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21.10.19 Cordez, Treasury, Memory, Nature

21.10.19 Cordez, Treasury, Memory, Nature

This book is a valuable addition to the history of medieval art and medieval religion, as well as to subfields such as aesthetics, the history of collecting, museum studies, the study of relics and reliquaries, the history of the medieval church, and the historiography of art. It is wide-ranging and ambitious, with analysis encompassing the variety of objects that might be found in a treasury or on display in a church, among them relics and reliquaries, chess pieces, griffins’ claws, and crocodile sculptures. The book has many striking and original insights about the relationship between objects and the ecclesiastic institutions that acquired and preserved them. Though the author focuses for the most part on collecting by institutions, not by individuals, many of the conclusions of the book might also shed light on the possessions assembled by royal and private collectors. The book is not only essential for scholars but also valuable for use in the classroom by students; the chapters are accessible and engaging. Sections of the book could function nicely on their own as excerpts that ask students to consider the history of medieval terminology for works of art, the role of inventories in writing the history of collecting, or single objects such as a unicorn horn or an ostrich egg reliquary that serve as case studies to illuminate how objects in church treasuries were wondrous devotional and historical agents.

The material in this book has been newly translated into English, after an initial publication in German in 2015, as Schatz, Gedächtnis, Wunder. Die Objekte der Kirchen im Mittelalter(Regensburg: Schnell und Steiner, 2015), and then in a slightly revised form in French in 2016,Trésor, mémoire, merveilles. Les objets des églises au Moyen Âge (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 2016). The author describes the differences between the versions, noting that the German version has “more and lengthier footnotes, with extensive quotations and additional bibliography” (5). The book published in English in 2020 that I review here is a translation of the French text. According to the author it “mirrors the French version (with complementary references to existing English translations of original texts and scientific literature)” (5).

The book has a foreword (by Herbert Kessler), an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. In the short introduction, subtitled “Ars sacra? The ‘Objects’ of Churches,” Cordez proposes the central question of the book, with regard to medieval objects: “Before they became museum objects and historical testimonies, how were these objects conceived of, experienced, and used? Moreover, this question can and should be turned on its head: To what extent have modern conceptions of history and of the museum been shaped by the ecclesiastical heritage of the Middle Ages?” (9). The first question has been thoroughly studied but the second, on the implications of ecclesiastical collections for the contemporary museum and an understanding of the past, has not been analyzed as often. It is a compelling question that Cordez poses in the introduction and returns to in the conclusion, opening and closing his book by asking the reader to consider the implications of his analysis for the historiography of art and for museum studies. The introduction also questions the etymological roots of words taken for granted today to describe medieval art, such as ars sacra, or objet d’art (these terms are modern), and reminds the reader of the definition of terms used historically for objects, such as res, causa, obiectum, and joyau.

Chapter 1, titled “The Imaginary of Treasure,” is chronological. In this fascinating chapter Cordez traces the changes in the definition of thesaurus or thesaurus ecclesiae starting with late antiquity, then moving to Carolingian practice, and then finally to the High and Late Middle Ages. Cordez interrogates how and why thesaurus was used in textual sources and how it changed over time, from “spiritual treasure” to “church treasure,” and finally in the late Middle Ages, “common treasure.” He ends the chapter with a consideration of indulgences, part of what he calls the “Treasury of Merit” of the late Middle Ages and early modern period. In this chapter Cordez contextualizes the objects of the church treasury as one element of the ecclesiastic attitude toward material wealth and exchange; his discussion of indulgences and their relationship to ideas about the church treasury was particularly compelling.

In the second chapter Cordez considers why church treasuries were assembled and how we know about them, noting the importance of “memory (memoria)” as “one of the driving social forces behind the formation of medieval church treasuries” (61). Relics were the most important memorial objects in the treasury, as well as other objects that maintained an association with a church’s past; for example, a prestigious founder might be invoked through such an object. We know the history of relics and other church objects through textual sources such as labels and inventories, and Cordez insists on a careful analysis of these texts. Rather than simply accepting labels and inventories as documents of objects at a point in time, he critically analyzes the choice of words, the organization, and the narratives of labels and inventories for what they reveal about institutional values and attitudes toward objects and the past. This analysis contributes substantially to the burgeoning study of the rhetoric of medieval inventories. It aligns with other recent work on the literary, memorial, and spatial strategies of inventories by scholars such as Joseph Ackley, Erik Inglis, Therese Martin, Christina Normore, and Mariah Proctor-Tiffany. In this chapter Cordez also analyzes the process of creating a narrative for a memorial object, focusing on two illustrative examples: the staff of St. Peter (still today at Cologne Cathedral), and the foreskin of Christ (preserved at the abbey of Saint-Sauveur at Charroux in western France). In the final example of church treasury objects, under a subheading called “Chess and the Imaginary of Power,” he considers the social and political implications of chess pieces and chessboards as treasury objects. In detailed case studies Cordez analyzes the so-called “chess set of Charlemagne” at the abbey of Saint-Denis and chess pieces from the cathedral of Reims; both are well illustrated with color photographs.

Wondrous and marvelous objects from the natural world that were preserved in church treasuries are the topic of chapter 3. It is a minor point, but I regret the omission of the English word “wonder” or “marvel” in the title of the book. The German title uses the word Wunder and the Frenchmerveilles, but for the English translation only the term “nature” has been employed. Cordez explains this choice: “Differences in the semantic fields of ‘marvel’ and ‘wonder’ among the three languages motivated the choice of the term ‘nature’ for the main title in English” (5). He groups these objects under the heading “naturalia,” and notes the importance of such objects from the natural world to the early modern history of science. But I think limiting the translation to the word “nature” in the title is insufficient to capture the remarkable content of this chapter that includes discussion of the materials of ostrich eggs, coconuts, mollusk shells, unicorn horns, giants, monsters, dragons, griffins, and sea creatures. In this chapter in particular the color illustrations greatly enhance Cordez’s written analysis, as the interest of these objects was largely due to the display of their remarkable raw materials.

The bibliography has been selectively updated, with a smattering of publications from the last couple of years, but nearly all of the citations date prior to 2016. Scholars who know the literature on this topic will not be very affected, but newcomers to the field using the bibliography should be aware of this limitation.