vernacular public" (57). Coleman also offers an analysis of "Translatio" images--that is, images that engaged the related ideas (both of which speak to the popularity of classical history) of the Translatio Studii and the Translatio Imperii, in which ancient and modern are juxtaposed in space but related sequentially in time in ways that equated and related the ancient to the contemporary.

Anne Hedeman, "Presenting the Past: Visual Translation in Thirteenth- to Fifteenth-Century France" (69-85). Hedeman, focusing on fifteenth- century manuscript production, delivers the definitive analysis of "visual translation" that Coleman broached in her essay. She defines visual translation as "the process by which images helped stories set in the past or in a different culture come alive and be current to a medieval reader" (69). In exploring this process she is highly attuned to what we know about the book trade, production, audience, and patrons in Paris. She looks at examples of "intervisuality" (that is, when images are in dialogue with each other within or between texts), instances where images are in dialogue with the texts, and "extra textual associations" where images add information or inflect the meaning of the text in discernible ways, in order to "accomplish visual translation of past to present" (77). Hedeman also discusses strategies of "visual rhetoric," in which images do the rhetorical work of argumentation and comparison between past and present, including the intentional use of medieval dress for classical figures, and "amplification" in which expected and known scenes are juxtaposed with new scenes that expand meaning. The images "played a key role in fostering this creative engagement with historical texts...[whereby] ...this process of visualizing the past created a rich visual culture that not only made the past accessible but also transformed it into a prehistory of France" (84).

Section II: Catalogue

Part I: Dawning of the Vernacular: 1250-1315 (89-129). This section explores the rise of vernacular prose illumination, framed by the growth and consolidation of the Capetian monarchy, and the emergence of Paris as a center of intellectual and cultural (and book) production, and the appearance of new classes of lay readers. This period witnessed the translation into French of the Bible, an increasing appetite for illuminated Romances, as well as religious and devotional texts which drew on historical themes. Among the treasures of this section are the Arsenal Bible made for Saint Louis in the 1250s (cat. no. 1, Paris, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, ms. 5211); and the Presentation Copy of the first illuminated Grandes Chroniques de France (cat. no. 6, Paris, Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève ms. 782).

Part II: Collecting the Past: 1315-1400 (131-189, nos. 13-28). This section, covering the period dominated by the vicissitudes of the Hundred Years War, examines the widening of royal, aristocratic and bourgeois commissions and productions of books "in the vernacular style." Among the treasures here are entries on the Roman de Fauvel (cat. no. 13, Paris, BNF, ms. fr. 146), on the Illustrated Vie et miracles de Saint Louis of Guillaume de Saint-Pathus (cat. no. 20, Paris, BNF, ms. fr. 5716), the copy of the Grandes Chroniques de France made for Charles V (cat. no. 26, Paris, BNF, ms. fr. 2813), and the Bible historiale, including the famous presentation image in which Jean de Vaudetar offers Charles VI his book (cat. no. 25, The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, ms. 10 B 23). I was also introduced to the extraordinary Procès de Robert d'Artois (cat. no. 21, Paris, BNF, ms. fr. 18437), an illuminated repository account of a trial over Robert's "failed attempt to wrest the country of Artois from his aunt, Mahaut d'Artois in which he resorted to suborning false testimony and commissioning forgeries" (163). The notarized documents from the trial were compiled and illuminated in such a way as to "reinforce Philip VI's royal dignity and majesty even more than the text, by representing what should have happened rather than what actually occurred" (163).

Part III: Enriching History: 1400-1500 (191-257). The theme of this section is diversity and diffusion. Not only did vernacular histories continue to be made for the royal family (including, of course, Charles VII and Jean, Duc de Berry), but increasingly diffuse constituencies. As such, range and quality expanded. Paris remained important, but disrupted by the events of the last phases of Hundred Years War, other centers popped up throughout France. The fifteenth century was particularly attuned to the visual rhetoric of clothing and dress, which were frequently deployed in the adaption of fourteenth-century works. And finally, the latter half of the century witnessed the appearance of printing (known at the time, as Anne Hedeman points, out, as "artificial writing," [192]), which multiplied copies of vernacular histories (the first vernacular text printed in Paris was the Grandes Chroniques in 1477), which in turn entailed new adaptations of visual strategies to the page. As printing opened up venues and audiences of reading vernacular history, Middle French was often re- translated into a more modern idiom, and visual strategies were adapted for the newer audiences. Examples illustrating this period include the Moralized Bible of the Limbourg Brothers (cat. no. 29, Paris, BNF, ms. fr. 166); Pierre Salmon's Dialogues (cat. no. 38, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, ms. 165); and an illustrated Livre d'Eracles, which is the translation and continuation of of William of Tyre's Historia rerum partibus transmarinis gestarum (cat. no. 42, Amiens, Bibliothèque d'Amiens Metropole, ms. 483F).

Part IV: Beyond French Manuscripts (259-317). This section looks at the wider diffusion of the texts and ideas formulated in the French vernacular, both histories and romances, in the period from 1250 to 1500. This was in part due to the reputation of the French language for refinement and culture, and the popularity of stories (mostly romances) originally popularized in the French vernacular. This diffusion occurred both geographically--with historical texts commissioned from Galicia to Holland to Naples (and beyond)--and in media, influencing a whole variety of material culture from sculpture to tapestries to floor tiles. Here, one of the most popular of such visual themes was the "Nine Worthies," originating in 1312 with Jacques de Longyons' vernacular romance Les voeux du paon, and quickly envisualized with the portraits of the nine historical heroes, three from the classical period (often Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar), three from the period of Moses to Christ (often Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeaus), and three from the Christian period (often Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroy of Bouillon). Many of the objects of the exhibit relate to the Nine Worthies (cat. nos. 65-68). But this section also includes leaves from Matthew Paris' Life of Thomas of Canterbury (cat. no. 49, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, The Wormsley Library, Becket Leaves); an illustrated copy of Jean Froissart's Chronique made in Bruges around 1480 (cat. no. 52, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, ms. Ludwig XIII7); an illustrated copy of the Grandes Chroniques, printed in 1493 (cat. no. 53, New York, The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection, French 1493); and scenes in tile, ivory, and tapestry taken from the Romances (cat. nos. 54-60).

The catalogue thus makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of late medieval textual and visual culture. It is sure to become a much cited and often consulted point of reference for individual objects, but the project as a whole offers more than the sum of its parts, exploring how vernacular manuscript (and ultimately print) culture constructed and reproduced French history and historical imagination. As such, it can henceforth be read by those interested in the cultural work of state building in late medieval France alongside such classics as Spiegel's Romancing the Past and Colette Beaune's Birth of an Ideology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991). The volume is (as an exhibition catalogue is expected to be) well and amply illustrated by good quality images, and has a robust bibliography of the relevant literature.

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Author Biography

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

Dartmouth College