17.03.15, Munns, Cross and Culture in Anglo-Norman England

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Helen Nicholson

The Medieval Review 17.03.15

Munns, John. Cross and Culture in Anglo-Norman England: Theology, Imagery, Devotion . Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016. pp. xviii, 334. ISBN: 978-1-78327-126-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Helen Nicholson
 Cardiff University
nicholsonhj@cardiff.ac.uk

This beautifully-presented book considers the many roles of the Cross of Christ in religious devotion in Anglo-Norman England--that is, from the Norman Conquest to the Fourth Lateran Council. While acknowledging that many of the developments discussed here were already present in the Anglo-Saxon period, this study takes as its starting point the writings of Anselm of Bec (d. 1109) and the role of the Cross in the affective devotion--that is, religious devotion that engages a conscious act of the will with the emotions and the senses--practised and promoted by Anselm and his followers.

As Munns explains in the introduction, he sets out to "refine" our understanding of the Cross (with or without the figure of Christ attached) in Anglo-Norman England in three respects: the agency of visual imagination; how the image of Christ on the Cross evolved from divinity to humanity (although the image of the suffering Christ on the Cross may appear to modern eyes no more human than the triumphant Christ "enthroned" on the Cross that it replaced), and the place of images in the history of ideas. Through considering an enormously wide range of images of the Cross, from manuscript illuminations to frescoes, sculptures, medieval crosses and reliquaries, combined with written evidence from the work of Anselm and other theologians, liturgies, homilies, chronicles, miracle stories and saints' lives, Munns opens up the devotional world of Anglo-Norman England, revealing the centrality of the Cross not only in religious belief but in religious practice. While admitting that he does not analyse every use of the Cross in Anglo-Norman society--for example, the book does not consider how the Cross was used to "cross oneself," or use of the Cross on documents or coins--Munns does show that the image of the Cross pervaded almost every part of English society at this period. The final section of the book takes the reader away from theological works and the use of the Cross in liturgy and Church rituals to the Cross in the wider world: in pilgrimage, papal policy, Church councils and crusades.

Appropriately for a detailed study of imagery, the book is extensively illustrated, with sixty black and white images and twelve colour plates: a feast for the reader's eyes. Images have been drawn largely from England but also from France, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere in Latin Christendom, illustrating the many influences on Anglo-Norman culture. Of course many of these manuscripts, crosses and sculptures are no longer in their original location and the image credits include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Library of Copenhagen and the Hunt Museum, Limerick. Each image is discussed in detail in the text, in addition to many others that are not illustrated. Obviously there was a limit to the number of images that could be reproduced here, but the reader may regret not being able to see, for example, the fresco on the walls of St Michael's church, Burgfelden and the Gunhild Cross, which are described in detail in the text, contextualised and compared to other examples, but not illustrated. Most of the images are of excellent quality, but regrettably the crucial details in the photograph of the important fresco at St Mary's church at Houghton-on-the-Hill in Norfolk (47) are virtually invisible, while the close-up of the fresco in the colour plates is hardly more intelligible.

Yet this is more than an analysis of images: it is a history of religious belief and practice in Anglo-Norman England, surveying not only the personal beliefs of the spiritual elite such as Anselm of Bec and Aelred of Rievaulx but also the everyday religious practice of the laity through consideration of the design and imagery of churches, religious processions, pilgrimage and holy relics. Munns discusses how these objects of devotion would have been used in religious practice. Some images are narrative, while others could have served as the focus of contemplation. The St Albans psalter, despite its obvious function as a tool in personal devotion, does not include an image of the crucifixion: Munns follows Jane Geddes's suggestion that the psalter was used in conjunction with a crucifix held in the hand or hung on a wall. Aelred of Rievaulx advised his sister, a recluse, to have "a representation of our saviour hanging on the cross" (85) "to encourage imitation of his passion," and "a picture of the Virgin Mother and one of the Virgin disciple on either side of the Cross" (86)--Munns discusses what these images may have looked like, as well as the intellectual, sensory and affective meditation that Aelred’s sister practised.

Although the Cross of Christ is a symbol of salvation it is also a symbol of suffering and death; and some modern readers may find these images and the written descriptions of Christ's suffering discussed here to be challenging, even repellent. They may also be shocked by the anti-Jewish rhetoric which sometimes accompanied these images. Munns points out that this rhetoric was not intended to convert Jews but to reinforce "the confidence of wavering Christian souls in the face of sophisticated critiques of the doctrine of the crucifixion" (176). He argues that although before 1189 some Christians and Jews in England worked positively together in commerce and trade, Jewish intellectual criticism of Christian doctrine was "sufficiently effective" (179) to cause alarm among Christian theologians, prompting a defensive hostile reaction in literature and art.

Some of the material here may appear too obvious to require discussion: for example, what other symbol of Christianity could the crusaders have used instead of the Cross? Yet this only underlines how far the Cross acted as the fundamental image of Christianity. Overall this study demonstrates the centrality of the image of the Cross to Latin Christianity in England in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and various means in which it was employed in affective spiritual practice.

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