18.09.33, Root, The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Text and Image

Main Article Content

Richard K. Emmerson

The Medieval Review 18.09.33

Root, Jerry. The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Text and Image. Woodbridge UK: D.S.Brewer, 2017. pp. x, 287. ISBN: 978 1 84384 461 7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Richard K. Emmerson
Florida State University

Jerry Root has written a valuable study of the legend of Theophilus, the fascinating story popular in both medieval literature and art that recounts how a pious and humble man through envy and the help of a Jew contracts his soul to the devil, repents before a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, and is then redeemed by Mary, who secures his pardon and retrieves the infernal contract from the devil. The book's goal is "to offer a comprehensive and comparative study of a selection of texts and images of the legend" (5). It does so in four lengthy chapters, accompanied by a shorter introduction and conclusion, an extensive bibliography, an appendix, sixty mostly black-and-white illustrations, a brief general index, and a helpful index of figures. Root throughout persuasively argues that the Theophilus legend is much more than simply a miracle of the Virgin, which is how it is usually studied, but "a performance of the theological understanding of the imago--one individual's journey from dissemblance to resemblance" (201). The book is likely to be of great interest to scholars of medieval art, literature, and theology.

In his introduction Root outlines his methodology, to "put the texts and images in dialogue with each other in order to analyze their strategies for using the Theophilus story to explore and resolve medieval anxieties of identity" (5), and then presents a handy overview of scholarship, historical, literary, and art historical. The analysis of the legend begins with chapter 1, "Homage to the Devil: Ritual, Writing, Seal." After providing some background on feudal homage, Root systematically describes the legend's most important vernacular sources, emphasizing Gautier de Coinci's Miracles de Nostre Dame and Rutebeuf's Miracle de Théophile. Images of feudal homage in manuscript images are then similarly described, focusing on illustrations of Gautier's Miracles, but also considering English manuscripts such as the De Brailes Hours, Taymouth Hours, and Lambeth Apocalypse. This somewhat mechanical march through the primary evidence is next repeated by an examination of contracts and seals in the texts and miniatures. Root is a scholar of Old French literature and certainly knows the textual tradition well, although he sometimes blunders when discussing the manuscript images. For example, although the text of the Smithfield Decretals was "of French provenance" (39), the bas-de-page cycle of Theophilus scenes was added to the manuscript in London circa 1340, as Alixe Bovey has persuasively shown. [1]

The core of the argument is developed in the following three chapters that trace the somewhat inexplicable fall of the protagonist, the vigorous and miraculous role played by the Virgin, and the ultimate restoration of Theophilus before his death. These chapters are more interpretive in nature and include insightful analysis of both text and image. Chapter 2, "The Self as Dissemblance," discusses the dismal results of the pact with the devil and the resultant despair of Theophilus, with attention to the role of the Jewish intermediary, which garners important pictorial attention. Chapter 3, "Intervention of the Virgin," focuses on Mary's crucial role and the variety of ways it is narrated in the vernacular texts and depicted in images, which emphasize "the Virgin's mastery over the Devil" (137). The concluding chapter, "Sacramental Action and Neoplatonic Exemplarism," discusses aspects of the legend that have received less scholarly attention, especially the active role that Theophilus plays in his own reformation, which Root argues is a key reason for the legend's medieval popularity. Particularly significant is the discussion of the audience's likely identification with Theophilus, drawing on Hugh of St. Victor's notion of exemplarism. As Root concludes, the legend converts "the apparent negative example of apostasy into a positive and even holy model of conduct to imitate" (198).

The book is well documented and clearly written, marred by only the rare typographical error (e.g., "Islandic"), inconsistency (does the Smithfield Decretals depict twenty-three or twenty-four Theophilus scenes?), or embarrassment (the consistent misspelling of Meyer Schapiro's name), problems which should have been caught by the copyeditor. The illustrations, which include helpful details, are usually well reproduced, although some could be sharper and others are too small to support points discussed in the analysis. More problematic is the book's singular focus on manuscript illustrations. As Root notes in the introduction, the legend is depicted in a variety of medieval art, including murals, sculpture, and stained glass, so it is unfortunate that he does not examine these images, although he sometimes alludes to them and repeatedly cites Michael Cothren's excellent study of stained glass. [2] Root explains that he limits his selection of images due to the "important differences in artistic scale and intended audience" (7) of the monumental cycles. Nevertheless, given his study's concern with audience and reception, this decision necessarily limits his conclusions regarding what the Theophilus legend implies regarding "the power of images to serve as a bridge to salvation, the role of church authorities and the broader church community in salvation, and finally the action an individual can take to help reform him or herself" (7). This disappointing limitation, however, does not minimize the overall value of the author's argument; it only means that the book's title should be The Theophilus Legend in Medieval Manuscripts.



1. Alixe Bovey, "A Pictorial Ex Libris in the Smithfield Decretals: John Batayle, Canon of St Bartholomew's, and His Illuminated Law Book," English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 10 (2002): 67-91.

2. Michael W. Cothren, "The Iconography of Theophilus Windows in the First Half of the Thirteenth Century," Speculum 59 (1984): 308-341.

Article Details