Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Life and Afterlife of Things

Things, and the preservation of things, was as important in the Middle Ages as today. Image from a 15th-century edition of Boccaccio's Decameron. 
A network of medieval scholars from multiple different departments here on campus organized an incredible event that took place this last weekend. The Medieval Materialities conference brought together a huge variety of academics who, as the conference's title implies, are all working on projects that approach medieval history through specific objects or bodies, presenting ideas about the "life and afterlife of things."

The conference opened with what was for me the highlight of the event: a plenary discussion by the esteemed professor, Caroline Walker Bynum. I had just begun reading what is considered one of Bynum's most important books, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987), a book that recounts the fascinating role of food in medieval religious practice, particularly among women. After reading only the first chapter of this text, I knew I wanted to hear her speak in person, and am so glad I had the opportunity - Professor Bynum delivered a dynamite presentation. 

Her talk began with a paradox: the world's best preserved Catholic reliquaries and altars are to be found today, not in Rome or Castile, but in Protestant Saxony. While it is true that Rome's and other historically Catholic countries' museums are bursting with medieval objects of devotion, they are no longer in situ, a fact which changes their context and thus our ability to observe how medieval communities interacted with these objects. To illustrate this point, Bynum traced the histories of three particular objects of devotion that reside today in their original medieval location, Saxony, beautifully preserved. 
"Holy Blood Altar" in Rothenburg. The center
cross contains the relic. Image source.
She began in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the location of the "Holy Blood Altar." This magnificent altarpiece was hand carved in the 15th-century by Tilman Riemenschneider, and features Judas as the central figure. The monstrance of this altarpiece was at some point replaced with a cross, delicately constructed to hold a crystal receptacle containing a small amount of Christ's blood. The continued and undisturbed presence of this relic as part of a main altarpiece complicated previous periodization theories of Protestantism's entrance into Saxony. 

Bynum explained that some scholars have ventured explanations for this curious persistence of Catholic practices in Protestant areas of Europe throughout early-modern history by studying Martin Luther's teachings. Luther believed that objects had no inherent sacrality and that likewise, images (art), were indifferent. This objection to the use of religious iconography as an integral part of worship accompanied by a staunch opposition to any form of iconoclasm. This has lead several researchers to posit what they consider a particularly Protestant method of "accidental" preservation: as the image is neither sacred nor a source of conflict, they must simply be left where they were found. 

Bynum's talk put forth a more nuanced theory by demonstrating that while the "let it be" theory seems satisfactory on the surface, it begins to lose ground when applied to Catholic objects that were preserved, not by Protestant indifference, but by continued and intense interaction with these objects through worship. 

The Holy Sepulcher in the Wienhausen cloister church. Ignore the little red circle on the tomb - this was the only image online I could find! Image source

In the Wienhausen cloister in lower Saxony, a figure of the dead Christ with exposed wounds rests in a decorated tomb. The Christ figure was made around 1290, when it came into the possession of the nuns of the Wienhausen cloister, and remains there today. Several marks and even medieval graffiti on the figure indicate to art historians that this Christ was approached from the right-hand side by the congregation, on a very regular basis, for devotional practices including the anointing of his forehead. Though nailed down now, the figure is hollow and believed to have been processed in performative styles of worship. Furthermore, there is evidence that a reliquary bundle had been inserted into his head. 

St. Barbara, painted in the 15th
century by the Master of Frankfurt
Bynum had examined multiple historical documents from the cloister which revealed the intensity with which the nuns protected this figure and fought to keep it in their church. Several abbesses outright defied the direct orders of Protestant bishops, who had told the sisters to send the statute to a museum. The abbesses cited the strong devotion of the community as their reason for noncompliance.  The continued use and vehement defense of this statue problematizes not only the periodization of Protestantism's entrance into Saxony, but also the reasons for the preservation of certain Catholic devotional objects and practices. 

