16.02.26, Brown-Grant, et al., Textual and Visual Representations of Power and Justice in Medieval France

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Christina Normore

The Medieval Review 16.02.26

Brown-Grant, Rosalind, Anne D. Hedeman, and Bernard Ribémont, eds. Textual and Visual Representations of Power and Justice in Medieval France: Manuscripts and Early Printed Books. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. pp. 344. ISBN: 978-1-4724-1570-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Christina Normore
Northwestern University

"Pour est il ainsy que iustice et iniustice sont dictes en plusiers manieres...."

In his vernacular translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the fourteenth-century scholar Nicolas Oresme glossed the Philosopher's assertion that justice consists of both being fair and legal by noting: "Legal is one who guards the laws and fair is one who neither wants more than it is good to have nor supports more evil than he must." Such general theoretical advice left rather a lot of room for interpretive license in practice, and the seemingly unending series of both local and transnational conflicts that rocked what is today France from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries frequently pushed the boundaries between the legal and the fair far past the straining point.

Oresme moved freely between his positions as a theologian, a counselor to King Charles V and his various clerical roles. The edited volume Textual and Visual Representations of Power and Justice in Medieval France makes clear that the question of justice and its fraught relationship to power likewise moved between many elite activities, informing everything from legal manuals and mirrors of princes to romances and devotional reading. As Rosalind Grant-Brown notes in her introduction, we too live in a time when concerns about the legality and equality of the exercise of force are hot button issues. Although the authors perhaps wisely avoid modern comparisons in favor of focused and carefully contextualized historical case studies, their shared attention to the mechanisms by which texts and images spread and normalized varied ideals of justice and power can be seen as part of the growing conversation surrounding the representation of violence, authority and law within the humanities and social sciences: it is easy to imagine chapters such as Barbara Denis-Morel's survey of the varied visual representations of the ideal judge across literary genres being incorporated into a more general trans-temporal undergraduate course on the these issues.

The representations of justice and power have been unevenly studied across various sub-disciplines and national traditions. One of the most important contributions of this volume is its commitment to bridging the divides between Anglophone and Francophone scholarship on the one hand, and textual and visual studies on the other. The later move is particularly unusual. In most edited volumes the 'and' in textual and visual representation is simply a sign that there will be separate contributions by literary and art historians, and usually one camp or the other will be favored depending on the editors' own field. Here instead every author attempts to address both the textual and the visual. While inevitably there are moments where comparative lack of expertise and comfort with one or the other shows, the general success of this approach should be taken as yet more evidence of the welcome effects of the new codicology in reshaping both literary and art historical studies. The volume is also unusual in that nearly every image is reproduced in full color. Both the editors and publisher should be applauded for this decision, which makes a wide range of fascinating but largely unknown examples available for study in their true form.

Although it lacks formal section divisions, the chapters coalesce around four general themes following the introductory essay. In her introduction, Rosalind Brown-Grant outlines the editors' vision for the volume and provides a useful sketch of important previous work on the representation of justice in late medieval France, with an eye to non-English-language examples. As an art historian, I am less convinced of her claim that art history has more thoroughly addressed this issue than literary studies to date; there are, moreover, some surprising names and topics not mentioned such as Christiane Raynaud's work on judicial and military violence. Yet this perhaps only underscores the very broad range of understudied subtopics that fall under the category of justice and power and the need for far more attention to them all than one single volume can provide.

After the introduction, the text moves immediately into three case studies of manuscripts made for high-ranking male aristocrats that provide lessons on the proper relationship between justice and violence across several literary genres. Anne D. Hedeman's contribution extends her previous work in Translating the Past. to consider how two copies of Laurent de Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium interpreted portions of its contents to appeal to two Johns on opposing political sides, the Burgundian John the Fearless on the one hand and the (generally) Armagnac Jean of Berry on the other. Through close readings of the miniatures, Hedeman convincingly argues that seemingly small details such as anachronistic dress and para-heraldic signs did important work in relocating the ancient subject matter within the noble patrons' present. They thus encouraged their viewers both to draw specific parallels between, for example, Alcibiades and Louis of Orléans and to engage more general lessons about the dangers of tyranny. History and its images are thus brought forward as one important way in which the moral and political stakes of just power were placed before noble men. This is followed by two examinations of more expressly fictional texts that equally aimed to inform their readers. Brown-Grant looks at a single manuscript of the Roman de Florimont in which both textual changes and the unique visual program encourage a reading of the antique chivalric hero as a model of justice in keeping with models also found in many mirrors of princes. Michelle Szkilnik instead looks to the illuminations in a series of manuscripts of the Jouvencel made over a span of roughly fifty years. Her comparison uncovers the tensions surrounding the issue of locating the true source of just power in both the text and period, with illuminators variously portrayed the eponymous hero as a humble supplicant to the king's envoys, their equal or their clear master.

