The Medieval Review 14.09.06


Starkey, Kathryn. A Courtier’s Mirror: Cultivating Elite Identity in Thomasin von Zerclaere's Welscher Gast. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pp. 472. $55.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-268-04144-1 (paperback).



Reviewed by:


Will Hasty
University of Florida
hasty@mail.ufl.edu

Kathryn Starkey's book makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on Thomasin von Zerclaere's didactic poem Der Welsche Gast, composed ca. 1215 by an Italian author for German audiences, and to the understanding of medieval visual culture more generally. Two contributions, in particular, are worthy of mention at the outset. First, the images Thomasin originally intended as an integral part of his work, as well as the different formats or layouts of later redactions of his work, are placed in the foreground of our attention, alongside his verse narrative on courtly virtues and vices (which had been the exclusive object of attention based on the obviously textual priorities of critical editions of Thomasin's work). Second, the book shows how a poem such as that of Thomasin--and particularly its images--is refashioned in the extant manuscripts to reflect different kinds of self-understanding, self-representation, and reading/viewing practices of later audiences with different tastes, needs, and ambitions.

The mentioned contributions, albeit in reverse order, are tangible in the organization of Starkey's book. The first of the two main parts of the book is contextualization and analysis of Thomasin's work (both text and images), and consists of an Introduction (1-31), and five chapters: 1. "Reading Knowledge: Format, Empowerment, and the Genesis of a Reference Book" (33-54); 2. "Vision, the Viewing Subject, and the Power of Narrative" (55-83); 3. "Models of Gender: Allegory, Stereotype, and Courtly Motif"; 4. "Image and Elite Self-Fashioning in the Gotha Manuscript" (117-137); and 5. "Visuality and (Self) Reflection in the Courtier's Mirror" (139-146). The second part of the book consists of four appendices: 1.the Welscher Gast Manuscripts (147-152); 2. a Synopsis of the Welscher Gast according to the Gotha Manuscript (153-195); 3. Gotha Memb. I. 120 and Its Image Cycle (Figs 1-77) (196-351); and 4. Images from Various Redactions of the Welscher Gast and the Manesse Codex (Figs. 78-102) (352-377). The remainder of the book comprises notes, bibliography, and a fairly extensive (ca. 17 page-long) index. The third of these appendices is especially impressive and helpful to scholars with an interest in visual studies in presenting high quality color photographs of the manuscript pages of Gotha Memb.I.120, one of the most significant of the Welscher Gast manuscripts. Each manuscript page image is accompanied, on the facing page, with English summaries of the Middle High German verses and brief explanations of the illustrations.

The introduction capably serves the purpose of introducing the poet Thomasin and his work, as well as of advancing the study's critical concerns, particularly those pertaining to the importance of the relationships between text and image and how these change over time. Starkey calls this the poem's "visual program":

UNSPECIFIED "The focus of the present volume is on the poem's visual program and an examination of how it transformed over the course of the poem's reception. Specifically, this study is concerned with what the visual presentation of the poem can tell us about the ways that the Welscher Gast was reconceived over the course of its transmission by audiences concerned with imagining themselves as an elite society." (3)

Many of the different issues with which the book will be concerned, as well as the book's organization, are outlined in the introduction, and of particular interest are the two manuscripts that will be of principal interest in Starkey's comparative analysis (though she also concerns herself with others in her analysis and furnishes bibliographical information about all the extant redactions in the first appendix): Heidelberg Cpg 389 from 1256, which is regarded as "a crucial point of comparison because it is the oldest extant manuscript and is presumably closest to the original version" (5), and the 1340 Gotha Memb.I.120 mentioned above, a manuscript of "pivotal" importance for Starkey because it "contains the most extensive version of the image cycle, as well as the first version of the unusual prose foreword that was appended to the poem in the late thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century. It is also the first complete redaction to contain an extensive indexing apparatus that enables the viewer to use the codex as a reference tool" (5).