Towards the end of her talk, Bynum highlighted the practice of sewing and embroidering clothes for statues of saints and angels, a devotional practice surviving in parts of Saxony long past Protestantism's supposed entrance into the region. She displayed images of the beautiful garments, full of ornamental embroidery, created by the nuns of the cloister for their church's statuary. Each saint and angel had several different outfits, reserved for different feast days and special moments in the liturgical calendar. Tags were sewn into the garments with the saint or angel's name and the day on which they were to dress the statues with these particular articles of clothing. (Unfortunately, for all the wonders of the Internet, I was unable to find images of the beautifully detailed garments professor Bynum showed. She did, however, mention the Madonna of 115th Street as a modern example of a similar practice.)

In the end, Bynum pointed to a fundamental disagreement people had then and continue to have today over the meaning of objects and our interactions with them. While one school of thought proposes that, in dressing and manipulating objects in the ways described above, we subject them to our authority and demonstrate their lifelessness by exerting our power over them. On the other hand, the contrasting school of thought believes that these practices enhance the mystery and aura of an object, giving it more life than they would've had without our interaction and, in some cases, turn the objects into a material connection to the divine. This question, Bynum indicated, is at the heart of the debate over medieval devotional objects and that our ability to reconcile the two polar opposite schools of thought is likely related to our understanding of performance. 

The remainder of the conference exposed the vast array of intellectual interpretations of medieval materialities, some related to devotion and others related to daily life: literature, architecture, gifts, birthmarks (!), pastimes. I believe, though, that each panel related back to professor Bynum's initial plenary session, by asking the question which ultimately needed to lay at the heart of a conference on Medieval Materiality: "What does the object do and, more importantly, what does it make me do?" 

The conference was full of so many engaging discussions - hopefully a few more of them will make it onto the blog! 

Until next time - keep rustling!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Painted Geneology

As will happen while obsessively pursuing details about the life and posthumous fame of a single historical figure, a moment of pure serendipity has granted me a rare look at a beautiful (and relevant!) illuminated manuscript. As I was preparing my post last week on Saint Isabel, I searched for images of her online to help tell her story.

The two XVII-century paintings I found, little did I know at the time, turned out to be a part of a never-completed pictorial genealogy of Portuguese kings and queens. Thanks to the expediency of digital technology, I was able to easily track down the manuscript and happily find its digitized version on the British Library website.

The images in this post are my own screen-captures of that manuscript which, although unfinished, boasts several gorgeous and richly detailed miniatures and full-page paintings. There are large blank spaces where the text would have gone, but as the manuscript was never completed (that we know of), these 11 leaves provide an interesting look at the process of illumination, including unpainted drawings.

I invite you to look closely at these incredible leaves, available on the British Library site here. To find the images of Saint Isabel, you will find them on the Recto side of the 9th leaf - she is down at the very bottom of the page, elaborated with surprisingly precise and prolific detail, in spite of being quite tiny.

Until next time -- keep rustling!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sorbus Domestica

The blooming Sorbus domestica
Over the weekend, I indulged in some well-deserved pleasure reading. A new book, The King in the North (2013), by Max Adams, details the life of VII-century warrior king, Oswald of Northumbria. As a young boy, Oswald had fled his homeland in the midst of heavy fighting and carnage. As a man, known as Whiteblade, he returned with a force of his fellow exiled Northumbrians as a Christian warrior-king to reclaim his kingdom and take back his seat on the throne. In c. 634, he and his men succeeded in destroying the Welsh host occupying Northumbria.

I originally became interested in this history because Oswald of Northumbria was apparently the historical figure upon which JRR Tolkien loosely based Aragorn, one of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

While I have only just begun reading, I am already being treated to various unexpected historical details. One such detail concerns the Sorbus domestica, or "service tree."

In the first chapter of his book, Adams uses the Sorbus domestica to illustrate the rich and complex array of medieval beliefs that, though may initially seem strange, turn out to be no stranger nor any less real than the world in which we live today:

One of the Wonders of Britain, from a list written down at the beginning of the ninth century but surely recited to children and kings for hundreds of years before and after, was an ash tree that grew on the banks of the River Wye and which was said to bear apples. Such poetic imaginings are easily dismissed by academics as fancy; and yet the distinguished woodland historian Oliver Rackham has recently shown that the famous tree in question must have been a very rare Sorbus domestica, the true service tree, which has leaves like a rowan or ash, and which bears tiny apple- or pear-shaped fruit. In 1993, one was found growing on cliffs in the Wye Valley in Wales. Early Medieval Britain was full of such eccentricities ... 

