Madeline H. Caviness

Reframing Medieval Art:
Difference, Margins, Boundaries

Table of Contents:



Note to the Reader

Introduction: Soundings/Sightings

Chapter 1: Writing Women: Problematics of History and Language

Chapter 2: Norman Knights, Anglo-Saxon Women, and the "Third Sex:" The Masculinization of England After the Conquest

Chapter 3: Hedging in Men and Women: The Margins as Agents of Gender Construction

Chapter 4: Edging Out Difference: Revisiting the Margins as a Postmodern Project

Afterword: Social Control through Multivalent Images

Reader Comments


Although this book did not set out to focus on marginalia in medieval art, a topic that had been heavily worked by other writers, the case studies I selected none the less led back to the margins.1 I have refigured them as boundaries, hedges and frames, suggesting that they imposed limits.2 The actual emplacement of marginalia, framing the main subject matter of a narrative embroidery or the page of a devotional book, is a metaphor for the social control they performed, albeit very subtly, in the construction of gender difference. This is not to say that this was their main "function," when it is only one of their valences. Yet men, as much as women, were subjected to their coercing and cajoling. Indeed, in this as in all hegemonic systems, the oppressor was also the oppressed; not only were men to display a right masculinity in order to fight and die young (suppressing heterosexual as well as homosexual desires), but also a husband like Charles le Bel, who colluded with the church in curbing his wife's sexual drive, risked forfeiting the profound pleasures of a loving relationship.

The marginalia viewed here are not controlled by writing; they are placed beyond it, whether outside the stilted Latin inscriptions that direct the narrative flow of the Bayeux embroidery, or the prayerful texts of the devotional books. In this non-verbal zone, visual associations are not scripted, nor can they be over-written by a text that denies some meanings or asserts others. Yet the motifs and their valences are not completely open. They are not doodles, or fantasies, or imaginings that stem from boredom with the main business of the center. They never invite the "reader" to stray far from that business. Indeed, they are seldom inviting at all, or if so, never far from a reminder of evil lurking behind beauty. They constantly re-authorize the central text and its mimetic pictures. Oddly enough a very similar process has been ascribed to the translations and glosses - and sometimes even illustrations -- that writers of vernacular verse were fond of supplying around their authentic texts in the early fourteenth century.3 These hedged in the "original" poem, providing contrasts that enhanced its larger script, much as footnotes did in later scholarly publications. The analogy helps us see that the "margins" exist in continuity with the "center," not in polar opposition.

The conundrum is that, whereas the central subjects conform to long-accepted iconographic codes, producing relatively simple and predictable readings (whether of political or religious import), the marginalia appear whimsical, even eccentric, producing multivalent resonances. They are exegetical and mystifying. So it has been easy to overlook their power to inflect the overarching impact of the work. Sometimes, as in the lewd nudes lurking below Duke Harold, they operate subliminally, momentarily occupying our view before we resume our scrutiny of the real business of his meeting with Duke William. Yet these nudes served, among other cultural signs that were familiar to the late eleventh-century viewing community, to unpin Harold's masculinity; or in another case, to undo an Anglo-Saxon lady's moral reputation. Or, in a cleric's psalter, they evoke the temptations of sexuality (the secular world of the contemporary romance), only to warn simultaneously of its dangers. Women are joined to the serpent that won Eve, and keep bad company, among unnatural chimeras and grotesques. In women's books, more men have shaggy, demonic, hind-parts. Everything has to be read in context. There can be no formulaic decodings: Hares do not always mean fertility, dogs are not always faithful, squirrels are not always the equivalent of mots poilus (please never take my readings out of context). Yet together, and in particular combinations, they accumulate, and the figures I amassed show that these patterns are programmatic in the sense that they were adapted to the status of the book user, whether male or female, married or celibate. The power of the margins derives from their apparent lack of significance.

All cultural practices, including visual representation, can be decoded to expose ideologies of hegemonic difference. Feminists have learned to deconstruct the rhetoric of difference, perceiving the controls exerted over the roles of women through modern media such as advertizing. We have learned how to read a newspaper page so that the supposedly arbitrary juxtaposition of news items, advertisements, and cartoons, takes on its own valence. These are techniques that we can project backwards in time, with careful attention to context, reframing medieval art through a heightened understanding of the heterosexual imperative that was one of its driving forces.

Fig 3.2

Fig. 3.3

Fig. 3.4
Fig. 3.5


The result is a much richer and more nuanced "history of art," one that reveals itself synchronically. By not insisting on developments, but rather on cultural moments with specificity of time and place, works that have not been admired for their aesthetic qualities suddenly take on great significance, valued equally as cultural objects with the best work of a famous painter like Jean Pucelle. Yet, meanings are inscribed as much in the way of rendering figures and objects as in their mere classifications and juxtapositions; Pucelle's little grotesques are the most horrid, because they are the most convincing renderings. High-end art turns out to be more powerfully controlling, rather than more pleasing, than low-end art (compare the Hours of Jeanne d'Exreux with the Psalter of Louis le Hutin, fig. 3.2-5, 8-10). Small wonder that the curators of the 1999 exhibition of the Hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York did not wish to disrupt the public's aesthetic delight in these miniature pages by referring to their original political and social context. Reframing medieval art enriches our experience of it and infuses our academic discourse with moral purpose, but it disturbs the old economy of hedonism.

Fig. 3.8
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1 Uncannily like my "triangulation" (see Introduction) this is the logo used in some Thames and Hudson books, such as Tamar Garb's Bodies of Modernity (1998).
2 I am supposing that the frame functions rather differently than suggested by Jonathan J. G. Alexander, 'Iconography and Ideology: Uncovering Social Meanings in Western Medieval Christian Art," Studies in Iconography 15 (1993), 4-5. In proposing that we rid ourselves of the dichotomy of center and margins, he suggested "marginal" be replaced by "framing." For him this would produce a liberating multivalence: "Does the image not then assume a different importance and a different role, a dynamic interaction of meanings, both secular and religious, on different levels for a variety of viewers?" Yes, but frames embellish and limit.
3 Laura Kendrick, "The Monument and the Margin," The South Atlantic Quarterly 91 (1992): 835-64. She invokes such writers as Francesco da Barberino, Guiraut Riquier, Gauthier de Coinci, Eustache Deschamps, Piers Plowman and Geoffrey Chaucer - whose vernacular texts would have been listed together as "romauns" in a library such as Clemence of Hungary's.