15.12.05, Sandler, Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England

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Jessica Brantley

The Medieval Review 15.12.05

Sandler, Lucy Freeman. Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England: The Psalter and Hours of Humphrey de Bohun and the Manuscripts of the Bohun Family. Toronto: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2014. pp. 352. ISBN: 978-0-7123-5757-9. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jessica Brantley
Yale University
Jessica.Brantley@yale.edu

Lucy Freeman Sandler's beautiful Illuminators and Patrons in Fourteenth-Century England is a fitting culmination to her decades of scholarship on the manuscripts associated with the Bohun family. The volume focuses especially on London, British Library, Egerton MS 3277, an elaborate psalter-hours produced either for Humphrey de Bohun, sixth earl of Hereford and Essex (d. 1361), or for Humphrey de Bohun, seventh earl of Hereford, Essex, and Northampton (d. 1373). But the Egerton Psalter-Hours is distinguished by its close relationship to eleven other similarly significant illuminated manuscripts made for the Bohun family (for a useful list, see 346-49). This group of manuscripts testifies to an unusually familiar and long-lived working relationship between a noble family and a set of talented artists. Sandler's study, then, is in part a careful study of a great manuscript, but it is also a broader analysis of, in her words, "the cultural tastes and world outlook--social, political and religious--of [its] aristocratic reader-viewers, communicated by designer-artists who were uniquely positioned to interpret their masters to themselves" (3).

Sandler explores the history of the family's remarkable patronage through their long-standing relationship with artists in their household, particularly Friar John de Teye, whom the sixth earl Humphrey de Bohun distinguishes intimately in his will as "my illuminator." John de Teye and his associates created a cohesive Bohun house style marked in part by such visual features as the heavy use of tooled gold, but marked also by interpretative elements such as a sustained interest in pictorial narration. The reciprocity between image and text in these manuscripts created a distinctive style that has come, as Sandler notes, to define English manuscript illumination in the second half of the fourteenth century (20). Given their obvious interest and importance, a serious study of the Bohun manuscripts in toto is long overdue.

Sandler's study of the Bohun books provides a salutary counterweight to many of the scholarly truisms that surround manuscript illumination, truisms that have worked consistently to separate the illuminator himself from the design or impact of his work. While it is true that modern assumptions about artistic intention can seem naive in relation to medieval objects, the case of the Bohun manuscripts shows that medieval artists had an investment in their work that is possible to recognize and understand. In this (albeit unusual) case, it is manifestly clear that illuminators worked closely with book designers and patrons. Moreover, these illuminators thought subtly about all of the possible relations between their images and the words that those images accompanied. These artists were not merely following pictorial models, or even verbal instructions; instead, they seem to have been reading texts and forming their own ideas about how those texts might be represented in line and pigment. If this seems a heretical idea, as Sandler shows, it is heresy more to scholarly ways of working than to medieval ones.

Illuminators and Patrons falls into two parts, a first devoted mainly to the Egerton Psalter-Hours (BL Egerton MS 3277), and a second dedicated to the larger group of manuscripts associated with the Bohun family. Despite its significance, the Egerton manuscript has been relatively neglected, so it is valuable to have an extended consideration of it here: its history, its artists, and its program of illustration, including a full analytical description (92-158). One of the later Bohun manuscripts (begun after 1361 and before 1373), the Egerton Psalter-Hours shows many hands at work, even though one artistic conception ties the pictorial program together: historiated initials from the first three Old Testament books of Kings in the psalter, and (more unusually) from Luke, John, and the Acts of the Apostles in the hours, all often closely linked with figures in the margins who interact in a variety of ways with the texts and images at the center. Although the manuscript is in many ways exceptional, it provides a lodestar for navigating the landscape of contemporary manuscript illumination: "The survival of this manuscript provides evidence, as real as it is unusual, for the conception and execution of personalized luxury books for the use of the highest nobility in fourteenth-century England" (84).

In demonstrating how the extraordinary can become exemplary, Sandler does a service to the field of manuscript studies, which so often depends upon the singular testimony of a rare artifact. She shows here how an unusual, even unique, artistic product can illuminate the richness of the cultural and artistic context that helped to create it. The second part of Illuminators and Patrons provides context for the Egerton Psalter-Hours by bringing together Sandler's essays on the Bohun books published elsewhere over a period of nearly thirty years. It is very useful to have these essays (many of them originally published in Festschriften) collected accessibly in a single place, and to see how their several arguments build into a coherent, if not exactly a sustained, analysis of Bohun book culture. The essays range from a consideration of politics and heraldry in Bohun manuscripts, to readings of visual puns surrounding bears and scribes and fish. The three essays on modes of psalm-illustration are especially rewarding, including particularly "Worded and Wordless Images" (originally published in The Social Life of Illumination). Many of the essays bear the traces of their first contexts--offering reflections on the "gothic" or on the Lancastrian court to suit the collections in which they originally appeared--but in so doing they demonstrate what a wide variety of late-medieval topics can be enriched by the evidence of this corpus. Sandler's first essay is a survey of the historiography and bibliography of the Bohun manuscripts, and this volume is a monument to the importance of her own work in that history.

Illuminators and Patrons, with its primary focus on a British Library book, is beautifully produced by British Library Publications in association with the University of Toronto Press. In addition to 250 color illustrations, the volume includes a DVD with a complete set of high-quality images that can be magnified for study purposes. As the product of a list that has included many important studies of many British Library objects, as well as the culmination of a career that has so deeply enriched the study of English illuminated manuscripts of the fourteenth century, Illuminators and Patrons deserves a place on every medievalist's bookshelf.

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