This is a book about the permeability of medieval manuscripts and their transformation into something more responsive to their owners’ lives and concerns. It uses the author’s extensive experience with the books of religious women and men in the Netherlands – which deserve to dominate the discussion, since devotional literature in Dutch fed the appetite for personal books and the books in turn provided safekeeping for the images it inspired – to explore larger issues. Anticipating the eighteenth-century phenomenon of owners “grangerizing” a book (the term refers to extra-illustration attached to James Granger’s popular 1769 Biographical History of England), Kathryn Rudy’s medieval readers personalized their books, with their own choice of pasted-in prints and annotations. Her study is both provocative and well documented, generously illustrated and appealingly written, with a lively awareness of the medieval practices that are likely to draw in non-specialists as well.
In the Introduction, Rudy introduces the term she has chosen, “parchment paintings,” and deftly distinguishes them from miniatures that would have been supplied contemporaneously with the copying out of the text. Physical clues include a different quality of parchment support, an informative inscription, images that are either borderless or uniformly framed so as to serve equally as verso or recto, images that are appreciably later in date, smaller or larger (trimmed down) than the rest of the book, and placed at the end of gatherings or inserted in defiance of the logic of the text. More subtle indicators include scribe-friendly images that incorporate words to form an independent devotional unit, images that rely on easy-to-copy geometric forms, and images probably copied by many different hands from a prototype. The book industry had by the fifteenth century already developed the efficient practice of disentangling the contributions of scribe from illuminator and would produce exquisite independent paintings on parchment in the next century; the amateur scribes and painters Rudy investigates were working on a less aesthetically sophisticated level but with even greater freedom.
The first part of the study, The Medieval Backdrop, positions the painting on parchment in relation to three related formats: miniatures, panel paintings, and single-leaf woodcuts. It includes the parchment paintings of one of the format’s “early adopters,” Matthew Paris, a monk at St. Albans. His images of the Holy Face, a cult image that reproduced the iconic relic housed at St. Peter’s in Rome, suggests that the drive to create and circulate such painted images was motivated by belief in the efficacy of miraculous images. English artists and their brethren elsewhere in Europe also created cycles of images that we sometimes find bound into psalters, but that were not necessarily dependent on a particular text.
Rudy discusses two groups of works from the Netherlands, the scrapbook-like Wiesbaden Codex and the more finished examples by the Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle. But we also learn of quirkier examples such as the leaf bearing a sketch of nine beard variants that was added to a twelfth-century treatise stoutly defending their acceptability for monks, the Apologia de Barbis ad Conversos, and the charming enclosed-garden dioramas (besloten hofjes) crafted by nuns in Malines. Part II, The Parchment Painting as Gift, uses five clusters of stylistically related works to suggest the function of these images in the lives of literate Netherlandish men and women who had access to paint and brush but wielded them without the benefit of professional training. While the images under discussion served to bind individuals through the perennial obligations of gift-exchange, they also testified to the formation of a corporate identity. Part III, The Many Functions of the Parchment Painting, expands on the second to take in parchment paintings made by professionals and those working outside the Netherlands. Part IV, The Limits of the Parchment Painting, serves as a conclusion by bringing our attention back to the superb single miniatures of the sixteenth century mentioned in the Introduction, which scholars have often mischaracterized as cuttings from manuscripts. It discusses familiar examples of small parchment paintings executed by well-known professional miniaturists (Simon Bening’s 1558 self-portrait is the penultimate figure), tracks the incursion of prints in manuscripts, and suggests how much the practice of adding prints to a manuscript owed to the tradition of hand-painted images on parchment, in large part the province of inventive amateurs
Postcards on Parchment: The Social Lives of Medieval Books touches on a number of trends in scholarship, in collections, and in the way people regard unique works and their simulacra. The title builds on the concept of the “social life of things,” the title of a collection of essays edited by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in 1986, and more recently applied to the field of manuscript study in works such as The Social Life of Illumination: Manuscripts, Images and Communities in the Late Middle Ages, edited by Joyce Coleman, Mark Cruse, and Kathryn A. Smith. Rudy’s book shares with essays such as Rowan Watson’s “The Illuminated Manuscript in the Age of Photographic Reproduction” and Elaine Treharne’s “Fleshing Out the Text: The Transcendent Manuscript in the Digital Age” (both ultimately responding to Walter Benjamin’s classic essay) a fascination with unique works of art, at a time when we are more and more capable of turning out convincing facsimiles.
The drive to digitize handmade books has succeeded admirably. It has made it possible for anyone regardless of experience or training to peer into manuscripts no curator would justify actually making available: thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s online program, Gallica, for example, I can squint at a digital image of brushstrokes in the Vivian Bible, a Carolingian masterpiece hundreds of years out of my research area, and I need no justification other than curiosity. As a result of this digital bounty, scholars who might at one time have required access to the manuscript itself can be referred to a high-quality image. It is ironic, but not all that surprising, that the scholarly focus on materiality should come at a time in the history of manuscript studies when a personal experience of the book has become less and less necessary as it becomes administratively less and less permissible. Screen culture has us pressing our noses against the window, admittedly seeing at closer hand, but cut off from the medieval reader’s fuller sensory experience of handmade books. What Kathryn Rudy’s investigation offers is the benefit of her searching familiarity with the manuscripts that testify to “devotional accretion” (in Eamon Duffy’s happy phrase) – images one copies assiduously, prays over, shares with others, venerates by touching and kissing, and manipulates to create something new and deeply personal.
Elizabeth J. Moodey