Friday, September 19, 2014

Corporal Acts of Mercy

  A couple of posts ago I compared two programs in stained glass windows in York, one from the magnificent All Saints North Street. This one also looks at a window from that favourite church of mine, but compares it with a wall painting in the parish church of Pickering in Yorkshire. This is another in strip cartoon style, representing the Corporal Acts of Mercy. This theme is not so foreign or exotic as some in medieval iconography, as we are still carrying out those same functions today for our brethren who have fallen on hard times, whatever our religious persuasion, or lack of it.
  The concept, unlike many in medieval Christian iconography, comes straight from the Gospels. "For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." (Matthew 26:35-36, from the one and only King James version). This is the road to salvation, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a wealthy patron might wish to have himself commemorated performing these acts, as appears to be the case in All Saints, North Street, where a benign, bearded elderly gent presides over every panel.

  The acts of mercy are represented in the two central rows of panels. The bottom row contains images of kneeling donors and an image of the sun and planets, which may or may not actually belong here.

  To feed the hungry, the virtuous man doles out loaves of bread to beggars with the help of a faithful servant.

  To give drink to the thirsty, he pours liquid from jugs into bowls with the aid of the same wee servant. Note that the figure in front is walking on padded knees with little stools under his hands; one of the desperately needy.

  He takes in the stranger by welcoming a couple of travellers with walking staffs into his home. I'm not too sure whether that is supposed to represent a cockle shell on his hat, indicating that he too has been a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella. I may be over-reading it here.

  He clothes the naked with some spiffy red garments, once again with the help of the faithful servant. Medieval guys wore boxer shorts evidently.

  He visits a sick man, bringing some sort of gift - might be money, or bread, or home baked goodies. Probably money, I think. The wife of the sick man seems quite overcome. Note the commode by the bed. The 15th century glaziers of York were quite partial to this as a symbol of illness or impending death.

  Finally he visits the prisoners, not in some dungeon vile, but in the town stocks. Best of all, he has brought a large purse into which he is dipping his fingers. Presumably he has payed their fines. Perhaps it is easier to be virtuous if you are rich.

  The wall paintings in Pickering church are faded and less vividly coloured, not to mention difficult to photograph as you are firing into the clerestorey windows. They are also enthusiastically restored, but the scheme is still there. This church contains an array of paintings of some of the most popular motifs in late medieval art, but we will look at this one for now. 

  The individual panels slightly overlap one another, giving the look of a continuous scene.

  In this sequence a beardless young dandy dispenses the goods, in this case loaves of bread to a couple of long haired wayfaring strangers who look alarmingly like George Harrison and John Lennon from the late 1960s. This seems to combine feeding the hungry with taking in the strangers.

  These same two enjoy a quaff from a bowl which has been dispensed from a jug.

  The young man has also dispensed a garment which seems to be a bit difficult to get into, as the wayfarers proceed on their journey. If you are wondering, as I was, why a large spear might be considered a merciful thing to give the needy, I think the figures on the right actually belong to the next scene, as follows.

  The benefactor is visiting a prisoner in a cell. As he is holding a large purse, I presume he has bribed the jailer to lower his weapon. The grateful fed, watered and clothed hippies seem to have come along to help, or perhaps they are just wayfaring on.

  Here he visits the sick bearing some sort of gift, again with a somewhat overwrought wife in the background.

  The final panel represents the burial of the dead. This is not mentioned in Matthew, but it makes up that favourite number seven, and is undoubtedly a merciful act, at least for the survivors.
  So what does this all have to do with Medieval Writing? Well it does show that texts can be represented in pictures, and were. I don't think it necessarily implies that the readers were illiterate, but just that the teaching and preaching tradition contained written, pictorial and oral elements which added up to a total experience in the church, which was undoubtedly a more colourful and exciting environment than any other in the lives of most parishioners. It also encouraged the worshippers to pray for the souls of the patrons and donors represented there, in the same way that medieval tombs did. That's a story for another day.
  I don't think I know of this pictorial program in a medieval manuscript, but they are probably out there somewhere. If you know of one, please tweet it to @HipBookfairy. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Flyleaf Friday, or When Is a Manuscript Finished?

  A current game in the medieval Twitterverse is to put up interesting things found on flyleaves and pastedowns on Friday under the hashtag #FlyleafFriday. My little contribution this week is a bit too lengthy and contains too much rumination for Twitter, so here is the story. 
  I once bought a scruffy, cut down flyleaf from a French book of hours containing prayers written in French. 

