Tag Archives: Manuscripts

Up in the Air, In the Margins, On Stilts

I have been pondering several nineteenth-century prints, paintings and photographs of people walking around on stilts in the Landes region of Gascony (now Aquitaine) in France: in their road-less, marshy landscape, this was apparently the best way to get around. And so they walked around on stilts everywhere, doing everything. Very adaptable, they were. The best images are of shepherds, knitting on stilts while they watched their flocks. Most representations of these Landes stilt-walkers (and -sitters) make them look completely natural: it’s only when you take the stilts out of Landes that you know that something odd is afoot. The next-to-last image below is a French caricature mocking a corpulent Englishman on stilts: he clearly looks unnatural. He’s clearly more comfortable than his (presumably English) companions in the near-foreground, but something’s still not quite right. On the other hand, it seems quite logical, if not natural, for an English caricaturist to put Napoleon up on stilts, in another example of patriotic mockery.

Stilts Charades nypl

Stilts Shepherd NYPL

Stilts 1816 BM

Napoleon on Stilts

Prints from Victor Adam’s Charades alphabétiques. (Paris : Aubert, [1836]), the NYPL Digital Gallery, and caricatures (Paris: Aaron Martinet, [1816]), (London: Piercy Roberts, [1803]), British Museum.

The use of stilts to convey a certain precariousness goes way back, to the Renaissance at least. Albrecht Dürer puts Cupid on stilts and we know what he is conveying: love can be a little destabilizing. I’m pretty comfortable with Renaissance allegory but much less so with medieval meanings: when I look in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century and before, I find lots of things that I don’t understand, including grotesque and hybrid creations of any and every kind, profane imagery and activities, and people and animals doing all sorts of things, including, of course, walking on stilts. What is the veiled pig doing on stilts? And why would a woman nurse her child on stilts (with a heavy-looking pot on her head)? It’s not quite natural. Somehow only the last man, playing his animal-headed pipe, affects the ease of the Landes stilt-walkers.

Stilts Pig BL FROISSART

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Stilts Royal MS BL

British Library MSS. Harley 4379, f. 19v; Royal 10 E IV, f. 29v; Royal 14 B V, Membrane 1.


Edmund the Martyr

Since I tangled with John Foxe the other day I’ve been dipping into some martyrologies–not the best bedtime reading I can assure you! I’m quite taken with the story of Edmund the Martyr (841?-869), and by sheer coincidence, his feast day is tomorrow. I think both English Catholics and Protestants would both recognize Edmund as a martyr at the time of the Reformation (though the latter would never validate his sainthood), and I am surprised that such a vivid writer as Foxe does not go into the gory details of the saint’s death. Edmund was King of one of the smaller early medieval English kingdoms, East Anglia, when the Danish Vikings invaded his territory and and slayed him. The basic events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were supplemented by the more detailed account of Abbo of Fleury in his Life of Saint Edmund (986): so that he might be compelled to renounce Christ, Edmund was imprisoned and tortured by the Danes (led by the oddly-named Ivar the Boneless), first whipped and tied to a tree and shot with arrows ‘until he bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle’, but his faith remained steadfast. He was then beheaded (not sure whether or not he was alive at this point) and his head thrown into bramble thickets deep in the forest (on November 20). When his men searched for Edmund’s head later, they found it guarded by a wolf who called ‘hic, hic, hic (here, here, here)’, and so it was recovered. If the violence of one’s death is a testament to the conviction of one’s faith, certainly Edmund was a very pious man, and he was apparently recognized as such not long after his death, with a series of remarkable memorial coins. Given the nature of his martyrdom, you can imagine (actually you don’t have to) the other visual images associated with Edmund’s sainthood, from the eleventh century to the present.

Edmund Morgan MS 1

Edmund Morgan 2

Edmund Morgan MS 3

The torture and beheading of Edmund, and the recovery of his head from the guardian wolf, Morgan Library MS M.736, Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund, Bury St. Edmunds (where Edmund’s relics were entombed), England, ca. 1130

The beautiful Morgan manuscript dates from an era in which Edmund was recognized as a patron Saint of a recently-unified England, along with the soon-to-be martyred Thomas à Becket. One can’t help but compare Edmund to another popular Saint, Sebastian, who was tortured and killed in much the same way a millennium earlier: Sebastian has much the same “hedgehog” appearance in his depictions, and was universally venerated during the time of the Black Death because of its metaphorical association with arrows of poison/plague. The late medieval poet John Lydgate, who spent the last years of his life at the monastery at Bury St Edmunds, the martyr’s namesake town, inspired this next group of images, produced for a presentation copy of his life of Edmund which was gifted to King Henry VI in the 1430s.

