12.03.16, Page, The Unorthodox Imagination in Late Medieval Britain

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Andrew Larsen

The Medieval Review 12.03.16

Page, Sophie. The Unorthodox Imagination in Late Medieval Britain. UCL/Neale Series on British History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. Pp. X, 220. ISBN: 978-0-7190-7835-4.

Reviewed by:
Andrew Larsen
Marquette University

This volume collects essays from the Neale Colloquium in British History held at University College London in 2006. The articles explore various ways in which texts, artwork, and devotional objects in late medieval England deviated from the normative world view of their time. The subject matter ranges from religious orthodoxy or lack thereof to ideas about magic, fairies, and exotic animals.

Although they address a diverse range of subjects, the essays in this volume do a good job of exploring the medieval imagination and how imagination and belief occasionally pushed beyond the normal boundaries of prescribed belief in ways that earlier scholarship has often been reluctant to acknowledge. They also chart the evolution of unorthodox ideas from the high to the late Middle Ages. This collection of articles seems most useful to art historians, historians of magic, and historians interested in religious belief and heresy.

The lead essay by Jean-Claude Schmitt, "'Unorthodox' images? The 2006 Neale Lecture," explores the relationship of artistic images to Christian dogma and argues that artwork could not by itself be truly heterodox. He explores images such as the Winchester "Quinity," attempts to depict the Trinity, and manuscript marginalia and statuary such as the Open Virgin and various crucifixes, and examines the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux and Luke of Tuy to demonstrate that the problem with unorthodox artwork was not its semantic content but how the work was received by its various audiences and the perceived social legitimacy of those who commissioned and employed the artwork. Schmitt's analysis is intriguing, but his argument is weakened by an over-emphasis on the exceptions to his thesis.

Robert Bartlett's "Comment on Jean-Claude Schmitt's Neale Lecture" approves of Schmitt's argument and asserts that the exceptions to the main argument demonstrate that the medieval Church had little notion of an "orthodox image." He raises the question of how manuscript marginalia are to be interpreted because of the challenge of divining the artist's original intent.

Carl Watkins, in "Fascination and anxiety in medieval wonder stories," examines stories of magic, fairies, and wondrous events in chronicles of Anglo-Norman and later English authors, with a particular focus on William of Malmesbury, Walter Map, Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Tilbury, and the author of the Lanercost Chronicle. Watkins examines the way these authors handled fantastic stories in the context of their historical writing and argues that while the earliest of these authors were uncertain how to present stories that appeared to challenge the accepted morality of God's creation, later authors were more comfortable with the moral ambiguity of demons, fairies, and magicians. But by the fourteenth century, authors had begun to reject such stories while still finding room to report on meteorological portents and other marvels that were evidently seen as more acceptable.

In the excellent "The materiality of unbelief in late medieval England", John Arnold explores the increasingly complex picture of religious belief in later medieval Europe by focusing on doubts about the Eucharist as evidence for religious skepticism. He points to the numerous examples both in trial records and in Eucharistic miracle tales as evidence that many people found the doctrine of transubstantiation literally incredible based on their own experience of the material world. His argument reinforces the notion that not all late medieval English heretics were necessarily Lollards, and that heterodox belief may have been more widespread than often admitted. His discussion of skepticism contrasts strongly with the emphasis in many of the other articles on belief in magic and marvels.

Catherine Rider, in "Magic and unorthodoxy in late medieval English pastoral manuals" examines the attitude of authors of pastoral manuals toward sortilegium. She examines various arguments by Thomas of Chobham, Raymond of PeƱafort, and Thomas Aquinas, among others, about the reasons that sortilegium was considered sinful. For these authors, the issue was not simply that magical practices were demonic, but that they corrupted the proper relationship between the user and God.

Edina Bozoky's "Private reliquaries and other prophylactic jewels: new compositions and devotional practices in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries" focuses on the widespread practice of private reliquaries and similar devotional objects, few of which still survive. She argues that many essentially orthodox jewels were enhanced with the addition of unorthodox modifications such as magical inscriptions, stones with healing properties, and other features that blurred the lines between the sacred and the profane and encouraged the owners to focus on the container more than the contents.

In Frank Klassen's "The middleness of ritual magic," he argues that late medieval ritual magic simultaneously subverted orthodox beliefs and reinforced them. Thus ritual magic drew many elements from Christian liturgy and sometimes required participation in the Mass and other Christian rituals, even while it pursued goals scorned by the medieval Church, such as the accumulation of worldly goods, sexual pleasure, and the like. Klaasen does a good job showing the ways that ritual magic parallels heresy, such as the emphasis on covert transmission and the fact that both magicians and heretics viewed their practices as not false and shameful but true and ideal. His point about the rebelliousness of magical practice and its appeal to young clerks is a particularly important one, since it demonstrates the way that clerical authors often presented their violation of clerical rules of behavior as a youthful folly that served to ultimately reinforce the violated rules.

L T. Olsan, in "Enchantment in medieval literature," explores the various forms of enchantments that occur in medieval romance, categorizing them as pleasurable delusions, places of enchantment, enchanted objects and so on. She points out the ways that enchantment at least temporarily subverted the normal power relationships and cultural expectations of medieval society.

The last essay, Aleks Pluskowski's "Constructing exotic animals and environments in late medieval Britain," examines the way late medieval authors and artists understood the relationship between "the physical and conceptual ecological context of exotic animals" and on the form of their bodies. He discusses royal menageries, artistic depictions of exotic creatures, and animal remains understood to be from fabulous beasts (such as narwhal horns believed to be from unicorns and ibex horns repurposed as griffin claws). In exploring the relationship between artisanal intent and the reception of the finished product, Pluskowski returns to the theme of Schmitt's essay in a way that nicely summarizes the goals of the volume as a whole.

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Andrew Larsen

Marquette University