Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A Review of Jon Cannon's Medieval Church Architecture

Hello Beyond Borders Readers,
As we welcome the fall season, Beyond Borders will now be writing on a quarterly basis. Between our quarterly posts, we welcome posts from guest bloggers and plan to keep you all abreast of our research and on-going academic thoughts. Those interested in guest blogging can email us at beyondborders.blogger@gmail.com. Thanks for your readership and we look forward to continuing dialogue with you all.
The Beyond Borders Team

Now for our new post! 

A Review of Jon Cannon’s Medieval Church Architecture

Over the past two years, Beyond Borders has been fortunate to have had a great deal of contact with our readers, guest bloggers, and other medieval academics sites and blogs. At first, our correspondences pertained to our posts, and met our original goal of creating an academic dialogue in a cyber-community. Later, our communications evolved to discussing ideas for conferences, interacting with other websites, and most recently, there has been an influx of information coming to us about recent academic publications. In this post I would like to give a brief review one of these publications, brought to my attention by Shire Books & Old House. Shire was founded in 1962 and over these many years has built an extensive library, including a rich selection of books related to academia and learning. This year Shire is proud to announce a new addition to their library dedicated to the study of British medieval architecture. Medieval Church Architecture by Jon Cannon is a short guide to learning and distinguishing the decorative styles that developed in Britain from the early Anglo-Saxon period to the High Gothic. As someone who is both a teacher and is continuing their education, I found this publication an asset to the study of medieval-built churches.

I’d firstly like to refer to Cannon’s introduction where he defines his intentions: “The aim of this book is to enable beginners to recognise these [medieval] styles as they appear in England.” I must agree with Cannon and Shire in this description. This publication is not for those well versed in the subject per se, but for those new to the study of architecture. The book is divided into chapters by style, with each chapter including an introductory synopsis, a section on the development of the style involving the historical events leading to the style, and an extensive “diagnosis” (as Cannon calls it) of the style which gives descriptions of the ornamental and structural details. The book also makes sure to highlight key terminology throughout the text and a glossary is included at the book’s conclusion. Having taught an art history survey, I wish I would have had such a vocabulary list for my students.  From an educator’s perspective, Cannon’s work is a helpful classroom companion. Most importantly of all, I feel that with this text, a student/beginner would be able to distinguish one style of British medieval church architecture from another.

The title suits well as Cannon describes the cultural translation between continental Europe and Britain, but the decorated themes covered are predominately those of British architecture, only bringing in a European example to set precedence for the rise of a particular style, rendering the book's reach more limited than the title initially suggests. Still, Cannon work does help to organise this information by focusing on six stylistic movements for British medieval architecture: Anglo-Saxon, Norman/Romanesque, Transitional (Romanesque to Gothic), Early Gothic, Decorated, and Perpendicular.  Each chapter is accompanied by images and diagrams. Along with categorising these styles, Cannon places an emphasis on the overlap likely to happen with the construction of both smaller and greater structures, resulting in a hybrid style that can make it more difficult to identify a style and date a structure.  Cannon’s categorisation and use of imagery build a visual lexicon for the reader.

I highly recommend Medieval Church Architecture for those new to architectural studies and educators looking for a classroom companion. This is a short read for an in-depth understanding of the ornamentation that defines the architecture of medieval Britain. Medieval Church Architecture will remain a permanent addition to both my personal and classroom library.

Shire Books has generously offered five copies of their recent publication, Medieval Wall Paintings, for Beyond Borders to share. The first five readers to contact us at (beyondborders.blogger@gmail.com) shall receive a hard copy free of charge.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Magic Bowl for Love and Prosperity: Part I

