17.11.03, Fresco, ed., Authority of Images / Images of Authority

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Rachel Reid

The Medieval Review 17.11.03

Fresco, Karen L. , ed. Authority of Images / Images of Authority: Shaping Political and Cultural Identities in the Pre-Modern World. Studies in Medieval Culture, 53. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2016. pp. 254. ISBN: 978-1-58044-220-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rachel Reid
Queen's University Belfast

The title of this volume reflects the reciprocal relationship between authority and images of that authority; Fresco defines "images" rather broadly, acknowledging its meaning of visual representation, but in actuality the collection focuses on many other kinds of representation, such as linguistic and performative, and is more plainly centred around Fresco's secondary definition of "image" as "an appearance, reflection, or likeness" (xiiv). Concerned with this reciprocal relationship of the projection and perception of authorial identity, Fresco's brief introduction to the collection poses the overarching question examined in turn by each contributor, "how does the power of representation shape the understanding of society and history" (xviii)? This is a fruitful premise and the contributors offer much to the discussion and understanding of pre-modern attitudes towards fashioning identity and asserting authority via various mediums.

The collection is arranged into four thematic groups. The first of these, on Language and Norms, centres upon the importance of language in the construction and perception of identity and authority. Thomas Conley's essay reveals the incongruence between the vernacular Greek preserved in the works of Greek Byzantine scholars and the vernacular Greek spoken daily by the people. He argues convincingly that true Byzantine identity has been rendered near-invisible by the constructed identity preserved in literature of the period, a literature which he astutely suggests "paradoxically, had become a literature without a public" (10). Conley's essay is paired with Paul Cohen's on the importance of the French vernacular in the construction of a national identity in the early modern period, examining the difference between the perceived and actual importance of linguistic dexterity for early modern French monarchs. Cohen's findings suggest that France's linguistic diversity was incorporated and accepted in to the identity of the king. Rounding out this thematic strand is Philippe Caron and Douglas Kibbee's dual-authored essay focussing on a specific moment in the linguistic history of France, the use of French as the official language of all jurisprudential communication in the sixteenth century. Caron and Kibbee thoughtfully illustrate the overarching message of the book thus far: "Si la langue est l'image de le société, l'autorité en matière de langue et tout autant l'image de l'autorité de cette société" (49).

Part two of the collection moves on to the performance of authority, and Robert Clark takes us from the political and legal authorities of the previous section to religious authority in the context of performances of the mystery plays in the sixteenth century. Clark deals with the ban of said mystery plays, ostensibly linked to a threat against religious heterodoxy, and reveals that such censorship did not dissuade provincial performances nor personal copying of the play-texts--although they were no longer publicly printed. Clark's essay works on multiple levels within this collection, not simply focussing on the performativity of the plays themselves, but uncovering the performativity inherent in their ban. To enact a religious authority church factions set up the Jew as a propagandistic "other", standing in for the "reformist inclinations" the audience might adopt (61). Contrasting Clark's work on censorship and the destruction of reformist texts, Mara Wade treats the topic of archival preservation in Saxony, elucidating an "assiduously documented" culture which had the self-awareness to record and safeguard its spectacles and traditions in a construction and substantiation of court identity (79). Wade argues that in deliberately collecting this paraphernalia in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, August the Strong of Dresden, "literally shaped history" (89). Clark's and Wade's essays create a dynamic interplay--evidencing how history is perceived dependent on the extant records of the period. In Clark's case, the destruction and censorship of the plays removes something from the historical record and leaves us to piece together our best guesses. In Wade's example, the wealth of materials carefully collected creates a specific view of history in Dresden, one performatively constructed to leave in the highlights, as it were.

Part three follows effortlessly from record-keeping to two essays on collections and compilations. As before, these essays demonstrate the construction, the "images", of authority left behind in those books and manuscripts extant in libraries and or recorded in catalogues. Jean-Philippe Genet's essay on the private libraries in England 1200-1550, is comprehensive in its data, providing analyses of the genres and writers most predominant in libraries across this period. Attempting to understand the place of both religious and political writing, Genet's findings point to a university book culture which celebrates the expected authors--Aristotle, Augustine, and Cicero--while non-university collections see a tapering-off in religious books in favour of vernacular didactic works. Gillette Labory's essay, which follows, accounts for the significance of the Grande Chronique de Normandie in its composition in the fourteenth century, its consultation by later medieval historians ("les historiens du temps l'ont utilise, lui reconnaisant un statut de reference et d'autorité"), and the later re-working of the chronicle from its earlier form (135). These essays, perhaps somewhat more subtly, point back to earlier considerations of the shaping of history, and the tensions between intentional preservation and/or excision of texts from historical record, and the reality of historical reading and collecting practices. The crux of the book's title is that balance, precarious as it is, between image and reality, between inferring something from the past, and reflecting our own concerns backwards. This difficulty brings us to a section on the power of translators, and reminds us that as historians, we are translators of the past, and that we therefore have a responsibility to translate as faithfully and as accurately as our sources permit.

In that vein, Carla Bozzolo writes on the humanist Laurent de Premierfait and his role as "traducteur" of the Decameron for his patron Duke Jean de Berry (159). Bozzolo examines Premierfait's self-characterisation as a "homme populaire," a man of the people, in his dedication of the translation, by contextualising his work within the oeuvre of his other dedications, and in the wider political context (159). Bozzolo notes the concern of political legitimacy and suggests a link between this dedication and political authority's duty to protect the people: "l'identification à l'homme populaire ne viendrait-elle pas comme un rappel au duc de ce pacte préconisé entre le peuple et le pouvoir" (167). Nicole Pons' essay picks up the thread of Premierfait's translations and their humanist influences. She examines the emphasis upon domestic themes in comparison with other contemporary texts and identifies an "emerging bourgeois mentalité" (190). We are reminded in both that translation can be a powerful authoritative tool.

This collection concludes with C. Stephen Jaeger's essay, and is perhaps the most welcome literal approach to the concept of "Images of Authority," examining charisma in art. Jaeger's essay articulates many of the issues brought forth earlier in the book--for example, audience/viewer perceptions, and the connections and disconnections between illusion and reality--and argues that both word and image, as mentioned elsewhere, can exert influence over those who encounter it (194).

Throughout the collection the contributors highlight the reciprocity between form and content, between image and reality, and between authority of the past and the authority of the present. We are reminded that the past is shaped and reflected by those who participate in its preservation and its destruction, both past and present. The book serves as a reminder that we can only translate the past that has been left to us--and much of the time that past has been skewed--whether intentionally or not. The essays included in this collection offer new insights, new data, and new interpretations of their subjects which are a welcome addition to studies in translation, art, literature, and history. The transdisciplinarity of the collection is to be commended, and will no doubt be of use to many scholars working on aspects of medieval and early modern authority.

Note on the text: Despite the language of the volume being listed by the publisher as English it should be noted that, as a collaboration between French- and English- speaking researchers, some essays are in French and some are in English. This is perhaps something the publishers should highlight.

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