Harley 2278 f.61

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 2

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 3

Harley 2278 f.66 (min)

Edmunds Restoration BL Lydgate 4

British Library MS Harley 2278, 1430s: Edmund is subjected to torture and beheading, the recovery of his head and reunification of his body.

A few other objects that speak to Edmund’s veneration through the ages: a medieval pilgrim badge, which could represent either Sebastian or Edward, a French Revolutionary print (something about heads?), and a twenty-first century sculpture: designed by Emmanuel O’Brien, constructed by Nigel Kaines of Designs on Metal, and installed in Bury St Edmunds  in 2011.

Edmund Pilgrim Badge BM

Edmund BM

Edmund Bury Statue 2011

Pilgrim badge and print by François Anne David, 1784, both British Museum; Emmanuel O’Brien metal sculpture at Bury, installed in 2011.


Bad Hermits

Somehow I never connected the words hermit and hermitage until yesterday, when I read an article in the New York Times about a new book by Gordon Campbell entitled The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford University Press), which traces “the origins of Snow White’s cuddly dwarf friends and their suburban-lawn counterparts to the 18th-century outbuildings where real people lived merely to provide ambiance.” The article leads off with a photograph of an eighteenth-century  Scottish hermitage (one of only perhaps 200 such structures that survive in Europe) that made the metaphorical light bulb turn on in my head. It also included a charming story taken from the book, about an English nobleman who hired a hermit to live in the quaint hermitage in his garden, for a period of seven years. Apparently the solitude was oppressive, and “subsequent versions of the story have the hermit being caught in the local tavern after three weeks and dismissed, and more recent elaborations include improper relations with a dairymaid” according to Mr. Campbell.

Hermitage

The Surviving Scottish Hermitage/ Photograph by Gordon Campbell, New York Times.

These stories also caught by attention, as they reminded me of the wayward hermit in a magnificent (and amusing) medieval manuscript commonly known as the “Smithfield Decretals”, produced in southern France around 1300 with additional illuminations added in London later on. Its formal title is the Decretals of [Pope] Gregory IX, British Library Royal MS 10 E.iv and it fills 310 folios of text and accompanying gloss–you can read a great post about it here. The images are varied and whimsical:  there are anthropomorphic animals, grotesques, crimes and misdemeanors, amorous encounters, and a very bad hermit, who, enticed by the devil, leaves his hermitage for the tavern, and becomes (in succession) a drunkard, fornicator, murderer, and wild man (surely an occupational hazard for any hermit), before he is ultimately redeemed in the end.

Hermit and Devil BL

Hermit Drinking

Hermit and Woman BL

Hermit clubbing miller

Hermit as wild man

Hermit Confessing

The Hermit and the Devil, followed by the Hermit drinking outside a tavern, in delicto flagrante, clubbing a miller to death, as a wild man  with only animals for company, and confessing his many sins, British Library MS Royal 10 E. iv, early 14th century.


Joan for the Ages

Today marks the day of Joan of Arc’s execution at the hands of the Rouen Inquisition under the thumb of the English occupiers of France in 1431, and consequently her Feast Day, as of 1920. She was accused of a myriad of charges, but ultimately it was her conviction as a relapsed heretic that led to her death by burning at the stake, as well as the desire of the English to demonize such an inspirational figure in the closing stages of the Hundred Years’ War. There are many interesting things about Joan’s life and death, but one of the most compelling aspects of her image is its timelessness, which is discussed at length (and in many manifestations) in two great books: a collection of essays edited by Dominique Goy-Blanquet entitled Joan of Arc, a Saint for All Reasons: Studies in Myth and Politics (2003) and Nora Heimann’s Joan of Arc in French Art and Culture (1700-1855): From Satire to Sanctity (2005).

Jehanne La Pucelle, the “Maid of Orleans” was famous in her own time and immediately after her death. I love the poem by her contemporary Christine de Pisan, directed to the French king but really all about Joan:

And you, the King of France, King Charles,
The seventh of that noble name,
Who fought a mighty war before
Good fortune came at all to you:
Do, now, observe your dignity Exalted by the Maid, who bent
Your enemies beneath your flag
In record time (that’s something new!)

