15.01.26, Stones, Gothic Manuscripts: 1260-1320, Part 1

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Alexa Sand

The Medieval Review 15.01.26

Stones, Alison. Gothic Manuscripts: 1260-1320, Part 1, 2 vols.. A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in France. London and Turnhout: Harvey Miller/Brepols, 2013. Pp. 1130. ISBN: 9781872501956 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alexa Sand
Utah State University

The publication of the first of two parts of Alison Stones' long-awaited contribution to Harvey Miller's A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in France is cause for both celebration and reflection. Celebration because Stones--among the most experienced and wide-ranging scholars in the area of French book illumination of the Gothic period--shares generously of her profound and organic understanding of the art form in this critical period when France, and Paris in particular, was its acknowledged lodestar. Reflection, because the very ambition and weight (both literal and metaphorical) of the volumes, which are after all only two of four planned for the series, raise important questions about the future of scholarship in the discipline and about the ways in which the collection and organization of data and knowledge will take shape. These are materially and intellectually significant books about a period when the book itself was taking on new material and intellectual significance, but they also appear at a moment when the status of the codex volume as a vehicle for the monumental architecture of scholarship is at best uncertain, and new technologies of information seem poised to alter the way we collect, use, and process the data essential to the craft of art history.

The two volumes of Gothic Manuscripts: 1260-1320, Part I, take their place in the series beside Walter Cahn's 1996 Romanesque Manuscripts, the Twelfth Century and stand across the aisle from Lucy Freeman Sandler's 1986 Gothic Manuscripts: 1285-1385, part of the corresponding Harvey Miller series, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles. The latter, which began to appear in 1975 (not 1978, as François Avril notes in his otherwise helpful forward to Stones' book), with Claus Michael Kauffmann's Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190, established a set of expectations for national surveys of book illumination organized by period. These include an extended historical introduction giving an overall view of the range of book arts in the given region and period, covering among other things the status of illuminators, the organization of book production, and types of books and their audiences. The interpretive essay prefaces a variety of critical tools, such as tables of manuscripts by type, date, patron, provenance, artist or "school," text, and so on. However, the great bulk of each volume in the series is constituted by an extensive (though never exhaustive) catalog of manuscripts from many different libraries around the globe, accompanied by selected illustrations from these manuscripts.

The utility of these surveys is enormous. For beginning scholars, they are dragon-hoards rich in jewels through which one can sift, learning the look and feel of the visual culture of a place and a time far distant. The bibliographies acquaint the neophyte with the classic literature of the field, and the introductory essays give a bird's-eye view of the territory, while the tables are at once useful for digesting the huge quantity of information, focusing the view on particularly salient features of the book arts, and providing a kind of methodological training ground. For more seasoned researchers, the volumes serve as indispensible reference works and are abundantly cited in the literature. The availability of the five installments of the British Isles series has no doubt contributed significantly to the uptick in scholarly interest in and publication on Anglo-Saxon and English manuscript illumination in the last thirty years. The lack of a parallel resource in French illumination has not necessarily led to stagnation, but it has made us more reliant on older bibliographic catalogs, often more difficult to access and sparse or devoid of illustration, such as the works of Victor Leroquais from the 1940s. Stones' volumes will go a long way toward opening the field of scholarship to a new generation of medievalists.

Or will they? With a list price upwards of $300, the volumes are of course primarily targeted at library and institutional purchasers, though with library budgets at research institutions in the US being drastically cut it is anyone's guess as to whether second- and third-tier research libraries will acquire the books. Graduate students, independent scholars, and junior scholars at smaller, less wealthy institutions may find it hard to get a hold of copies as a result. This is of course no fault of the author or the publisher, simply an unfortunate and ongoing trend in the world of academic libraries. However, a potential solution does lie in the digital humanities. An increasing number of institutions have begun to digitize their manuscript holdings, and searchable databases that cross institutional lines have flourished, such as the UC-Berkeley-hosted Digital Scriptorium [1], and the more narrowly focused Europeana Regia project [2], which traces surviving manuscripts from three of the Middle Ages' most significant royal libraries. While the aim of each of these (and of dozens of other examples) is distinct, there is no reason that the basic architecture of the searchable manuscript database could not have been adapted to Stones' material. Indeed, many of us would give our eyeteeth for such a resource. It would have several advantages over the physical volumes. First, new material could be brought online without waiting for the entire project to be complete, so that for example we might have the tables of manuscripts anticipated for Volume 2 of Part 2 to make use of now, instead of having to wait an unspecified period of time before the cross-references in Part 1 can be put into action. One might also hope to be able to search for manuscripts by shelf number, but since the index will not appear until the publication of the Part 2, at present, one must first know where (according to Stones) the manuscript was originally produced. Second, Stones would have the flexibility to add material as it became relevant, and to emend entries as new information or bibliography came to light, making the survey a far more flexible and adaptable tool. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the ease of moving between the book's interlocking parts, its citations, its catalogue entries, its tables, and its various handlists, would be vastly increased by the application of simple digital tools such as hyperlinks and pop-ups. Other benefits, such as the lower cost of digital publication, the ability to link to reproductions of whole manuscripts (on their home institution's digital platform, where available), and to serve as a hub for emerging scholarship would accrue as well if the volumes were to be re-imagined in digital terms. Already, the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Medieval Stained Glass in Great Britain series has begun to move in this direction with its volume The Medieval Stained Glass of Norfolk by David King appearing in digital format as each site study is completed, "in hope that the material will be appreciated and reviewed before final publication in book format." [3]