The initial chapter focuses on the format or visual appearance of the manuscripts, as concrete realizations of Thomasin's conception as this can be construed on the basis of his text and how the formats evolved from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century (35-36). Starkey demonstrates that Thomasin prepared his text "at the nexus of orality and literacy" (39), as a poem that might be either performed or read (i.e. experienced collectively or individually), and for a diverse audience consisting of ladies, knights, and clerics, some who would be educated enough to read the text and others who would have lacked such education but still benefitted from viewing the images illustrating the lessons in the text. The main purpose of Thomasin's book, with its many lessons dealing frequently with personified virtues and vices, is "to be a useful book for upstanding aristocratic people eager to learn and improve themselves. It was clearly conceived as an educational text, but there is too little evidence to make any conclusions about how formal the educational setting of its reception was intended to be" (41). The general tendency of the manner in which Thomasin's ideas and goals were realized in the formats of the manuscripts goes in the direction of the insertion of new elements that assist in experiencing the book in smaller passages or parts, and that suggest a trend towards an increasing importance of individual reading as opposed to other modes of reception (and, more specifically, reading as a visual rather than oral process [see 53]). Some such elements are already visible in the earliest complete manuscript of Der Welsche Gast, Heidelberg Cpg 389 produced in 1256, which adds to the ten parts into which Thomasin had divided his work an additional layer of organization: "two-to six-line rubricated initials that subdivide the ten parts and the prologue into shorter thematic passages... (43). No explanation is provided concerning the purpose of this additional layer of organization, but Starkey surmises that the manuscript's "format, layout, and explicit organization suggest that viewers were intended to read the book from cover to cover or one part at a time, with the option to randomly select thematic subsections and illustrated passages" (45). The small format of this manuscript is similar to psalters used for private devotion, another possible indication this manuscript may manifest an increased importance of private reading, but Starkey concedes "there is too little evidence at present regarding the practice of private reading to know conclusively if it was created for this purpose," and she concedes that "the voice and the notion of aural reception seem to be incorporated" into the Heidelberg manuscript, resulting in a "flexible document that allows diverse forms of reception but does not allow the reader to look up information" (49). The latter function will be achieved in the 1340 Gotha manuscript, which is further subdivided into liumt or paraphs ("sometimes thematic subsections, introductory or concluding passages, or tangential asides to the topic under discussion. Sometimes the paraphs denote a change in the narrator voice, particularly in dialogues..." [48]). More "conspicuous and significant," however, is the addition of a 610-line prose foreword that "explains the poem's subdivision into parts, chapters, and paragraphs; briefly describes the contents of each part and each chapter; and uses an indexing system to key the synopses to specific textual passages" (47). With these innovations--which, by the way, add to the distinction of the Welscher Gast as the first vernacular German didactic poem the additional distinction of being the first vernacular poem to possess a prose foreword (47), and many others observed by Starkey, the Gotha manuscript manifests changes that are indicative broader transformations that have occurred in the visual components of manuscripts of didactic poetry by the fourteenth century. More generally about the period separating the two manuscripts, Starkey states: "The changes in format of the Welscher Gast poem between 1256 and 1340 restage the poem from a text intended to be read and vocalized to one that may be viewed and used" (54).

In her second chapter, Starkey shifts her focus to viewing practices and what the illustrations of the Welscher Gast manuscripts tell us about how these practices in particular evolved over time. Whereas the images in the 1256 Heidelberg redaction were designed "for contemplation, in other words, for a viewer to examine in conjunction with the poem as part of a process of self-recognition, identification, and self-improvement" (56-57), Starkey considers that the illustrations to be found in fifteenth-century redactions are no longer contemplative and associative, but rather that they "illustrate the text by emphasizing the narrative level of the image to the exclusion of other forms of illustration" (57), and that they present figures "very like the secular fifteenth-century viewer in appearance," which are "designed to be recognized and emulated" (57). The general movement in this chapter is towards recognition of an evolution away from a clerical and towards a secular iconography. Involved in this evolution was a shift in medieval notions concerning how people see things from an "extramission" model (according to which the eye emits a ray, encounters and is shaped by an object, and finally returns to the eye) to an "intromission" model (in which rays enter the eye from the object). Based on the work of Michael Camille, Starkey sets forth these models of seeing in relation to her own topic (see especially 58-61), and posits that "the variation in the image cycles can be read within the context of this broader debate about apperception" (60). The above mentioned shift from clerical to secular modes of viewing is linked to the aforementioned different models of seeing via the illustration of the personified figure of Inconstancy, which has the "frontal gaze" of a cult icon in the earlier Heidelberg manuscript, but has averted her eyes and become "the passive object of the viewer's probing inspection" (67) in the Gotha manuscript. "Is it possible to detect in this variation a shift from extramission to intromission?" Starkey asks, at this point, and then continues: "We cannot answer this question conclusively, but certainly the change does alter the role of the viewer who is able to examine the lady from a more impassionate and distanced perspective" (68). Frequently connecting her comments to images readers will be able to view for themselves in the appendices of her book, and placing her commentaries in the broader scholarly framework concerning contending medieval models of seeing, Starkey presents a judicious, differentiated, and ultimately persuasive case for the idea of an emancipation from clerical iconography: "This process was protracted, complex, and by no means comprehensive. Yet it is nonetheless possible to identify the development of a secularly encoded visual language that focuses on contemporary fashion and story-telling" (77).