The next three articles offer a snapshot of the complexities entailed by the frequent use of allegory in critiques of injustice. Kirsten Bourassa convincingly reads the illuminations of a copy of the Songe de vieil pelerin made for Charles VII as reinterpreting the text (originally composed to address particular political controversies of the previous reign) in more general terms as a defense of Christian values and French-style parliamentary procedure. Cynthia Brown hones in on the deployment of gender stereotypes in three political allegories spanning almost a century. As she makes clear, quite distinct moments of contested military engagements were recast into eerily similar tales in which the familial and personal emotional struggles of a female personification triggers the need for her rescue by outside forces: the damsel-in-distress motif ultimately justifies the authors' proffered political advice. Lydwine Scordia turns from gender stereotypes to animal stereotypes, looking at the ways in which images and particularly texts deployed the figures of animals and human-animal relations to offer various levels of veiled criticism of the policies of Louis XI (the ink drawing of Louis XI as a killer whale that she reproduces is not to be missed).

While the majority of the essays focus on images of and for rulers, the third set of essays instead looks expressly at the figure of the judge. Denis-Morel offers a comparative survey of the conventions for depicting judgment in textual descriptions of good and bad judges as well as the miniatures of the Grandes chroniques, coutumiers (customary law) and Roman law books. Her overview of the latter two sources is in keeping with her previous studies, but is particularly important given the lack of English-language work on these manuscripts. Maïté Billoré and Esther Deshoux's essay on depictions of martyrdom in devotional texts pairs nicely with Denis-Morel's. As the authors note, any desire to stress the injustice of the martyrs' fates regularly ran up against a reluctance to criticize the judicial process (whether this reluctance was on the part of the illuminators or the patrons is unclear). Surprisingly, these images rarely critique the judge, instead showing him according to the conventions of legal manuscripts discussed in the previous article. Condemnation tends to be reserved for the caricatured executioners; the act of torture itself may even be justified by the presence of angels or God looking down upon the proceedings. Taken together, these two overviews offer a somewhat chilling reminder of the degree to which normative manuscripts in multiple registers worked to justify the workings of state power. The final entry by Mary Beth Winn in this set turns once more to a case study, looking at Robert Gobin's Loups ravissans and its woodcut illustrations. Dating to a period slightly after that discussed in the previous two chapters, the early sixteenth-century Loups ravissans shows the continued intermingling of religious and legal concerns.

The final two articles return to the issue of gender already raised by Brown to consider the place of elite women within the primarily masculine legal and royal constructs of power and justice. Yasmina Foehr-Janssens considers fictional trials. In these romance courts, women's voices are usually replaced by their physical appearance; in the process, she argues, beauty is deployed as an ambiguous and highly spectacularized form of testimony that calls into question the role of desire in the performance of justice. Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier turns to a real woman, Claude of France, who is equally silenced in most historical accounts. Wilson-Chevalier attempts to address this lacuna by looking at the variety of manuscripts, sculptures and performances concerned with justice and virtue commissioned by Claude's parents, tracing the types of messages provided to a young princess even if the evidence seems ultimately not to reveal what the princess herself made of them.

Edited volumes by their very nature are best suited to providing a range of viewpoints and examples, and that is indeed both a strength and a weakness of the present collection which provides a series of compelling and sometimes contradictory snapshots rather than a single argument. The editors are to be commended for their work in gathering together these varied cases and arranging them in a manner that slowly builds a conversation between the varied chapters to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. In particular, the subtheme of the intersection between the constructions of gender and just rule repeatedly recurs in new forms that sometimes support and sometimes question the findings of previous chapters in a compelling fashion. Given the numerous rebellions--often sparked by non-aristocratic dissatisfaction with what was perceived to be aristocratic injustice--that rocked Francophone Europe during the period covered, it would have been useful to consider class in a similar light. Because the contributions to this volume focus on texts and manuscripts aimed primarily at aristocratic audiences, it remains unclear how concerns about justice and power were taught and received at other social levels. This perhaps could be the starting point for a future volume, one that hopefully would share this one's laudable commitment to considering the roles both texts and images played in shaping medieval perceptions of power and justice.

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