With regard to the apotropaic efficacy of objects within the Islamic culture of esoteric beliefs and practices, the magic bowl occupies an interesting space. It bears many visual and textual similarities to portable amulets and talismans; however, it is not carried with a person on a day-to-day basis, but instead is used in particular instances for a specific purpose.[i] Emilie Savage-Smith’s interpretation of the Islamic magic-medicinal bowls within the Nasser D. Khalili Collection has provided the current academic discourse on Islamic amulets, talismans, and other ‘magical’ objects an indispensable examination of the textual and visual components of Islamic magic-medicinal bowls.[ii] Even though her analysis focuses upon magic-medicinal bowls, its interpretations may be used to address the significance of the other types of Islamic magic bowls because many of the inscribed elements she examines can be found on other apotropaic objects. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to examine an Islamic magic bowl supposedly created for love and prosperity. The bowl was made in Iran and likely can be dated to the pre-Modern time-period. The object is comprised of a myriad of sigils, magic squares, and partially inscribed Qur’anic verses. The purpose of my analysis was to interpret the bowl’s intended functionality through an examination of its aforementioned attributes as a means to contextualise it within the arena of the current corpus of scholarship concerning magic-medicinal bowls. Within this post, I will discuss one aspect of the magic bowl, the Seal of Solomon, which only occurs three times within the illustrative programme of the bowl, but is significant nonetheless. 

In the general tradition of magic, the Seal of Solomon along with the seals of various other prophets are commonly found on amulets and talismans.[iii] When the Seal of Solomon and the other prophetic seals are inscribed together, they are believed to “represent the mysterious name and the seal of the Almighty.”[iv] However, the Seal of Solomon may stand-alone and is often illustrated as a star in the shape of a pentagram or hexagram.[v] Within geometric symbolism, the hexagram and pentagram represent a cosmic expression of  “heaven and its reflection on earth, the divine and its reflection in creation and of the connection between heaven and earth, between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and between spirit and matter.”[vi] This reference to divinity and creation is reminiscent of previous discussions about the juxtaposition of the square and the circle, which Emily Tuttle has touched upon within her work and contributions to Beyond Borders and is something I will further elaborate upon within part II of this series. 

Aside from geometric symbolism, the seal contains religious and cultural significance as well. Within Islamic tradition, the hexagram is believed to be the sign of King Solomon and in Judaism, it is the Shield of King David.[vii] According to Gershom Scholem, the six-pointed star did not originate as a symbol of the Jewish monotheistic faith, but rather it was bound in magical traditions and used for talismans and amulets to protect against evil spirits.[viii] Within the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, Solomon was thought to have magical powers that could control or exorcize demons and other spirits.[ix] Scholem further states that the “Arabs” showed tremendous interest in the occult sciences and that the name, ‘Seal of Solomon’, originated with them, but was inspired from the Jewish legends of Solomon’s dominion over spirits along with his ring that had the “Ineffable Name” engraved upon it.[x] E.A. Wallis Budge suggested that Muhammad sanctioned the use of inscribed amulets and, through the Qur’an, passed on to his followers the history of Solomon as a magician and the emphasis of the apotropaic qualities that the names of Allah held.[xi]

However, with this succinct inquiry into the seal’s possible relevance, the question remains as to why this symbol was incorporated into the illustrative programme of this particular magic bowl. One may postulate that a belief in the magical abilities of Solomon along with knowledge of the seal’s geometric and symbolic significance may have been an impetus for the creator of the magic bowl to incorporate the Seal of Solomon within the magic bowl’s magical and textual program in order to enhance the bowl’s potential efficacy. However, this, for now, must be left for further analysis especially with regard to the seal’s juxtaposition with other inscribed aspects of the magic bowl, which shall be discussed in part II.


[i] Emilie Savage-Smith, Science Tools & Magic, 72.
[ii] Ibid, 72-105.
[iii] T.Canaan, “Arabic Magic Bowls,” 94.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid; Gershom Scholem, “The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star,” Scholem states that the terms for the geometric shapes of the hexagram and pentagram were both endowed with power, and were frequently interchanged within talismanic literature. Some amulet makers used the hexagram while others used the pentagram. Both stars were called the ‘Seal of Solomon’ and there was no difference between them, 245-246.
[vi] "King Solomon's Seal." Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; J.C. Cooper, 179-180.
[vii] T. Canaan, “Arabic Magic Bowls,” 94.
[viii] G. Scholem, 245-246.
[ix] Paul A. Torijano, “Solomon and Magic”, 110; C. Gruber, 140.
[x] G. Scholem, 246.
[xi] E.A. Wallis Budge, 33.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Gilt Visions: Courtly Culture and the Otherworld in the Mabinogion