  It was purchased as an example of a late 15th or early 16th century Gothic cursive script in vernacular French. It has a certain formality in that it contains a rubric and a slightly scrappy illuminated capital.

  No doubt pages from the original book of hours text are gracing various collections of pretty medieval things. There is a script sample and paleography exercise for this sample in Medieval Writing
  Some time later the same bookseller made me an offer I could not refuse and I acquired two similar pages from the same volume with the prayers written only on one side. On the blank side of one of them, an inscription in a circle had been added in a much later hand.

  The book still had significance to somebody. There has to be a story there. The bookseller included with these some extra flyleaves from the same book, that were so little regarded by the collecting public that he gave them to me for free. These were two leaves with further prayers written in  a quite elegant, but completely different script.

  These were dated at the end to 1572.

  There are a few things to think about here. Firstly, the book could never be regarded as finished until the last addendum had been added. The scribe or the bookseller did not prescribe the total content. Owners added their own contributions. Individual volumes were evidently valued by owners, probably successive generations of owners, for a long time after the huge wave of popularity of books of hours in the 14th, 15th and early 16th centuries. Private devotions presumably did not always follow officially sanctioned religious fashion. Grandmere's old book of hours still provided solace and consolation for somebody.
  Finally, it is intriguing that in the modern collecting marketplace, these parts of the book should be considered valueless discards. In some ways they provide a closer bond to the book's former owners than the officially prescribed text. OK, it was probably falling to bits. It certainly looks that way, rather than having been cut up, but to me these are at least as interesting as the rest.
  I have a few scraps in my medieval detritus collection with personalised addenda and I thought at one stage it might be good to write an article about them. Then I discovered that a much more revered academic had written a whole book on this subject: Eamon Duffy 2006 Marking the Hours Yale University Press. It's a fascinating exposition of medieval people's relationships with their books.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Angels Ain't Angels

  Having pottered my way through cleaning up and organising my photographs of stained glass windows in parish churches in England, a subset of my huge project to continue the process of turning a load of old decomposing Kodachrome and Ektachrome into an orderly digital archive on Flickr (why, oh why, did I think this was such a good idea?), I discover that two churches in York have windows that depict the Nine Orders of Angels. This concept, also referred to as the Celestial Hierarchy, was expounded by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite somewhere around the 5th century AD or beyond. He has been dubbed Pseudo, not because he didn't exist or was some kind of fraudster, but because he wasn't the Dionysius the Areopagite mentioned in Acts 17 who was converted by St Paul. It was just his nom de plume. I have always thought this was a good name to drop unexpectedly into a dinner table conversation.
  The churches containing windows with this program are the fabulous All Saints, North Street, where the heavily restored window was reassembled from fragments after the discovery of an antiquarian drawing that showed how it was supposed to go, and St Michael Spurriergate.

  From St Michael Spurriergate, on the left the most senior order, the Seraphim, with multiple wings and bathed in fire; on the right Cherubim, also with multiple wings and bathed with light. In fact, many depictions of angels generally show them covered in feathers, which may relate to the costumes worn in the Mystery Plays.


  From All Saints North Street, a Seraphim in scarlet leads a procession of senior ecclesiastics while a Cherubim leads a group of cleric and scholars. The plain coloured glass represents where modern glass has been inserted to fill out the general design. The grid pattern is from the mesh screen behind the window, inserted to prevent kamikaze birds or rocks thrown by idiots from damaging the windows.

  Working down the hierarchy, from St Michael Spurriergate, Thrones or angels of humility and Dominations, dressed as armed knights to display their qualities of leadership.

  From All Saints North Street, a Throne leads a group of members of the legal profession, while a Domination leads a group containing a pope, a king and an emperor. This panel has rather a lot of the lovely and intricate original glass in it. The angels are being matched with the mortal folks in their hierarchy.

   Back in St Michael Spurriergate, the next panels should be Virtues, allied with nature, and Powers, depicted as armed warriors. Well that is the theory. I think these may have got a bit out of order over the centuries. The ones on the left are wearing armour, and crowns. It seems our Dominations, Powers and Virtues may have got a bit mixed up. Story of the history of nations really.


  Back in All Saints North Street, a Virtue leads the city burgesses while a Power leads a procession of priests. Ponder on that association.

   The final panels in St Michael Spurriergate show Archangels and Principalities. I had always thought that Archangels were at the top of the heap, but it's a bit more complicated. Archangels can be the leading or senior angels of each group, but as a whole they are in the lower orders. They are also the messengers from God to humanity. Think Archangel Gabriel, Annunciation. Principalities seem to be a somewhat subversive group and I don't quite understand them.

