Saturday, February 27, 2016

Medieval Literacy: Pictures and Texts

  I have recently been plodding through organising, optimising and recataloguing a large number of digitised slides of the stained glass of York Minster. I spent quite a bit of time in York and managed to photograph a fair swag of the city's magnificent medieval glass, but I didn't have a cherry picker or a drone so there is a fair bit of fiddling about with enlarging details and seeing if they come out. Also my identification of the individual windows was not quite as accurate as it might have been. So with the trusty Pevsner and a pile of other reference books on the desk, I am putting Humpty Dumpty together again.
  The process has jogged the brain into mulling over the whole question of the nature of medieval literacy and the old chestnut about church art being the Bible of the illiterate. For starters, literate and illiterate do not need to be polar opposites. Medieval people read what they needed or wanted to read, whether it was their own names, the oft repeated prayers and psalms in their books of hours, their household accounts, the texts of sermons they were about to deliver, or complex philosophical treatises requiring knowledge of several languages. The same applied to writing. Some scribes copied stuff literally, some made notes from the spoken word, some specialised in formulaic legal documents and some authors wandered round dictating their thoughts to hapless secretaries.

  York Minster is a big building, with very tall windows filled, in many cases, with fiddly detail, especially the 14th century windows with multiple small panels full of colour. It's very hard to simply read the windows without any background or prompts. A photograph like the one above of a window in the north side of the nave gives a bit of an idea of what you actually see. Who is doing what up there and why does the window seem to be hung about with little golden bells?

  The window in question was, in fact, donated by the bellfounders. A telephoto lens shows a kneeling donor presenting the window to St William of York himself, and he is bestowing his blessing on the bellfounders. This panel is at the bottom of the window so it is easier to make out than some, but medieval folks did not have telephoto lenses. No doubt people were told the story of the bellfounders and their donation, and all those little bells just reminded them of it.

  Something similar must apply to the windows which tell the stories of morality and martyrdom and the episodes of the Bible. In peering at the images trying to tell which window was which, I found myself searching for those visual clues that permeate every visual retelling of the story, because for all the variations of style and medium, medieval church art used a standard repertoire of symbols to represent each story. The window above tells the story of St Catherine of Alexandria.

  The episodes of the life of St Catherine are played out in a series of pictures which follow the story exactly as it is told in the Golden Legend. The panels are detailed, even after centuries of damage and restoration, but quite far away. These stories would have been known to the lay congregation mainly from oral teaching. Not too many folks would have had a copy of Jacobus de Voragine in their personal library, but they would have heard the stories many times. They would also have seen the stereotyped images of saints in their books of hours or prayer books, if they were so fortunate as to have one. They learned the stories, recognised the imagery and could follow the sequences in the art in the church. Is this literacy or illiteracy? I say it is a form of literacy. Word and image reinforced each other in medieval books, as well as on windows and walls.

  The story of St Catherine is told in exactly the same type of strip cartoon form on the nave wall of Pickering church in Yorkshire. It was an accepted way of narrating and imaging a well known story. The philosophers, the prison, the flogging, the wheels and the grand finale with the beheading with a sword: that tells the story. You read it.

  The nave clerestorey windows are way, way up. The top row of scenes are actually 12th century glass from an older cathedral on the site, but they must have thought it was worth saving. What the hell is it? Ah. That was a clue. On the right there is a great big mouth with chompy teeth with people going into it. Other panels seem to have people being poked into a pot.

  Hell is what it is. At one time pictures of the Last Judgement were all over the chancel arches of many churches, possibly most. There they were large and easy to see, and were no doubt explained in gruesome detail by some of the more charismatic preachers. Literate or illiterate, the basic clues tell the story.

  In the formerly Benedictine church of Blyth the Doom painting is faded and battered, but it was big and conspicuous in its heyday.

  The nasty demons poking people into hell were suitably demonic. The whole image is a story which can be read, not just a picture. Benedictine monks were not illiterate. They could read those little black marks scratched on to pages, but pictures could be read as well. Even if you could just make out the big chompy teeth in the distant window, you were reading the story. 

  Even a single figure is not just an image, but represents a story. St Christopher carrying the baby Jesus across a river is one of the more dubious bits of Christian mythology, but it was a story popularised in the Golden Legend and he is one of the most prolifically illustrated saints. This is a 15th century example from the windows of York Minster, but while the size and boldness of the 15th century glass makes the image easier to see from the ground, the story has to have been learned. 

  In the parish church at Easby the founding myth of the Jewish and Christian religions is depicted on the wall. It is read from left to right, just like writing. It is a story that was codified and solidified by being written down, then copied and recopied. It can be read in the Bible, or in excerpts, or in paraphrase, or in pictures. Or it can be learned by listening. Bible picture books were produced for wealthy aristocratic patrons in which the stories were paraphrased with words and pictures. They were for literate people, but literate people used pictures too. Literate clerics used historiated initials to help them find particular passages in their psalters or lectionaries, because the iconographic code had rules and conventions, just as writing did.

  So trying to identify exactly which window I'm looking at is very analogous to how a medieval person might read that window. What is that panel in the middle? Man looking over left shoulder, somewhat startled, at an angel in the sky, with sheep wandering about.

  Joachim in the wilderness. Back story to the life of the Virgin and the early life of Jesus. Christian mythology known from the Golden Legend, filling out some unsatisfactory gaps in the Gospels. The window tells the story. You just have to know how to read it.

  Upside down saint. Martyrdom of St Peter. Now what else can we recognise to see what story this window is telling?

  Kings in vegetation. Jesse tree. Genealogy of Christ. From the York Minster choir but originally from New College, Oxford, where we can presume the congregation was reasonably literate.
  We may regard many medieval folks as less literate than ourselves, but in many ways they may have been more literate, with minds open to different ways of telling stories.

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