I have recently been examining the issue of ‘materiality’ in History of Art as part of my PhD research. Rather than discuss my research directly, I want to explore the issue of materiality in the medieval literature of Wales. In order to make this a more manageable post, I will be examining materiality in the first four tales—Branches as they are commonly called—of the Mabinogion as signs of the Otherworld entering into the narratives.[1] To briefly introduce the Mabinogion, it is a collection of medieval Welsh prose stories, first referred to as such in 1795 by Willam Owen Pughe and later popularised by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest. Many of the stories appear in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both fourteenth-century manuscripts. Scholarship generally agrees that the tales are derived from earlier sources, likely oral traditions, best seen in the older poetic verses that crop up throughout the text. While the first four tales of the collection follow a general, if episodic, linear progression, the subsequent tales do not. The stories themselves contain monsters, giants, wondrous landscapes, magic both active and passive, enchanted items, and a purposely archaic view of the past, which allows the tales to exist in a nebulous historical time far removed from our present and even before the scribes of the two aforementioned manuscripts.
Welsh (?) Gold Hoop Brooch: 7th Century

As for the Otherworld, John Carey initially defines the Otherworld at its most minimal as ‘a place inhabited by supernatural beings and itself exhibiting supernatural characteristics’.[2] Carey goes onto define this further, noting how the Otherworld appears in a spatial paradox with the mundane, oftentimes separate while at others imminent.[3] Additionally, Carey notes how time operates differently in the Otherworld, while the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the Otherworld oftentimes possess preternatural characteristics.[4] Josef Baudiš too notes that the Otherworld can also be seen through an ethnic lens, whereby ‘an alien race and a distant country might have been regarded as an Other World’ perhaps arising from ‘some prehistoric expedition[s]’.[5] Alfred Siewers goes onto define the term further as containing, ‘associations with ancestors and art as well as with the natural world…connected with everyday human experiences through prehistoric mounds, trees, the sea, lakes and rivers’.[6] This element of the Other and of wonderment, appearing simplest as magic, can help mark instances of when the Otherworld can be seen in the narrative. Carey observes, ‘to the ancient Irish the Otherworld lay not only beyond the limits of existence, but also at the very heart of society’, allowing for an Otherworld that is both imminent and distant, expressed in the language of courtly culture and its sumptuous material.[7]I will be examining these moments of overt materiality, defined as such by explicit reference to key aspects of clothing and other accoutrements, in the first four Branches as markers of the Otherworld.

Now, explaining materiality could fill at least one blog post, if not a series of them. For the moment, materiality will be regarded as the nuanced term that it is. While containing connotations of material culture, materiality is not connected to materialism. Rather, materiality engages with the material nature of objects, animate, intimate, and even conceptual. The inanimate can address cultural meanings and uses of anything from gold to bones, while animate may engage with ideas of living bodies (or animated material say as tales of weeping statues). As for the conceptual, think of the issues involved with crypto-currencies like Bitcoins or the like; their immateriality is itself an aspect of their material nature, albeit an inversed one. Finally, the viewer doesn’t have to always be conscious of the nature of the material in question, which Daniel Miller calls ‘the humility of things.’ Miller explains, ‘The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviors, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so’.[8] A simple thought experiment to become aware of this can be done by either visually and/or physically examining foreign currency. It feels different, looks different, weighs differently, may not fit into a wallet properly, and the ability to spend it is impeded dependent on the location of where the currency is in the world at that moment in time. Either our fascinations or annoyances with the currency highlight how we engage with money both as a concept and as an object, via its material. Indeed, the more one engages with the new currency the less strange or false it may appear. Simply put, the study of materiality is the study of how materials influence and are influenced by human behaviour.

