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Medieval Storytelling: Beyond the Borders

Western Manuscripts Curator, Anne Anderton, explores the artistry of medieval manuscripts.

As the final post in this series it is important to point out that there is more to the representations in medieval manuscripts than pretty and pious pictures. The devil, as it were, is in the detail and to be honest those details can get pretty weird. Let us consider the folio from Rylands Latin MS 117 below, A Psalter from the 13th century.

Our eyes are drawn to the large gold burnished initial. It is an image of the Trinity – the Holy Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove, but you knew that, didn’t you, from reading the earlier post). So far so good. Even without being able to read the Latin text we can surmise it is an important and serious section to have the full Trinity represented to introduce it. But wait, what is happening with the praying figure to the left of the initial? He seems to be being stretched between two strange beasts and come to think of it, what is going on here at the foot of the page? Acrobatic nuns and lion killing?

What is going on? Is it sacrilege? A not so subtle undercutting of the text? Possibly. A juxtaposition of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art is not a concept new to us in order to provoke a re-reading. But the important point is that a medieval reader would not be too ruffled by these images at all because of where they sit. In fact the placement is key. All are beyond the full border around the initial and completely separated from the text providing a safe disconnect. As Mikhail Bakhtin writes in Rabelais and His World:

The men of the middle ages participated in two lives: the official and the carnival life…they co-existed in their consciousness… However in medieval art a strict dividing line is drawn is drawn between the pious and the grotesque; they exist side by side but never merge.”(1)

Certainly these grotesques as they are sometimes called are not confined to religious texts: take this example from Rylands French MS 1, Lancelot du Lac, c.1300. The tale is one of courtly love, an Arthurian romance literature focusing on the relationship between ill-fated lovers Lancelot and Guinevere. One does have to wonder what part a grumpy nun breastfeeding a monkey has to do with the story; she can be found at the bottom of a folio in volume II, sitting next to a next repair in the vellum.

Naughty nun from
Rylands French MS 1

Michael Camille in his seminal work on marginalia, Image on the Edge (1992), posits that this ‘naughty nun’ is likely a swipe at lax monastic celibacy, where the supposed ‘virgin’ nun has given birth to a literal monstrous sign of her all too human mistake, a mirror opposite of the Virgin Mary feeding the infant Jesus (2).

What hopefully has become clear is that in every image from a medieval manuscript that we have looked at over the course of these posts communicates much more to us if we take pains to stop and ‘read’ it. These sometimes exquisite, sometimes almost comically crude illustrations are rarely there simply to beautify the pages of a codex. It is certainly possible through practice and a little research to build up your visual vocabulary and to enhance your level of understanding of what lies beneath the surface.

  • Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, 1984, p.96.
  • Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, Reaktion Books, 2004, p.30.

3 comments on “Medieval Storytelling: Beyond the Borders

  1. Maria Dmitrieva

    Thank you Anne for this very interesting post and for fixing my attention to these details! Now for me, it is more exciting to look at Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts.

  2. Geoffrey Wood

    Splendid series. Presumably someone in authority in ? the monasteries must have instigated or approved the incidental images. Many thanks Anne

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