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23.11.04 Rowe, The Illuminated World Chronicle

23.11.04 Rowe, The Illuminated World Chronicle

Nina Rowe’s beautiful and fascinating book investigates the illuminated manuscripts of a vernacular universal chronicle text in verse form known as the Weltchronik. As the book’s title indicates, it examines the manuscripts’ imagery in the context of elite urban cultures in Bavaria and Austria, the loci of production and reception for most of the surviving manuscripts. Using selected examples from twenty illuminated manuscripts of this complex textual compilation that were produced in this region between about 1330 and 1430, Rowe seeks to explore how the audiences of the books might have understood their historical imagery in relation to current values, events, and practices in urban settings.

The Weltchronik digests ancient and scriptural history, in an entertaining, accessible, and abundantly illustrated manner, and the fifty-six “intact or reconstructible” (1) surviving manuscripts vary widely both in their illustrative programs and in their texts. The earliest versions of the text are a compilation of three sources: Rudolf von Ems, the Christherre-Poet, and Jans der Enikel “collaged in varying configurations,” (5) as Rowe puts it; a later compilation that includes additional sources is traditionally attributed to “Henrich von München,” who was not an individual, but instead a name of convenience for a group of compilers in Bavaria working in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. The textual tradition was dynamic, and the corpus of images that illustrate it is enormous; the manuscripts of the Weltchronik are usually abundantly illuminated, each with as many as 250 miniatures.

Rowe’s study of the visual traditions of the Weltchronik does not aim to be a comprehensive survey. Instead, her approach is more selective and thematically focused. The book is organized into seven chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. The introduction presents the manuscript tradition and outlines Rowe’s approach to this unwieldly tradition. In each chapter, she draws on the imagery from a trio of manuscripts that serve as case studies, and she anchors her analysis of each theme one to one of four urban settings: Salzburg, Vienna, Regensburg and Nuremberg. This structure is sometimes a bit contrived, but it provides opportunities for the author to investigate some remarkably rich material that she presents thoroughly and insightfully and that enriches the reader’s understanding of the urban cultures that were the production and reception contexts of the manuscripts.

In Chapter One, “Adam’s Descendants and Urban Industry” she considers the sons of Adam in relation to the inventions of the crafts and trades and their place in the urban context; in Chapter Two, “The Devil on Noah’s Ark and Desire in the City,” she investigates the attitudes of urban elites to erotic desire through the lens of the devil’s efforts to sabotage Noah’s injunction to the passengers on the ark to remain chaste. Chapter Three, “Moses the Jew with an Ethiopian Wife in a Time of Plague,” addresses questions of race and attitudes towards Jews and Africans in the contemporary context of contagion in the fourteenth century; Chapter Four, “Paris, Hector, Achilles and the Civic Tournament” examines the celebration of urban spectacle. In Chapter Five, “Nebuchadnezzar’s Idol and Waldensian Dissidence,” Rowe connects historical examples of idol worship with contemporary practices of iconoclasm; Chapter Six, “Alexander, Nero, Charlemagne, and Municipal Governance,” suggests that these secular rulers can be understood in the context of emerging municipal, non-imperial, political structures. The last chapter, “The Holy Family and Burgher Riches” concerns family structures and matters pertaining to salvation. The epilogue briefly considers the Weltchronik tradition in relation to the later, better-known Nuremburg Chronicle; in it, Rowe argues that although it is tempting to see a relationship between them, they differ significantly in their approach to their subject.

Rowe pays particular attention to unconventional and original iconography, like the depiction of the wife of Lot, who turns into a pillar of salt. In some of the Weltchronik manuscripts, this figure is depicted not as a pillar, but instead with a goat, whose attentions to her convey that she has become a salt lick. Rowe sets out to challenge traditional binaries of sacred and secular, and her attention is often drawn to images of (naked) bodies and sexuality that help her do that work. Her analysis is engaging and entertaining, but it can be difficult to gauge from it the extent to which these quirky anecdotes typify the narrative approaches of the Weltchronik manuscripts or whether they are exceptional. Rowe’s case study structure also sometimes occludes some of the thematic connections that might be seen to mirror each other in the larger arc of the work. So, for example the story of Tharbis, the Ethiopian wife of Moses, recounts the powers of an African woman with a magical ring; Rowe uses this story to investigate attitudes of urban populations about race (54). But she does not then link it to a subsequent story of another African woman with a magical ring called “Discordia,” described later in the text (85), but who does not seem to offer evidence of urban elites’ “tolerant” attitudes towards difference that Rowe would like to impute to the first example. Nor does she note the visual echoes between the imagery of Moses released by his mother in a basket in the Nile (64) and Achilles traveling the sea in a similarly-shaped sack under the supervision of his mother, Thetis (96). Such echoes and variations would have helped build coherence in the sprawling scope of the chronicle, and also reveal how the workshops that produced the manuscripts might have endeavored to shape and connect such an enormous corpus of material both visually and thematically for the reader-viewer.

Rowe’s real subject, as the second half of her title reveals, is the late medieval city, and her reading of manuscript images is shaped by her extensive knowledge of the urban context. She brings an original and informed perspective to the images that are the subject of her study, which capture a dizzying variety of costumes, rituals and habits of city denizens. In particular, she considers how the urban elites, whom she sees as the audience for the manuscripts of the Weltchronik, would have understood and acted upon the information present in their imagery. Imagining the interaction of the reader-viewer with the book along the lines of a kind of secular Devotio moderna, Rowe speculates about how the manuscripts would have inspired or stimulated emulation from its medieval reader-viewers, connecting the visual world and the inhabited urban environment. This approach certainly generates many nuanced and insightful readings of the miniatures, but it could have been further enriched by investigation into how the illuminations and their iconography relate to other vernacular chronicle texts, produced in German-speaking contexts or further afield. Her treatment of this small group of images from a single (albeit sprawling) chronicle tradition does not anchor it in the broader imagery of comparable historical manuscripts, which might have strengthened her argument.

Rowe occasionally imputes volition to certain kinds of production decisions that may have been the result of context or happenstance. For example, she says of a half-finished program that it was “too much for the artists or they ran out of funds” (36), or that the patron “developed an appreciation for the force of stripped-down black and white” (125) whereas in either case, the unfinished program or the change in style could easily be ascribed to changes in workshop structure or personnel rather than the exigence of the patron’s taste. As much as Rowe wants to integrate the books into a study of the urban contexts in which they were produced, sometimes the mutability and instability of the fourteenth century seem forgotten.

This is a very handsome book. Every one of the volume’s 148 images is reproduced in color, which makes their curious iconography vivid and vibrant before the reader’s eyes. Each chapter is originally conceived and well presented, even though the thematic approach to the iconography allows only a partial glimpse at the encyclopedic scope of these books. The catalogue of manuscripts at the end of the volume only notes the illuminations germane to the study, rather than the full scope of the images in each manuscript. That would be a different project, a larger project, and one perhaps more ideally suited to digital than to printed form. The volume is also regrettably without a bibliography, so it can be difficult to locate some references. Modern readers are used to flipping back and forth between text and notes, but even so, it can be very hard to get a sense of the bibliographic underpinnings of this study or to locate some of its sources. This is unfortunate in a work that includes so much valuable information presented for the first time in English. But for a unique and ambitious book like this one, such criticisms are very minor. The Illuminated World Chronicle will provide much food for thought for its readers, and it will certainly inspire much more research on this too-little-known text and its images in the future.