The Medieval Review 17.12.20

Garipzanov, Ildar, Caroline Goodson, and Henry Maguire, eds. Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cursor Mundi, 27. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. pp. xviii, 394.

Reviewed by:

Daniel Melleno
University of Denver

With the publication of Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the three editors, Ildar Garipzanov, Caroline Goodson, and Henry Maguire aim to expand upon the ongoing "material turn" that has come to the forefront of medieval studies over the last several years. The breadth of the project is readily apparent as the introduction and eleven essays that make up this collection dig into items and objects as varied as illuminated manuscripts, coinage, fibulae, clay lamps, and even aqueducts. What links these areas and materials together is a broad conceptual idea, that of graphicacy.

Garipzanov first adopted the conception of graphicacy from the field of educational psychology in a 2015 article titled "The Rise of Graphicacy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages." [1] This edited collection thus serves to further the discussion he began there about how to understand and interpret pre-modern engagement with the variety of symbols that stand somewhere between writing and figurative art. Perhaps the most well-known of these so-called "graphic signs," and the one that receives the most attention across the collection, is the chi-rho, a combination of Greek letters that comes to function not only as a written short-hand or abbreviation for the name of Jesus but also as a symbolic visual marker in its own right, combining aspects of both models of interpretation, literacy and "visualcy" (another of Garipzanov's adopted terms). But beyond the chi-rho a variety of other items, such as christograms and secular monograms, are referenced across the collection pointing to the broad applicability of the term "graphic sign." That being said, Garipzanov himself acknowledges that the term "graphicacy" is "a rather unknown category among classicists and medievalists" (14) and thus spends some time defining it and discussing both its theoretical and functional elements.

At its heart, then, this collection explicitly aims to bring a new focus to the study of these various signs that flourished in Late Antiquity, perhaps as a result of the transformation of religious, political, and culture practices and identities occurring during this period. In bringing heightened attention to a category of communication that has often been overlooked in favor of "flashier" artistic endeavors or more "weighty" literary ones, the editors of this collection also undertake a comprehensive effort to employ a multi-disciplinary approach, attempting to bring together experts across fields such as art history, archaeology, and history as well as in sub-fields like paleography, numismatics, and codicology. This attempt to cast a wide net is one of the collection’s major strengths, as it demonstrates the flexibility and ubiquity of "graphic signs" as a conceptual model.

The collection is divided into three parts: "Graphic Signs in Manuscript Culture," "Graphic Signs in Public Spaces and Everyday Material Culture," and "Graphic Signs on Material Objects of Status and Authority." While these categories are generally straight forward, I would have liked the introduction to have done more to discuss the methodological reasons and significance for these divisions beyond just their functional reality as different areas where graphic signs manifest. I'm left wondering, for instance, if the very presence of graphic symbols creates connective or conceptual links between an object that is traditionally considered to be "of authority" (say a coin issued by an emperor) and one that is considered part of "everyday material culture" (say a lamp) or if graphic signs function in fundamentally different ways depending on context. That being said, the difficulty of linking together numerous focused essays into a collective and conceptual whole is a common issue across edited collections in general and is not a unique or particularly egregious problem in this work specifically. In Part I, Larry W. Hurtado starts things off with a broad discussion of the earliest textual uses of Christian graphic symbols. Focusing on a number of key scribal practices among second and third century manuscripts, such as the nomina sacra (the practice of abbreviating key holy words) and various monograms, most notably the staurogram (the combination of tau-rho), Hurtado notes the way in which these scribal devices functioned both as textual and figural references to key Christian figures, ideas, and concepts. On the whole, this essay is one of the strongest in the collection, standing both on its own investigative merits and doing an excellent job of putting into practice the theoretical framework discussed by Garipzanov in his introduction. The second essay, by Michael Squire and Christopher Whitton, and the third, by Beat Brenk, are more limited in scope. Squire and Whitton lay out some examples of graphicacy in the work of the early fourth century poet Optatian; Brenk examines some key elements of the early fifth-century Nottia dignitatum, an official listing of ancient Roman offices. As such, these two essays serve more as case studies than as discussions of the broader implications or conceptual nature of graphicacy and will be of most interest to those whose own work intersects with these particular texts. Rounding out this section, David Ganz examines early medieval display scripts within the context of graphicacy in order to present some alternative ways in which the act of writing in a visual context might be understood by scholars. This piece raises some fascinating implications for how we engage with manuscripts and texts providing a framework by which a significance beyond the literal meaning of the texts themselves might be found. This is especially true in the case of sacred text which Ganz argues could, via display scripts, contain a number of layers of interpretation for both scribe, reader, and a wider potentially illiterate audience. While the piece contains a number of compelling ideas the fact that this was originally a conference presentation (a fact that Ganz himself readily acknowledges) is apparent and can at times be somewhat distracting. Part II of the collection shifts the focus from the intimate context of the page to the much broader theater of public consumption and mass production. The various essays in this section for the most part function as singular case studies, looking at particular instances of graphicacy across a variety of contexts, such as on public architecture, in mosaics, and on everyday items such as clay lamps. Nevertheless, a common unifying theme is present across these essays as in each of the cases the importance of graphic signs as both conceptual and practical tools is made clear. On the one hand the Christian graffiti that came to mark statues and doorframes throughout the Late Antique city and the various signs emblazoned on fifth and sixth century North African lamps, discussed by Ine Jacobs and Caroline Goodson respectively, served as a key means of establishing and declaring identity to the wider world. At the same time, graphic signs could also serve a more functional role, warding off evil and protecting key monuments such as the aqueduct bridge at Kursunlugerme in Thrace, where, as James Crow notes, the many crosses and other symbols likely served both as commemoration of the structure's construction and as a security measure for a vital piece of public infrastructure (165).