  In all Saints North Street an Archangel leads a group of ordinary city folks, including a worker with a shovel, while a Principality leads a group of noblemen.
  The sequence at St Michael Spurriergate ends here, as there are in fact only eight panels in that window.

  In All Saints North Street the final panel shows an assortment of townspeople being led by ..... an Angel. Yes, the lowest order of angels are called Angels. The people who hang out with Angels include a child and, if you look very carefully in the middle of the panel, next to the men in red, a person wearing spectacles.
  The whole thing is so appealing because of its ever so medieval tangled threads of iconography, text, tradition and social reinterpretation. An earnest early Christian scholar writes a dense and complex treatise under the pseudonym of a New Testament figure, which is translated in that literalising medieval way into pictures of angels in feathery tights or suits of armour or flapping their wings amid sheets of flame, then overlaid with some kind of commentary on the nature of the earthly hierarchy.
  Lessons for the illiterate?  Maybe just a reminder that God orders the estates in both heaven and earth.

These pictures appear in larger format on my Flickr site, but they are not properly organised yet. They will be. One day.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hoccleve on Chaucer

  Continuing with the mentally undemanding but nevertheless satisfying job of upgrading manuscript images on Medieval Writing with shiny colour reproductions from the web, the latest offering is a page from Hoccleve's Regement of Princes (British Library, Harley 4866, f.88r), which he wrote to instruct young Prince Harry how to conduct himself once he became King Henry V, then presented it to him. My God, wouldn't that be annoying. "Thank you my friend, I will surely treasure it." Exit stage left muttering "Daft old bugger!" Sorry, overimaginating history again.
  The script sample and paleography exercise display a Gothic bastarda script. I love it when you get into paleographic bastardry, because it just means that everything is getting mixed up and unclassifiable. This particular form of book hand is very English and owes part of its heritage to Gothic textura, and another part to chancery cursive. The English royal chancery had a great influence on scripts, not only in the legal domain, and also spelling and language in the later middle ages. Literacy escapes from being the exclusive preserve of the church and becomes a major part of lay life and government. Anyway, it looks like this.

  It looks a bit tricky at first, but once you get your eye in it is very neat and consistent. Just be prepared for some variant English spelling and be aware that what looks like a y with a straight tail is actually a thorn and represents th. The page is about Geoffrey Chaucer and the hand which is pointing to a line of script is attached to a portrait of said Chaucer. He looks like this.

  I think our image of GC as a benign and amiable old buffer with a bit of a naughty twinkle in his eye and smirk around his mouth probably comes from this image. Would we have read The Canterbury Tales differently if he had been portrayed as ugly, cantankerous and crosseyed?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Magdalen in Blue

  The latest updated graphics in Medieval Writing are to a script sample and paleography exercise of the Gothic rotunda script from the Melissande Psalter  (British Library, Egerton 1139), a 12th century manuscript produced in the Holy Land. The page displayed is a prayer to St Mary Magdalen, in rhyming couplets that would no doubt make it easy to remember.
  There are always surprises when upgrading from old black and white images to the beautiful colour reproductions that the British Library allows us to use today. This one was no exception.

  Mary Magdalen is more usually portrayed in medieval art wearing red, symbolising her sin. She was the patron saint of redeemed sinners. This example shows her in a beautiful blue robe, a colour usually reserved for the Virgin. Her sins truly are redeemed. And is that a purely decorative frieze behind her legs, or are those shadows of seated human figures? Maybe getting a little over-imaginative here.
  Also in relation to Medieval Writing, it has been notable that I have been steadily adding new websites to the Paleography Links page, as more material creeps its way online. I really thought things would happen more quickly in this area than they have. Some vintage presentations survive, and still work, but some others have vanished. Recently I have added several links to the Spanish and Portuguese section, which shows that things have improved since I once googled "Spanish paleography" and the first item listed was a page from my own website which said that the only things I knew about Spanish paleography came from a 19th century book which I had downloaded from The Internet Archive. The body of online knowledge in this area is steadily increasing.
  Now to my wish list. The steadily growing corpus of digitised manuscripts online, especially those allowing free access for use of the images, contains amazing numbers of beautiful illuminated books. It would be sooo nice to have some images of documents - charters, petitions, accounts, wills and the like - to be able to use. I think I get more emails from people trying to read documents than those wanting to read books, for a whole bunch of different reasons. Mostly I'm stuck with the old grungy black and white images from antique paleography books.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

It's Gothic Jim, But Not As We Know It

 The Luttrell Psalter (British Library, Add. ms 42130) is famed in song and legend for its illustrations, containing elaborate historiated initials, scenes of English country life and work which might be considered typical if the 14th century hadn't been rife with Black Death, rotten weather, famine and peasants revolting, and some very weird part human, part animal creatures cavorting in the margins. It also contains the most pompous portrait of a patron and book owner ever painted, Geoffrey de Luttrell. Well, perhaps with the possible exception of the Duc de Berry graciously acknowledging St Peter as he enters heaven.

