14.11.26, Brenner, Cohen and Franklin-Brown, eds., Memory and Commemoration in Medieval Culture

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Sarah Thompson

The Medieval Review 14.11.26

Brenner, Elma, Meredith Cohen, and Mary Franklin-Brown. Memory and Commemoration in Medieval Culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. xvii, 354. ISBN: 9781409423935 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Thompson
Rochester Institute of Technology

This collection of sixteen essays draws from the presentations at the International Medieval Society-Paris's fourth annual symposium, held in 2007. Memory, the theme of the symposium, has been a subject of significant scholarly exploration in recent decades, inspired by works such as The Art of Memory (Frances Yates, 1966) and Les lieux de mémoire (The Realms of Memory) (directed by Pierre Nora, 1984-1992); Mary Carruthers and Patrick Geary pioneered the more specific study of memory in the Middle Ages, an era when the centrality of memory is evidenced by the wealth of references to the concept in medieval texts, as well as the many recorded commemorative ceremonies, monuments, and pleas for remembrance from the deceased. The reliance on memory in the Middle Ages and its emphasis in both public and private settings make the analysis of all aspects of memory not merely helpful but crucial to the understanding of medieval culture, and this volume displays a multitude of possible approaches and subjects. The scope is limited in terms of social class, as most of the essays refer to the French aristocracy; the lack of records relating to middle- or lower-class uses or receptions of memory, and the resulting speculative nature of studies on the topic, make it difficult for scholars to expand the study of memory outside of the realm of the literate. However, the varied subjects explored by the contributors, including liturgy, literature, architecture, illumination, kinship, and historiography, as well as the authors' range of backgrounds and methods make this volume a welcome introduction to the scope of current scholarship on the practice and dissemination of memory in the Middle Ages.

The editors have grouped the essays in five sections, beginning with "Memory and Images," where the authors discuss the stimulating role of images. The next section, "Commemoration and Oblivion," considers the desire to be remembered, the construction of commemoration, and the inherent paradox of ritual forgetting. The longest section, "Memory, Reading, and Performance," considers how texts can record and produce memory, and how oral performances left traces in written texts. The fourth section, "Royal and Aristocratic Memory and Commemoration," focuses specifically on the elite and introduces gendered practices of memory. "Remembering Medieval France," the final section, is a welcome expansion wherein authors consider the ways that the spaces and episodes of the Middle Ages were in turn remembered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Beginning the first section, Jean-Claude Schmitt's "Images and the Work of Memory, with Special Reference to the Sixth-Century Mosaics of Ravenna, Italy" establishes a historiographical basis for his own essay and a number of those to follow, clarifying the distinction between history and memory and delving into the division of individual and collective memory as well as the relationships between memory and pictures. Schmitt closes his chapter by applying theory to an analysis of the mosaics at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, famous for the alteration that did not manage to obliterate the visible traces of Theodoric's court. "'Images gross and sensible': Violence, Memory and Art in the Thirteenth Century," by Martha Easton, speculates on the significance of visible pain as an enforcer of memory, noting the endless repetition of scenes of martyrdom in copies of the Legenda Aurea. Among a number of intriguing observations, Easton points out that male saints are shown as subject to decapitation even when this means of death differs from the actual vitae, and connects the means of execution with social class. Her discussion of the visibility of pain and execution in public life in relation to illuminations opens the possibility of comparison between real actions and their representation: what would the medieval reader have made of the lack of affect from the saints in images as opposed to the memory of their real-life counterparts? In "Beyond the Two Doors of Memory: Intertextualities and Intervisualities in Thirteenth-Century Illuminated Manuscripts of the Roman de Troie and the Histoire Ancienne," Rosa María Rodríguez Porto pieces together the complex relationship between two texts known in multiple copies, suggesting that the reader familiar with one could mentally insert references into the other.

Eva-Maria Butz and Alfons Zettler's contribution, "The Making of the Carolingian Libri Memoriales: Exploring or Constructing the Past?," begins the second section with a discussion of alterations to the Liber Memorialis of Remiremont, which they suggest was altered in the copying to emphasize connections with the Carolingian dynasty. "Status and the Soul: Commemoration and Intercession in the Rayonnant Chapels of Northern France in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries," by Mailan S. Doquang, provides an extremely useful overview of chapels that have often been seen from an architectural point of view as late additions outside the ideal plan of a church. Doquang instead notes the coherent planning of such chapels and the multiple strategies used by their benefactors to maximize visibility in search of remembrance. Christian Jaser's "Ritual Excommunication: An 'Ars Oblivionalis'?" explains the inherent contradictions of the ceremony and practice of excommunication, an attempt to enforce exclusion of the condemned from memory that still always offered the possibility of reintegration into the community.