Italian Brocade Textile: 14th Century

Looking to the First Branch, the Otherworld almost immediately enters the narrative. Pwyll is seen out hunting in the woods, whereupon a group of white hounds with red ears take down a stag in a clearing. Sioned Davies and Andew Welsh both note the importance of white and red as markers of the Otherworld in Welsh and Irish literature.[9] Despite Pwyll’s initial captivation by the hounds, Pwyll ignores this Otherworldly clue and instead drives the pack away. Arawn, the owner of the dogs, eventually enters the scene and chastises Pywll, who then seeks to make amends to the strange but clearly noble figure. Arawn is described as wearing clothes of a ‘light grey material’ carrying ‘a hunting horn’, and is in fact preceded by his dogs, both an Otherworldy sight as well as a symbol of his rank.[10] Arawn’s clothing is described in contract to the silence on what Pwyll may have been wearing. While this occurrence occupies a liminal place in a clearing in the woods, a common motif in Otherworldly encounters, it is preceded by a display of courtly culture.[11] This marvel is further seen in the magic of Arawn and his kingdom of Annwfn, meaning ‘deep within’ or ‘un-world’.[12]Arawn escorts Pwyll to his land, where Pywll is met with ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen’.[13] Pwyll, enchanted into Arawn’s form, is dressed in a ‘golden garment of brocaded silk’.[14] The realm of Annwfn is filled with beauty and wealth, both agriculturally as denoted by the feasting and monetarily through the display of precious metals and gems. Even the inhabitants are more beautiful, beyond that of Pywll’s own realm. Annwfn appears as a distinctly Otherised place, conforming to nearly every definition of the Otherworld listed above, specifically that of a location separate from the mundane world.[15] Later on in the tales, when the character of Rhiannon first appears, she is seen ‘wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse’.[16] After failing to overtake her horse, which always outpaces Pwyll despite not appearing to walk faster than a calm gait, Pwyll notes that ‘some magical’ explanation is to blame. Having spent time in the Otherworld, Pwyll sees what he was not able to before, the presence of the magical through its physical and material markers.

This is not the only tale to feature sumptuous culture marking both earthly elites and otherworldly entrances. In the Third Branch, in a moment of preternatural skill once again associated with the nobility, Manawydan and his companions must flee each town after earning the ire of local craftsmen. Manawydan and Pryderi are able to become exceptional craftsmen in saddle making, shields, and shoemaking seemingly instantly in the narrative, and eventually the local English craftsmen run the group out of town. After failing to settle in England, Manawydan leads the group back to Arberth where after a year of living off the land magic once again appears in Dyfed. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu’s entire narrative trajectory is defined by gaining cultural status markers of manhood, from the weapons that Aranrhod unwittingly fashions him, to the creation of Leu’s wife, Blodeuedd, by Gwydion from flowers. Even Leu’s birth is couched in terms of sumptuous material. After Lleu is birthed by Aranhood in an overtly magical scene involving her stepping over a magic wand, he is simply dropped, abandoned by her, ‘a small something’, which Gwydion notices and takes upon himself to raise.[17] Following the pattern of perception and sumptuous markers, Gwydion wraps the ‘something’ in brocaded silk and hides him in a chest. It is not until an unspecified amount of time later that Gwydion hears the boy moving in the chest, appearing in a metaphorical birth scene surrounded by fabric.[18] Following Leu’s magical birth he is given time to mature in expensive fabrics and enters the narrative again in a metaphorical birth scene. Finally, in the Second Branch, a large Cauldron of Rebirth is introduced. Dead soldiers are placed in the cauldron, after which they emerge alive but mute. While not overtly obvious to our contemporary eyes, even discounting its enchanted state and discovery, the Cauldron of Rebirth is itself a large cauldron, which is tied conceptually to feasting, access to raw materials, and to the craftsmen need to undertake such a task. While not being gold, silk, or leather, the cauldron equally calls attention to sumptuous culture, albeit in a different way.
Welsh Bronze Cauldron: 16th Century