These issues aside, Stones' status as one of the most important contributors of her generation to the study of French manuscript illumination is, with the publication of these volumes, confirmed. The introductory essay to Volume 1 demonstrates the uncanny combination of breadth and attention to granular detail that characterize her knowledge of Gothic book arts. She begins, boldly, by tackling the historiographic question, "Why 1260-1320?", making clear that her choice of this span of sixty years is founded on her understanding of it as a stylistically continuous period clearly delineated from what came before by the adoption by book illuminators of the Zackenstil or "sharp-fold" style, and from what came after by the Italianate refinements introduced by Jean Pucelle and his followers. Already, in the first column of text, the reader encounters Stones' expectation that s/he have some grounding in the history and historical discourse of Gothic art and a certain degree of familiarity with the major, canonical works of manuscript illumination from the period. This is all well and good, as the book is hardly pitched as a general reference for novice students, but it does draw attention to the way in which the field of medieval art history has drifted from its strong basis in formal, stylistic, and iconographic analysis towards other modes of interpretation. To me it seems plausible, though lamentable, that a graduate student reading the opening paragraphs of Stones' essay might not understand why the whole endeavor is framed in terms of style. Stones alludes to this when she cites Robert Suckale's assertion of stylistic analysis as integral to the practice of art history and writes, "stylistic criteria still provide the most reliable answers to the questions of when, where, and by whom, books were illustrated and made to be used" (18).

From establishing the centrality of style as an organizing principle for the survey, Stones moves on to the other vexing question for historians of French medieval art more generally, and manuscript-based visual culture in particular. Unlike the British Isles, discrete bodies of land surrounded by the sea, France is a more amorphous entity, with its political, linguistic, and ecclesiastical boundaries all in a state of almost constant flux throughout the period under consideration. Stones takes a common-sense approach: France, for the purposes of her study, is that broad cultural region where the langues d'oui and d'oc were spoken either in common parlance or amongst a significant courtly community (with the exception of England). Thus, she considers manuscripts from such far-flung regions as Hainault, Provence, and the Vaudois counties of the southwest. The sheer geographic reach of the project is staggering, and is what has necessitated the publication of the study in two parts: this first part, with its first volume dedicated to the introduction, critical apparatus, and illustrations, covers in its second volume only three out of the eight major regions Stones identifies as having some distinctive stylistic identity. These three regions are not in the least incidental. Paris and the province of Sens, Normandy and the province of Rouen, and the northeast with the exception of the Lorraine, Bar, Metz, and Verdun, are Stones' native territory, as it were, the subject of her extensive research over a career spanning four decades, and they are also the regions traditionally considered central to the development of French book illumination (and other arts) in the second half of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth. However, as Stones announces in her introduction, she does not subscribe to a simple model of center and periphery, in which Paris drives innovation and regional centers respond. Instead, she proposes a multi-polar model, in which border regions, where contact and friction between a variety of cultural forces was most intense, are understood as laboratories for experimentation and innovation, just as much as the big urban hubs with their scholars, their thriving economies, and their courts. By the same token, she alludes to François Avril's theory of "the gradual emancipation of French miniature painting from the yoke of Paris," and suggests that while her study pushes back the beginning of this process by at least a decade, the model itself still holds. However, in reading the individual catalog entries for some of the early manuscripts produced far from Paris, one has the sense that she is not overly convinced of Parisian hegemony in stylistic matters at any point in the period covered by the study.

After defining her territory both temporally and geographically, Stones divides the remainder of her introduction (as per the standard expectations of the genre) into two main sections, one dealing with the types of manuscripts included in the study, which run the gamut from vernacular romances to Latin textbooks, the other with the regions that will organize the catalog. However, between these two--and highly characteristic of Stones' expertise on the subject--several paragraphs devoted to patronage intervene. This is no simple listing of the various types of patrons, but rather a brief but focused analysis of the ways in which patronage manifested itself visually and physically in the very fabric of illuminated books, and the significance of this development for understanding why and how these books mattered to the people who owned and used them. Though the context of the introductory essay does not allow Stones to expand at length on the matter, she yet captures the essence of the issue when she writes that these material markings of ownership, whether in the form of portraits, heraldry, or written names, were "gestures...that expressed a direct relationship between the individual and the object, and a responsibility for that relationship" (34). She is also careful to enunciate the difference between an indication of ownership or use and the agency of the person represented--that is, such owners are not always also patrons who commanded the placement and iconography of the picture program. This corrects a tendency widely found in the literature of the field in which the two roles of book-user and book-patron are confused.