Part three begins with Mary Franklin Brown's contextualization of the vast Speculum Maius, which she suggests is itself a lieu de mémoire. "The Memory of Roman Law in an Illuminated Manuscript of Justinian's Digest," Joanna Fronska's contribution, analyzes the different strategies by which marginal images in a particular copy of the Digest (Kórnik, Polish Academy of Sciences, MS 824) helped the reader remember details of law. Kate Maxwell's discussion of memory in the works of Guillaume de Machaut distinguishes between multiple possible agents of memory at work, including the author, the scribes, and the reader. While primarily a textual analysis, multiple references to different copies of Machaut's works and their varied layouts and illuminations would have been clarified with illustrations. "Acrostics as Copyright Protection in the Franco-Italian Epic: Implications for Memory Theory," by John F. Levy, explores the circumstances of Niccolò da Verona's use of an acrostic in Pharsale: does this reveal his anxiety about performers stealing his work via amazing feats of memorization? Or is the acrostic truly aimed at those who would plagiarize in print?

The first two essays in the fourth section both concern memory and women. In "Changes of Aristocratic Identity: Remarriage and Remembrance in Europe 900-1200," Elisabeth van Houts considers the difficult question of how royal and high-ranking aristocratic women, who often married multiple times and typically left the children of any earlier marriages behind when forging new alliances, may have constructed their own identities in response to moves and name changes, and how they commemorated past husbands and maintained dynastic connections for their sons and daughters. "Longchamp and Lourcine: the Role of Female Abbeys in the Construction of Capetian Memory (Late Thirteenth Century to Mid-Fourteenth Century)" is Lewis Beer's translation of work originally published in French by Anne-Hélène Allirot. Its availability in English is welcome, particularly as Allirot considers the significance of not only female donors but also the types of gifts they gave--crowns, luxury clothing--and how they were used at the abbeys, expanding our understanding of the symbolic importance of medieval textiles. While not specifically about women, M. Cecilia Gaposchkin's "Louis IX and Liturgical Memory" continues the discussion of Louis IX begun by Allirot in light of the different offices used by the Cistercians, the royal court, and the Franciscans to commemorate Saint Louis, with each order constructing a unique identity for Louis related to their own needs.

The final section considers more recent memories of the Middle Ages themselves; in each of these essays we see a desire to "remember" and recreate engendered by the absence of the past from the present. In "Pierre Loti's 'Memories' of the Middle Ages: Feasting on the Gothic in 1888," Elizabeth Emery analyzes the balance of authenticity and fantasy in a themed, costumed dinner party held by Loti and set in 1470, concluding that Loti's effort exemplifies Aleida Assman's concept of working memory: social memory put to use. Perhaps other instances of medievalism, from the Eglinton Tournament to the cut-and-paste homes designed by Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst, could be seen in a similar light. Janet T. Marquardt returns to Cluny in "Celebrating the Medieval Past in Modern Cluny: How Popular Events Helped to Shape Collective Memory for a Small French Town," describing the malleable legacy of the monastery of Cluny in light of social and political changes over half a century. The concluding essay, "'A mere patch of color': Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Shattered Glass of Reims Cathedral," by Shirin Fozi, emphasis the powerfully-felt loss of Reims during World War I and its aftermath and considers the Romantic interest in the ruin and the fragment in relation to the commemoration of Reims's destruction.

Only a few negatives detract from the volume's considerable merits. It would have been valuable to see a contribution from the other keynote speaker at the conference, Mary Carruthers (Jean-Claude Schmitt is represented), particularly as so many of the scholars included here make specific reference to Carruthers's influence. The origin of most of the essays as conference presentations tends to limit their length, and there are one or two cases wherein the discussion of memory seems like an afterthought: the author must spend so much space setting up the argument via iconography or codicology that the argument itself gets short shrift. A few typographical errors distract the reader, as does a layout error on page 123, where the author's text is treated as a block quote. However, these are minor quibbles. As a whole, the book evidences how themed conferences can inspire intriguing new scholarship, serves as a worthy introduction to the state of the field, and makes a strong case for the further pursuit of the study of memory in the Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Sarah Thompson

Rochester Institute of Technology