The Otherworld moves throughout the Four Branches from existing as a separate exotic location seeped in magic, preternatural skill, and beauty to lying within the blood and families of the characters. Sumptuous culture, tied to both the Otherworld-as-location and courtly culture, highlight potential Otherworldly encounters by being introduced near important personages. Brocade silk, brooches, and cordovan leather adorn both earthly elites and otherworldly figures, uniting them through the material of finery. Not only does this material appear often in the introduction of powerful characters, it also appears in later tales beyond the first four Branches, most notably in The Dream of the Emperor Maxen. Sumptuous material provides a link between earthly figures and Otherworldly counterparts, with the Otherworld inhabitant described as simply possessing more elite materials and items. While this may be acting as formula to indicate the wondrous, it also subtly ties the more mundane is not preternaturally skilled elites to the magical Otherworld. Material, as much as landscape or even overt displays of magic, connect the two worlds. As such, not only  can sumptuous material be seen as elite, it can also be seen as possessing an quality of the fantastic, providing contemporary readers a view into the ontological importance of elite material culture.

By Samuel

Gold Hoop Brooch: Copyright The British Museum

Brocade Textile: Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medieval Cauldron: Copyright The People's Collection Wales


[1] Now I preface this section with an overt acknowledgement that I am using translated texts; I engaged with this text as an art historian rather than a linguist, and my thoughts reflect this.
[2] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 1.
[3] Ibid.: 13-4.
[4] Ibid,: 14.
[5] Baudiš, Josef, ‘Mabinogion’, Folklore 27 (1916), pp. 31-68, p. 40-1.
[6] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p. 200.
[7] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 15.
[8] Miller, Daniel, ‘Materiality: An Introduction’, in Daniel Miller, eds., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 1-50, p.5.
[9] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 228; Welsh, Andrew. ‘Doubling and Incest in the Mabinogi’, Speculum 65 (1990), pp. 344-62, p. 351.
[10] Dogs appear in several other gift exchanges between nobles in the Four Branches.
[11] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p.200.
[12] Ibid.: 201-2.
[13] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Carey, John, ‘The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition’, in The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature ed. J. Wooding (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), pp. 113-9, p. 118.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 356.
[18] Sheehan, Sarah, ‘Matrilineal Subjects: Ambiguity, Bodies, and Metamorphosis in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’, Journal of Woman in Culture and Society 34 (2009), pp. 319-342, p. 327.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Transition of Orsanmichele: Medieval to Renaissance, Market to Holy Site

Like many of the buildings of Florence, Italy, Orsanmichele has a rich history and use of spolia. According to the National Gallery of Art Washington DC, Orsanmichele is speculated to have once housed a place of worship to Isis in Roman times, and was later utilized by the Lombards of the 8th-9th centuries as an oratory in dedication to San Michele in Orto.[1] In 1239, the building was demolished and later rebuilt in 1290 by Arnolfo di Cambia as a loggia to host the sale of grain.[2] The two-story building allowed for the grains to be housed on the second level of the building where it was less likely to be consumed by pests. The grains were then sent down a shoot (a hollow pillar, meant to mimic the rest of the décor) to the first-story market to be sold through the loggia that welcomed the shoppers of Florence.[3] Upon one of these pillars was an image of the Virgin. Unfortunately now destroyed, the Virgin was said to have blessed visitors with miracles, making the building a holy site.[4] The Virgin’s miracles led to a number of restorations, alterations, and added ornamentation to the building. In this post, I would like to observe the architectural alterations made to the building as it transitioned not only from grain market to sanctuary, but from the Medieval period to the Renaissance. The stylistic changes from one time period to the next and the new function of the building has thus resulted in a unique architectural aesthetic.

In 1304 the loggia suffered a fire, allowing for a great many changes to happen through the mid fourteenth century.[5] The first of the renovations was contributed by the Silk Guild, who provided a new loggia (started and finished between 1337 & 1349) that still stands today.[6] The arches of the loggia consist of a traditional three lancets that form a rounded arch. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals and the interior of the arch is adorned with geometric forms, most predominately a Catherine Wheel at the top-centre of the arch. The smaller of the geometric forms is a six-lobed flower, possibly a reference to the Florentine Lily also seen in the nearby Palazzo Vecchio.  Do note that at this time of the completion of the loggia it was still open and in-part still used as a market until 1357.[7]