  Talk about establishing ownership. Galfridus Louterell, as he is designated here, liked to spread his armorials around.
  The Luttrell Psalter also contains writing, which seems to get forgotten at times. The script is a form of Gothic textura, although it doesn't have that diagonal interwoven quality that gives textura, or textualis, its name by comparison with the appearance of a woven textile. Instead it is very upright, incredibly precisely drawn, and some of the letters are finished straight and flat at the bottom, without feet, which was much harder for the scribe to do accurately. It therefore gets called Gothic textura prescissa, or even Gothic textura prescissa sine pedibus (without feet). This particular example also has very fiddly, but somewhat ugly, little curly scrolls added to the ends of some letters.

  The letters are all carefully separated and somehow, although the letter forms are essentially Gothic, it doesn't really look Gothic at all. It's not too hard to read, and there is a script sample and paleography exercise for it on Medieval Writing. The pretty and wacky pictures from the page are also there for your amusement, courtesy of the British Library website. You can now work your way through the whole manuscript there if you can navigate the search facility. Worth the trouble.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beasties from the Bestiary

  Purely coincidentally, the last two script samples and paleography exercises for which I have updated the graphics in Medieval Writing (courtesy once again of the British Library's generous usage policies for their digital facsimiles) have been extracts from that wondrous medieval text known as the bestiary. The first (Royal 12 C xix) concerns the partridge, a bird which is painted with a very bad character. This is a nice example of protogothic/early Gothic, however you want to designate it. Because I now have access to the whole manuscript rather than just a small segment of the page, the displayed text and transcription has been extended. The full translation is still pending. I may have to give a bit of a rough guide rather than a translation, as the peculiarities of the bestiary text defeated even the family medievalist.

  The second (Harley 3244) concerns the elephant, a creature considered to be of much more moral character than the perfidious partridge. The script is a very small Gothic textura. The images of elephants, usually depicted with a castle full of soldiers on their back, are often grossly anatomically inaccurate, but this one is a pretty good representation of an elephant. It looks very like a depiction of the town band of Cremona as drawn by Matthew Paris, so perhaps, like Matthew Paris, the artist had actually seen as elephant or perhaps he took elephant drawing lessons from Matthew Paris. Suffice to say that everybody on board the elephant appears to be having a jolly old time and this has to be the best medieval party elephant ever.

  I adore bestiaries. The text is crazy and the images are delightful. In many ways the bestiary is the absolute prototype of a medieval text, if you exclude the liturgical texts which supposedly were reproduced accurately and consistently. The work comes in multitudinous variations, based on a core text, Physiologus, whoever or whatever he or that may have been. The text is confused, corrupted, with startling links to very ancient depictions of animals or mythical creatures in the ancient world. It has also been added to from various sources, including local familiar animals so that hedgehogs (dutifully carrying grapes on their spines) could share a page with gryphons or cockatrices.
  As far as natural history goes, the descriptions are bizarrely inaccurate, and they are overlaid with moral lessons. While the pictorial character of each creature may be reasonably consistent, and the general character of each animal follows a pattern, the precise text varies from manuscript to manuscript. There is no definitive text. This means you can't just google a transcript or translation of a section, like you can the Vulgate Bible. This is true of so much literature from the manuscript era. However, picking the text to pieces to try to find some authentic core in a reductionist mode is fruitless. Each example is an authentic witness to something somewhere. If a few creatures from Gerald of Wales appear occasionally, as they do, this is not an intrusion but a legitimate form of the text which meant something in a particular place and time.
  So enjoy the paleography lessons, then waste many happy hours poking through all the other amazing creatures of the bestiary. There are worse ways to spend a wet afternoon.

    I leave you to contemplate the battle between the crocodile and the hydrus (also Royal 12 C XIX), in which the crocodile swallows the hydrus but loses the bout because the hydrus gnaws his way out through his guts. The bestiary can be a bit savage at times.