Beginning with the observation that gender is an important category in the Welscher Gast, the third chapter explores the association of gender with the specific vices and virtues under discussion in Thomasin's book, most of which are rendered as male or female allegorical figures. At the outset of this chapter, Starkey poses these questions: "Did ideas about masculinity and femininity inform the personifications? If so, how? Is there a didactic purpose to the gender of the illustrated personifications? Most importantly in the context of this study, what roles do gender and sexuality play in the process of elite self-fashioning imagined in the poem and its manuscripts?" (85-86). Although Thomasin drew on Latin models, Starkey points out that the author developed a "novel catalogue of virtues and vices that take a combination of masculine and feminine genders" (94-95). Characteristic of Thomasin's approach is that there is no evident connection between the genders with which he associates vices or virtues (Generosity is more suitable for a man, for example) and the (grammatically marked) gender of vices or verses personified (Generosity personified is female): "Thomasin apparently perceives no contradiction in assigning Middle High German terms that take the male or female grammatical gender to vices that are typically, or exclusively, associated with the opposite sex" (95). Anticipating the findings of her analysis, Starkey continues: "In the illustrations, by contrast, notions of femininity and masculinity do appear to influence the personification of virtues and vices, although grammatical gender continues to play a role as well" (95). The artists of Heidelberg Cpg 389 most consistently personify the virtues and vices according to grammatical gender, whereas in Gotha Memb.I.120, the image cycle is framed "using large-format illustrations that emphasize the gendered norms of an idealized courtly society" (103). Noting that gendered representation in the latter manuscript is somewhat problematic, because it is not always possible to tell if a given personification is male or female, Starkey finds--in the Gotha manuscript and the later manuscripts generally--that "any correlation between the grammatical gender and the gender of the personifications seems coincidental. Consistent however, is the artists' portrayal of males and female characters interacting" (104). In the ensuing pages Starkey's analysis of the images in the later manuscripts arrives at the conclusion that "gender matters" (108), and stresses the idea of "normative gender roles enacted within a secular context" (110), which is illustrated by the genders given to the seven liberal arts (110-114). The "fluidity of gender and representation of male and female actors" leads Starkey to a conclusion about the visual representation of gender that is informed by the research of James Schultz on gender and sexuality in courtly romances, in line with her own emphasis of the importance of "elite identity" (as indicated by her book's title), and here as elsewhere carefully argued and persuasive. What seems to matter most about the representations of the vices and virtues is not so much gender as nobility: "[T]he later artists, starting with the Gotha manuscript, portrayed dynamic scenes of fashionable and recognizable male and female figures interacting with one another. These revised images invite the viewer to see his or her own elite culture, or at least a contemporary ideal elite culture, reflected in them" (115).

The argumentation of the chapters to this point, as varied as it has been, has underscored the central idea of the increasingly secularized "elite self-fashioning" that is the principal concern of the fourth chapter (as it is of the book as a whole). This chapter focuses on such self-fashioning in the Gotha manuscript, but the starting point again is the author Thomasin, for whom "estate is God-given, but elite identity, which for him must have at its foundation the courtly virtues of constancy, justice, generosity, and moderation, is malleable and can be constructed" (117). An important characteristic of Thomasin's approach, however, is his ambivalence vis-à-vis courtly values as evinced by romance poetry (see 120). In contrast to the somewhat ambivalent attitude of the author, the Gotha redaction of the image cycle, Starkey asserts, "suggests that courtly society was one worthy of emulation, and it directs the viewer's focus toward this profane model rather than away from it" (121). The Gotha manuscript cultivates elite identity by making marked visual distinctions between courtly and on-courtly figures (123-124), and by the interest in "courtly rituals, such as knightly combat, feasting, dancing, and courtship..." (125). The concluding dedication image (depicting a richly dressed man and woman beneath a limewood tree) that appears only in the Gotha manuscript, suggests the patron for this manuscript "was familiar with the literary and iconographic traditions of the romance and love lyric and envisioned himself in this context. While the identity of the patron remains enigmatic (the names Ulrich von Raidenbuch and his wife Katharina are mentioned; 134), and the exact place of its production difficult to ascertain, Starkey states--though conceding she is sketching out the historical context in "very broad strokes"--that the circumstances of the manuscript's production would be consistent with those of a ministerial estate (similar to that of Ulrich's) in the border area between Franconia and Swabia (see 133-135):

UNSPECIFIED "The Welscher Gast seems a particularly appropriate text for this socio- political environment: it deals with feudal aristocratic culture, constructs an elite secular identity and preserves and prescribes a traditional vision of courtliness that would have been of interest to an aristocratic audience striving for upward mobility and social and political independence." (135)

The fifth and final chapter offers concluding remarks that employ, as an illustrative example, an image of a child gazing into a mirror, which corresponds to a section of Thomasin's poem that deals with lordship and makes the point that lords should not listen to flatterers, but rather should know themselves (141-142). There is, predictably by this point, a significant difference between the Heidelberg and the Gotha manuscripts, indicative of a "redesign...depicting a process of inner reflection to a moment of self-assertion [that] is emblematic for the poem's transformation over the course of the Middle Ages" (145). This "mirror image" is an apt way for Starkey's splendid analysis to conclude, "reflecting" the ways in which the visual illustration of Thomasin von Zirclaere's didactic poem evolved in the later Middle Ages.



Copyright (c) 2014 Will Hasty



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