The now closed loggia of Orsanmichele with Gothic ornamentation

Six-lobed Florentine Lilies of Palazzo Vecchio
By 1346, the sacred image of the Virgin began to fade away and was replaced by Madonna delle Grazie (Madonna of Graces) by the artist Bernardo Daddi.[8] Daddi’s Madonna had a surge in popularity just two years after its placement at Orsanmichele due to the spread of the plague.[9] The image was revered as the great healer and was complimented with an ornate tabernacle featuring the life and virtues of Mary, a treat for the eyes of the many pilgrims who sought her blessing. The tabernacle is a hybrid of both the French and Italian Gothic styles—incorporating the more ornate style of the French and the more geometric style of Italy. Although the Italian love of simple mathematics remained the basis for Orsanmichele’s layout, the French ornate style dominated the ornamentation as seen in the image below. The quadripartite ceilings and stained glass are the most prominent of the decorations adopted from the French style.

Daddi's Maddona delle Grazie

As Florence entered the Renaissance, it was decided that Orsanmichele was in need of aesthetic renewal. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, niches were added to the façade in the same style of Daddi’s tabernacle.[10] Within each of the niches, the guilds of Florence commissioned a statue of their patron saint, the most recognisable being the David by Donatello representing the armourers.[11] Most of the niches are currently filled with copies of the original statues which are being restored in the former granary on the second level of Orsanmichele. Some, however, like Donatello’s David, have been moved to museums throughout the city including the Bargello and the Museum of Santa Croce. These statues are the contribution from the Renaissance era, but aside from their date of creation, they are testament to the style of the time period, representing a rebirth of Classical statuary. The figures are adorned in draped clothing, often stand in a contrapasto-like fashion, and have Classical-style curly hair.

Copy of Donatello's David on the exterior wall of Orsanmichele

Over the centuries, Orsanmichele was transformed from an oratory, to a grain market, to a pilgrimage site, and finally, a sanctuary. Although its functional transformation is often emphasised, its architectural alterations are what serve as visual evidence of the building’s improved status. My original objective was to point out the architectural transitions of Orsanmichele, however, this study has also introduced the building's functional changes, which underscores not only its physical transformations, but also its  versatility. 


[1] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[2] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[3] "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[4] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Zucker, Steven, and Beth Harris. "Orsanmichele | Art History: Florence |Khan Academy."Khan Academy. Khan Academy, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[7] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[8] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." 
[9] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 
[10]  "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[11] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 

<a href="http://www.hypersmash.com">www.hypersmash.com</a>

Monday, 20 January 2014

Why so serious? Phallic trees and humour in medieval imagery

Fig. 1 Detail, BNF fr. 25526, fol. 106v
Several weeks ago the image of a Phallus tree from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (BNF fr. 25526) made rounds through the twittersphere (Fig. 1). Originally tweeted by Sarah Peverly, it was probably the closest thing of to a hype a medieval image can get these days, not only being shared and retweeted throughout social media, but also getting attention from several blogs and even making it to the Times Higher Education. I shared the image on Facebook as well and it got the largest amount of attention compared to anything else ever posted on my profile. So it seems that sex sells, even if the sex predates the modern period. The way the image  appeals to such a large modern audience intrigued me, so that I had a look at the background of this kind of imagery

Fig. 2 Massa Maritima Mural
Phallic trees have in the past been ascribed with a number of meaning by scholars. They have been suggested to be related to ideas of fertility and infertility, witchcraft and virgins and moral decline.1 Though some of these interpretations collide and debate on these questions has been ongoing, I don't wish to side with one particular reading. The appearance of the phallus tree in such different contexts as the Mural in Massa Maritima (Fig. 2) and the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose suggests, however, that its meaning is largely object dependent and should not be generalised.

Instead of siding with one particular argument regarding these images, I wish to point out one aspect that is repeatedly left out or only touched upon in passing: the humour. These images makes us chuckle if not downright laugh. To the modern audiences these images are first and foremost entertaining despite their more complex meanings, which leads to our introductory example to its wide dissemination over the internet. But is it just that? The perspective of a modern viewer disconnected from the serious meanings the visual imagery had for its medieval audience?