That’s something new! It sounds so modern, but I guess Joan was pretty modern in the fifteenth century, which might account for some of her timelessness thereafter. She resurfaces pretty predictably in times of conflict: the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century, the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, World Wars I & II in the twentieth century. All of her cultural depictions could fill a museum, or an encyclopedia, but certainly she is transformed into a nineteenth-century romantic heroine by Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play, The Maid of Orleans.  She was embraced by the Suffrage movements on both side of the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, and she remains a feminist hero(ine) in our own time. Joan’s eternal image can be seen in depictions from a succession of centuries, beginning with the late fifteenth-century manuscript poem Les Vigiles du roi Charles VII by Martial d’Auvergne (Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 5054) and proceeding into the last century.

Le_siège_de_Paris_en_1429_par_Jeanne_d'Arc_-_Martial

Joan of Arc 16th c. 1505 ms

The Maid of Orleans in Les Vigiles du Roi Charles VII, later 15th century, and riding into battle in Les Vies des femmes célèbres by Antoine Du Four, about 1505, Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France.

Joan of Arc Gaultier 1612 BM

Joan of Arc 1542 Fuller Holy State

Joan of Arc in print in the seventeenth century:  prints by Leonard Gaultier (1612) and William Marshall (1642), British Museum.

I’m skipping over the eighteenth century, when the imagery associated with Voltaire’s scandalous poem La Pucelle d’Orléans reduces Joan to a sexual object; you would think the Enlightenment would be a great time for the Maid as a victim of the Inquisition, but it isn’t. It’s in the following centuries that she really gains power as both an iconic and historical (with the release of the trial records in the 1840s) figure, tying into the emerging nationalist and feminist movements (sometimes at the same time).

Joan of Arc 1815

Joan Harpers 19th

Joan of Arc France Lillian Tennant Lancaster c. 1910

Joan of Arc 1913

Joan of Arc 1917 LC

Joan of Arc Posters

Satirical print of the support for Napoleon among French “Amazonian” women, who rally around a statue of Joan, Jean Baptiste Genty, 1815, British Museum; Edward Penfield cover for Harper’s, April 1895, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Lillian Lancaster [Tennant] Map of France as Joan of Arc (or vice-versa), 1910, Garwood & Voight; Progam Cover for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress; Joan of Arc They are Calling You (a “weeping” France) sheet music, 1917, Library of Congress; U.S. war posters from the First and Second World Wars, Library of Congress.


Love, Illuminated

I’m not really the romantic type, but even I can appreciate Pierre Sala’s “Le Petit Livre d’Amour”, the little book of love that French poet Pierre Sala presented to his future wife Marguerite Bullioud in the early sixteenth century. For me, the combination of illuminated miniatures and Sala’s verse are a testament to both personal and courtly love, for Sala was that ideal Renaissance Man, an accomplished courtier to three French kings.  But he was also a rather whimsical poet, and the images (énigmes attributed to the mysterious “Master of the Chronique scandaleuse”) are so completely charming that one cannot help being……….charmed. A look at this little book is the perfect way to start off what has become Valentine’s Day week.

Sala declares himself right at the beginning, when he gives his strawberry-like heart to Marguerite, or drops his heart in a marguerite flower, a rather more exotic example of our own marguerite daisies. Then it’s games and desperation, as he is parted from the object of his affection. The most captivating miniature is of a pair of maidens capturing hearts, literally:  hearts that can easily fly away!

Love Sala 1 Marguerite

Love Sala 2 Blind Man's Bluff

Love Sala 3 Tree

Sala Petite Livre Winged Hearts

British Library MS Stowe 955.

Sala’s book is one of several iconic manuscripts (including da Vinci’s notebooks and Beowulf) recently digitized by the British Library:  you can find out more about these treasures here, and additional information and images of the “Petite Livre” here.  The book was presented (and still is) in its own wooden carrying case, covered with tooled, painted and gilded leather, with the letters “P” and “M” prominently displayed, of course.  At the end, there is a stunning portrait of Sala, in which he even looks like the ultimate Renaissance man!  It was painted by his fellow courtier, the royal painter and limner Jean Perréal, who, according to the British Library catalogue notes, was also supposed to paint in Sala’s face in the book’s first heart-dropping image.  Somehow that never happened, which makes the book even more charming in its imperfection.

Pierre Sala Portrait

British Library MS Stowe 955, folio 17:  Pierre Sala (1457-1529).

P.S. There is an apparently-beautiful facsimile of The Little Book of Love out there in limited quantities (for you Romantic types out there) but I wasn’t able to find a copy that was either available or for less than $6500.


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