Of particular note in this section is the essay by Henry Maguire titled "How Did Early Byzantine Ornament Work," which does an excellent job of laying out a variety of ornamental practices without ever feeling like a simple catalog. Indeed, this essay, which Maguire puts forth as a "rudimentary grammar" (225) of graphic ornament and its functions, once again reasserts the theoretical aspects of graphicacy in a way that helps the various essays that surround it to cohere in a way they might not otherwise.

The final part of this collection shifts the focus away from questions of identity and public security to the sphere of authority. With only three essays this is the shortest of the three sections and in some ways, it is also the least focused. The standout and indeed one of the strongest in the entire collection, is that by Garipzanov. Continuing his interest in the way that coinage can demonstrate changing ideas of identity and authority as exemplified in several other articles, this piece examines imperial and royal monograms on late antique and early medieval coins. [2] Unsurprisingly, this essay fully engages with the core idea of graphic signs offering a central argument and a multi-century focus that moves this beyond a mere case study to a more robust discussion of how the use of graphic signs as symbols of authority can change and develop over time.

The other two essays do not quite match this depth or focus. In an essay focused on Christian symbols on official fibulae Christopher Eger provides a rather narrow case study that is more descriptive than argumentative. In the final essay, on Byzantine silk weaving, Anna Muthesius makes an interesting point about how writing might, in essence, be a graphic sign for those without the skill to read it, a statement that nicely dovetails with Ganz' earlier piece. However, in bringing in a number of examples that are explicitly abstract, textual, or figural, this final piece serves to dilute the overall meaning of graphicacy and makes for an odd ending to a collection that might have been well served by a conclusion to draw everything together.

All in all, Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages has some very interesting things to say about an oft overlooked realm of communication and material culture. While some of the essays are rather niche and not all essays will appeal to all audiences the overall conceptual focus is a valuable one and there are a number of compelling pieces that are well worth reading. The actual book itself is quite well put together and contains a tremendous number of images and illustrations that help actively reinforce the various essays. A somewhat minor quibble might be raised with the fact that for a book purporting to cover the Early Middle Ages only three of the twelve essays really move beyond the sixth century and only two of the twelve deal much with a non-Byzantine context. I would have liked to see either a broader field of essays or perhaps just a different title. That being said, the collection does an excellent job of showcasing the value of materially focused cross-disciplinary investigation as a means of accessing how people in the past thought about, engaged with, and made use of signs and symbols to forge and broadcast identity and authority.

--------- Notes:

1. Ildar Garipzanov, "The Rise of Graphicacy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages," Viator 46.2 (2015): 1-21.

2. Examples of Garipzanov's previous numismatic work include: Ildar Garipzanov, "Carolingian Coins in Ninth-Century Scandinavia: A Norwegian Perspective," Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1 (2005): 43-71; Ildar Garipzanov, "Christian Identities, Social Status, and Gender in Viking-Age Scandinavia," in Conversion and Identity in the Viking Age, eds. Ildar Garipzanov and Rosalind Bonté (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 139-65.

Copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Melleno

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