I cannot help but think that the medieval audience, whether they also understood the underlying meaning or not, might have initially reacted with a chuckle as well. The joking aspect in these images have been mentioned both in regards to the Massa Maritima Mural as well as for the Phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose.2 Similar obscene humour can also be observed elsewhere as for example in
Fig. 3 Detail, Très Riches Heures, 9v,
Musée Condé.
the exposed buttock of a peasant in the later
Très Riches Heures (Fig. 3) or in the Miller's Tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. When we think about the complex implications of such imagery we thus also need to consider the humorous aspect. Based on the assumption that medieval viewers would have reacted with amusement, would not the artist himself been aware of this? This throws up further questions as to how visual jokes worked and were used as communicative tool. After all, serious content and jokes do not exclude one another. We might just think of contemporary comedians who often address serious social and political issues, nevertheless humour is their means of transporting these ideas. Would it be possible to consider humour in visual material in a similar way, as essential part of transporting an intended meaning to its audience? A joke quite often addresses that which is a taboo and deals with what cannot be spoken in seriousness. Like the fool in  Shakespearean plays, the joke can tell the audience what no one else will say, unless they are willing to face social sanctions. So it appears to me that this side of humorous imagery needs to be analysed in more detail, in order to fully understand what the visual material communicated to the audience, both the funny and the serious side.

Yet, we must not forget that humour changes. Not everything we might consider funny would have been received in the same way by a medieval audience. Our own humour can therefore not be reliable guide to find medieval jokes, but needs to be evaluated on the background of medieval material. However, the same is also true the other way around, what the medieval eye might have discovered with laughter might create discomfort in the modern viewer. I have come across this problem recently in my own research when considering how humour might have also been a tool in negotiating Self-identity in the face of the Other. Images of violence, of obscenity and even of being the victim of severe undeserved punishment keep appearing within the context of the depiction of non-Christian. Their place in a discourse of the Other is undisputed and they tend to make us uncomfortable as they are signs of intolerance and of prejudice that we (hopefully) have overcome. Yet, I started wondering whether our discomfort might sometimes be a way of recognising that some of these images might have been considered to be funny by their medieval audience. After all, these images address important social anxieties in the face of an experience of alterity. What role did the joke play in these images and might they sometimes enable the viewer to laugh into the face of the Other? I have not come to conclusions regarding this issue so far, but it did make me consider that we might need to reconsider the importance that humour might have played in many visual materials.


1 See among others Ferzoco, George, The Massa Marittima Mural, (Florence: Regional Council of Tuscany Central Communication Unit, 2004); Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 1-27; Mattelaer, Johan J., "The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon', Journal of Sexual Medicine 7:2 (2010), 846-51.
Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 5; Camille, Michael, Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992) 147-149.

1 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/Pictures/web/m/n/a/tree_with_phalluse_450.jpg
2 http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/massa_marittima-mural-300x228.png
3 http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lqulghUAPD1qggdq1.jpg

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Happy New Year from Beyond Borders!

Happy New Year Beyond Borders Readers! It has been an eventful year for Beyond Borders and we are thrilled to have had you all as readers, guest bloggers, and friends as we continued our academic explorations and discussions.  In 2013 we reached our one year anniversary, expanded our readership, and had many wonderful guest bloggers. We hope to start 2014 with the same vigour and have decided to make a few changes which will in turn lead to more great posts.

Some of you may have noticed that in the past few months we have been posting every other week instead of every week. This will be a permanent change for the blog which will coincide with a more academic calendar to better suit all those working around a school schedule. We will be featuring more posts involving trending topics in the field in hopes of creating a discourse with other publications and readers.  The Beyond Borders Team will also be working on round table posts, which will work much like a mini-series featuring a post from each of us on the same subject matter. And of course, we welcome our fellow academics to contact us if interested in guest blogging (beyondborders.blogger@gmail.com).
Happy New Year and Happy Blogging!

Sincerest Wishes,

The Beyond Borders Team