The final sections of the introductory essay provide similarly succinct and useful overviews of the manuscript evidence for the process of production (as distinct from the secondary documentary evidence studied by Richard and Mary Rouse, for example), the integration of text and image characteristic of luxury manuscripts of the period, what she diplomatically calls "non-representational decoration," that is such flourishes as pen-scrolls and line fillers, and the evidence of use. All of these topics maintain a clear focus on manuscripts as physical objects that speak their own histories when examined with a critical eye, in keeping with Stones' celebration early in the essay of the "fruitful dynamic of interaction with specialists from...other disciplines which is moving manuscript studies in new and productive directions" (18). Thus while the project is organized in terms of style, region, and period, it is nevertheless inclusive of other criteria that make the individual manuscripts come to life for the reader.

Bringing these individual manuscripts to life constitutes the main work of Volume 2 and will occupy Volume 1 of Part 2 as well. The catalogue, as Stones explains in a note in Volume 1, had to be carefully curated because of the sheer number of surviving manuscripts from the period. The criteria for selection that she enumerates are fairly flexible: artistic quality, evidence of artistic collaboration and invention, textual interest, scribal or artistic signature, substantial evidence of patronage, ownership, or use. To make up for the omission of many manuscripts from the detailed catalogue, one hundred pages of Volume 1 are dedicated to a variety of lists and indices. It remains to be seen how useful these tools will be. The "Summary List of Manuscripts," organized by regions corresponding to the regions that structure the catalogue, then by date, and then by hand or "workshop," are not particularly searchable unless one has a fairly clear idea of what one is looking for; perhaps when the tables proposed for inclusion in Volume 2 of Part 2 are available, cross-referencing them with this list will yield some interesting insights. For now, it is mostly helpful if one is looking for manuscripts closely stylistically akin to one another. More immediately rewarding are the lists of Dated and Datable Manuscripts (81-89), Illuminators and Decorators (91-95), Patrons and First or Second Owners (97-132), and Scribes, Notators, Binders, Parchmenters, Dealers and Libraires (133-153), though all of these too will be enriched by the publication of the promised tables, to which many entries make reference. The last of these, also, requires that the user have handy a copy of Richard and Mary Rouse's definitive study on the manuscript trade in Paris, Manuscripts and their Makers in Medieval Paris, 1200-1500: Illuminati et uxorati (Turnhout, 2000), which is cited in almost every entry.

As for the catalogue entries in Volume 2 themselves, these tend to be minutely descriptive, with a focus appropriate to the series on the elements of illumination such as iconography, style, and mise-en-page. Stones' extensive knowledge of heraldry comes through clearly in entries that carefully analyze existing charges, and her close attention to the archeology of the page--repainting, wear, and other signs of use--allows her to construct quite detailed histories for certain manuscripts. Her long entry (230-239) for the Morgan Library's MS M.729 (catalog 3.33) is a particularly salient example. Condensing an argument she first published in a 2005 essay in the volume The Illuminated Psalter: Studies in the Content, Purpose, and Placement of its Images (ed. F.O. Büttner), she rejects the conventional association of the book with Yolande de Soissons as its first patron and proposes one Comtesse (a personal name, not a title) de la Table who seems to have been the stepmother of the former. The interpretation is based on Stones' close study of the heraldic elements and her identification of two campaigns of illumination divided by the death of the original patron and the continuation of her project by her step-daughter. In my view, the question of patronage, though obviously implicated in the larger issue of the manuscript's incredibly complex and innovative iconographic program, is the lesser part of the book's interest in terms of the history of late-thirteenth century illumination. Stones gives the pictorial cycle its due, describing it as "remarkable" and "unusual" (234), and identifying its precocious and precedent-setting passages, but in this entry, as in several others, the presence of heraldry in the framing elements seems to capture her attention longer and more fully than the scenes unfolding within the frames.

Whether or not one is equally enchanted with heraldry as a body of evidence, Stones' entries are rigorously attentive to the fundamentals of visual analysis, and her characterizations of color, brushwork, draftsmanship, and facture are precise and informative. Her focus, as she states in the introductory essay, is precisely on these elements of style, so it is not really a fair or valid criticism to suggest that she might have focused more in her catalog entries on text-image relationships, or on iconographic problems; these she has treated in greater depth in her published work on a stunning range of manuscripts, from vernacular prose romance collections to illustrated volumes of the works of Vincent de Beauvais. Perhaps it is a sign of the success of her catalog entries that they leave one wanting to know more about the books she lays out rather clinically as specimens. In the end, the great value of such a survey as this lies in its role as a departure point. While Stones' authoritative status as a scholar and the confidence with which she is rightly able to make her interpretive assertions might lead very novice students of illumination into an unquestioning acceptance of these catalog entries, tables, and lists as the final word on manuscript illumination in France between 1260 and 1320, in fact, the whole project of the book, a purpose that will in all likelihood be even more fully achieved with the publication of Part 2, is, as she states, to "pave the way to the questions and answers of the future" (47).



1. Digital Scriptorium: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/digitalscriptorium/

2. Europeana Regia: http://www.europeanaregia.eu/en

3. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: http://www.cvma.ac.uk/publications/digital/norfolk/overview.html

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Author Biography

Alexa Sand

Utah State University