Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.10.23, Dockray-Miller, The Books and Life of Judith of Flanders

15.10.23, Dockray-Miller, The Books and Life of Judith of Flanders

Mary Dockray-Miller's recent publication, The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders, has a deceptively straightforward title. Although Judith has been well known for the four gospel books that she commissioned, it is unexpected to find a study that treats textual and visual evidence equally and in a nuanced manner. The emphasis on artworks and patronage in this study is very welcome. Judith was directly and indirectly involved in many of the important historical events of the eleventh century; nevertheless, textual sources offer only tantalizing glimpses into her life and hints as to her motivations. As a way to gain insight into Judith's inner life, Dockray-Miller sets out a "patronage biography." Her study incorporates analysis of textual source material along with evidence offered by Judith's commissions and donations of high prestige objects. This focus on material objects and patronage activities expands the narrative of Judith's life and offers insight into her personal aspirations. As much as do the texts in which she is discussed, the artworks she collected and commissioned seem to reveal how she was an ambitious political actor.

In her introduction, Dockray-Miller sets out her methodology and explains her reliance on material objects as evidence. She asserts the informative nature of such objects, arguing that they, more than texts by writers with personal agendas and concerns, provide a "record of how [Judith] wished to be portrayed and perceived" and offer insight into her "individual sensibilities" (4). The introduction also begins the chronological narrative of Judith's life, outlining what is known of her situation before her first marriage to the Anglo-Saxon Tostig Godwinson, who would become the Earl of Northumbria.

Chapter one examines the textual evidence for Judith's life in England. Significantly, an early text that discusses Judith's donation of silver and gold crucifixes to the cult of Saint Cuthbert shows how an instance of her patronage was, in the text, manipulated to suit the misogynistic attitude of the writer. Rather than a celebration of the donation, the text offers a negative image of Judith as a presumptuous woman who offends the saint and then makes her donations as a way of reparation. Dockray-Miller's analysis of this text, and of a similar one about Margaret of Scotland, reveals both the importance of patronage for Judith and other Anglo-Saxon aristocrats, even as it suggests the unreliability of written sources.

Chapter one also examines the evidence for Judith's travels to Rome and sets out the art and architecture that she likely saw that may have influenced her own choices as patron and donor. This evidence for Judith's exposure to art and architecture that had powerful political resonance sets up chapter two, which delves into the visual analyses of three of the gospel books with which Judith is associated. It is in fact the existence of these books that makes Judith exceptional. Although, as Dockray-Miller points out, other Anglo-Saxon woman may have commissioned such books, Judith's survive. Indeed, there is no other such set of extant manuscripts associated with any Anglo-Saxon individual, either male or female. In this chapter, the art historical scholarship on these books is set out and examined in detail and the books are placed within the context of eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon art. Although the author points out and discusses some of the many idiosyncratic features of the manuscripts, such as the lack of canon tables and the zoo-anthropomorphic evangelist symbols, she mainly relies on previous art historical studies and does not attempt to explain how the unusual features may have related to Judith's particular interests or concerns.

In chapter three, Dockray-Miller describes Judith's return to the continent after her husband's political downfall. He died not long after and Judith's patronage is at this point examined in terms of her position as a widow who wished to remain a relevant political actor. In this chapter, the insecurity of Judith's situation is shown to inform the decoration of the one gospel book (now housed in Fulda) that was not illustrated before she left England. The donor portrait that appears in this book is compared to an earlier portrait of Judith and to portraits of other high-status woman in England and in Europe. Judith's investment in this book and her care in cultivating her image as a pious and sophisticated woman occurred at a time when she was most uncertain of her future. Dockray-Miller shows how this was savvy strategy, as Judith proclaimed her social, cultural, and political relevance through the artwork.

Ultimately, the strategy paid off and chapter four looks at her life and the collection of artworks she possessed during her subsequent marriage to Welf IV, Duke of Bavaria. In particular, this chapter examines the long list of treasures Judith bequeathed to Weingarten Abbey at the time of her death in 1094. The fifth and final chapter investigates Judith's attribution as the donor of the abbey's relic of the Holy Blood. Although there is no reliable evidence to substantiate Judith's role as donor, which seems to be a later tradition, Dockray-Miller argues that the association of Judith with the relic reveals how care in cultivating her reputation as a patron was a success, lasting long beyond her life in the institutional memory of Weingarten.

The last part of the book comprises three useful appendices that contain modern translations of the important texts related to Judith's life. Equally useful are the twenty-six color plates that include all of the decorative pages from her four gospel books, as well as comparative material. The photographs are small, so the images cannot be studied in detail, but it is convenient to have them all together for reference, especially the Fulda and Montecassino manuscripts, which have not been published in color before and are not as easily accessible as are images of the two manuscripts housed in the Morgan Library.

This book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on the manuscripts and life of Judith of Flanders and on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in general. By collecting and analyzing textual and visual evidence in chronological order, so that political events are juxtaposed with patronage activities, one can begin to see how Judith used art and donation strategically, making some of her most significant contributions at times when she was most insecure about her status and future. This study will be especially useful for art historians wishing to use it as a foundation upon which to explore in detail the many idiosyncratic visual features of Judith's manuscripts, in order to tease out how they may relate to the specifics of what we know of Judith's narrative.