Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.10.08 Slater, Art & Political Thought in Medieval England, c. 1150-1350

19.10.08 Slater, Art & Political Thought in Medieval England, c. 1150-1350

In today's image-rich world, the politically invested public can rapidly spread information and misinformation through memes, gifs, and other visual representations. Such images morph over time as subsequent authors appropriate and adapt them, potentially carrying messages from a small community to a much larger one. In this context, the central role of images in public discourse and political debate is all but certain. In Art & Political Thought, Slater argues that images played a similarly critical role in shaping and expressing political arguments in medieval England, c. 1150-1350. She considers imagery, both visual and imaginary, to have been part of the political vocabulary that formulated and disseminated ideologies to a widespread, if elite, public during this period. Importantly, she addresses not only royal cultural patronage but also imagery produced by and for a broader "governing class," which was often critical of royal power. At stake is the relative influence of texts and images in determining political action. For Slater, these two forms of communication held equivalent weight in the communal conception of political society within Plantagenet England.

Slater divides her book into four chronologically-arranged chapters, each of which covers approximately fifty years. Chapter 1, "Imagining Power in Angevin England," considers the later twelfth century, with a particular focus on the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 and the event's integration into English history. Slater traces an increasingly strident clerical voice that casts monarchal rule in spiritual terms, often through biblical allegory and exempla. According to this stance, piety, morality, and the centrality of the Church were key features of a virtuous rule. Seals, like the c. 1200 seal of Westminster Abbey, visualize this idealized conception of righteous lordship. The example from Westminster features Edward the Confessor trampling the defeated body of Earl Godwin, who typifies the vanquished tyrant. Christ Church, Canterbury features heavily in this chapter, not only as the site of Becket's martyrdom but also as an intellectual hub and source of imagery. One of Slater's most explicit examples of the generative potency of images appears in her analysis of the typological windows of Canterbury. She argues that their imagery, and especially their representation of Julian the Apostate and Maurice Tiberius as embodiments of tyranny and political vice (window N.XV, 7), may have influenced John of Salisbury's Policraticus (c. 1159).

In Chapter 2, "From the Clerics to the Court," Slater considers the first half of the thirteenth century. She argues that the sacralized understanding of secular rule became more widespread during this period, in part due to the translation of these ideas into more public forms of art. For example, Slater cites choir screens ornamented with statues of English rulers as visualizations of the Church built from the "living stones" of a cohesive English dynasty. She further suggests that political reform, and political struggle more generally, became equated with spiritual struggle and crusade in the early thirteenth century, especially during the civil wars of 1215–1217. Slater explores the theme of sacralized kingship through objects like Henry III's first great seal (1218), which casts the young king as a type of Christ, complete with lion and dragon under his feet. According to Slater, the mythic beasts under Henry's throne adapt the trampling motif seen in the earlier Westminster seal to stress the king's divine right to rule. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the mythologizing of Stephen Langton's involvement in formulating Magna Carta and its role in controlling government through administrative practices.

The third chapter, "The Barons' War and the Dreams of the Reformers," focuses primarily on the period of conflict between 1258 and 1266 during the majority of Henry III. Whereas Henry sought unrestrained royal power, many members of the ruling elite wanted government through consensus as inscribed in Magna Carta and the 1258 Provisions of Oxford. Slater notes the increasing influence of Aristotelian theories, in contrast to the dominance of Augustinian thought that characterizes the previous century. She cites Robert Grosseteste's political ideology, which links reason and equity to good rulership and selfishness to corrupt rulership, as an example. The crux of the chapter concerns the representation of Simon de Montfort, leader of the baronial revolt against Henry III. Drawing on a detailed analysis of heraldry, Slater suggests that Montfortian shields appear in several representations of tyranny and defeated tyrants that appear in three royal manuscripts. These images operated propagandistically to discredit Montfort and his cause. Such propaganda was not limited to royalist imagery, however. Slater asserts that both baronial and royalist polemic invoked the image of the vanquished, trampled enemy and the downfall of sinful rulers.

In the final chapter, "Visions of Government During the Three Edwards," Slater describes a transformed political ideology, one now focused more on lineage and royal competence than on sin and suffering. In the early fourteenth century, ideal kingship was characterized by military prowess, wisdom, and justice. According to Slater, while texts and images continue to draw on Biblical allegory and present defeated tyrannical rulers, national histories increasingly moved away from the "purgatorial" model and the Becket conflict. Genealogical rolls, two of which Slater discusses in detail, provided an innovative mechanism for presenting English history and royal lineage. A principle section of this chapter concerns the treatise of Walter Milemete, De nobilitatibus sapientiis et prudenciis regum. Slater proposes that this treatise reveals English aspirations for Edward III to inherit the French throne. Its text and images council that the king should be wise, in harmony with his subjects, and generally wary of his advisors.

Slater's project is an ambitious one. It requires her to present two cohesive narratives simultaneously--one tracing English political developments and a second that follows visuality within English material and textual cultures. The integration of these two threads varies somewhat throughout the book. I commend Slater for the diversity of her evidence, which ranges from political treatises to seals, manuscript illuminations, and architectural ornamentation. Her variety of sources makes up for those instances where they overtake her larger arguments. Of course, even within this diversity, Slater is limited to what survives. She acknowledges these limitations from the outset, noting the dominance of the elite, male, clerical voice in her evidence. While she mentions images of queenship briefly in her conclusion, I remain curious as to how a more detailed analysis of such material might complement Slater's arguments.

I was particularly intrigued by Slater's synthesis of visual representation with visually evocative textual descriptions. I agree with Slater that such visualizable metaphors and speak to the importance of images in medieval thought. However, I wonder if Slater's argument could have benefited from incorporating a terminology that more clearly and more consistently distinguishes between these various modes of expression. In addition, I remain curious as to how such evocative political writing compares to other genres of prose. In other words, to what degree was this phenomenon distinct to political discourse? Or was it have part of a more general insistence on the visuality in the later Middle Ages? I look forward to seeing these questions addressed in future research. Most importantly, however, this book demonstrates the power of images in shaping medieval ideologies and actions. It testifies to the interconnection between words and images and opens new avenues for exploring these resonances.