I love this small, yet relevant, example of the infinite world we study when we look into history; not a distant and unknowable collection of places and people, but rather, a part of our own continuing human drama. The magic and mystery of the past remains part of our lives today, hovering in the bows of rare and common trees alike, waiting for us to once again pay attention to it. I am reassured by this little episode that all of the reading I am doing for my thesis, about great battles and modest miracles, will reveal a small but significant piece of magic from both Saint Isabel's world as well as from my own.

Until next time -- keep rustling!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Scent of Roses

Isabel de Aragão, Queen of Portugal, arrives at Santiago de Compostela after completing a long pilgrimage on foot.
Painting by Antonio de Hollanda, c. 1530
Queen Isabel depicted with roses.
Painting by
Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1635
My reading has taken on a particularly intense focus, now that I have a definitive dissertation topic and am able to read daily with the beautiful backdrop of the autumn campus. I have begun research on a 14th-century queen of Portugal, Isabel de Aragão. Isabel was first made queen, then became a mother, and two centuries after her death, was made a saint through the official canonization process of the Catholic Church. 

Of the miracles attributed to her, the most popular among her devotees seems to have been the tale of how she discovered roses, all around her, during a season in which it was impossible for them to grow. After her death, her tomb and incorruptible body were said to give off an intense and pleasant aroma that resembled roses. 

Roses are not in bloom here on campus, but I sense the power of her story all around me. Her life, told and retold in many different ways over the centuries, offers a unique perspective on medieval Queenship, motherhood, sainthood, female identity, and most importantly, how all of these things could be brought into harmony under very specific, very dire circumstances... 

The Queen gifts her crown to the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. Antonio de Hollanda, c. 1530
The 14th-century was witness to a particularly catastrophic confluence of events. The rampant spread of plague led to the underpopulation of huge swaths of rural land. This lead to both economic downturn as well as easily disputed borders between territories; fighting to maintain hard-won land often resulted in dismayingly high death tolls which only served to further weaken the populations of the countryside. 

Isabel Queen of Portugal heals a woman
on the Camino de Santiago.
Francisco de Goya. 
The sometimes tenuous claims to the Portuguese throne also exacerbated conflict within the kingdom. Isabel de Aragão's own son, for instance, launched a civil war against his father, King Dinis and one of the king's illegitimate sons who was rumored to have been favored as heir. Through all the turmoil, Isabel must have appeared as a beacon of hope: her impressively calm and rational demeanor (traits typically associated with men during that time) made her much beloved by the Portuguese people, who called her saint even before her death and canonization. And yet, in spite of her socio-political and mythic importance to people throughout Portugal, her native Aragon, and neighboring Castile, her story has more recently been relegated to the archives.

For centuries following her death, she was depicted in poetry and theater, celebrated as a popular hero and saint on what became her feast day (July 4), and ascribed a powerful position in the collective Iberian memory. In the late 17th-century, the chapel she built and the order of Clarisas (Franciscan nuns) that she founded was flooded by a river that had outgrown its 14th-century banks. The basement of the church was filled with water and left to rot for a small eternity: it was not until the 20th-century that the church was finally cleared out and restoration began. 

Isabel de Aragão's tomb in Coimbra
Her tomb had of course been previously removed, to a second church of the same order, but nevertheless the original 14th-century church that lay in disrepair, all but forgotten, had at one time contained important artifacts and documents pertaining to Isabel's life. How can it be that the material legacy of this beloved woman was left unattended for so long by those who loved her? 

Isabel's story fascinates me. She is the daughter and mother of kings, and granddaughter of another queen-saint (Elizabeth of Hungary). She was powerful, but considered poor and humble; she was a mother, but considered chaste and holy; she was an important stateswoman, remembered for her peacekeeping efforts, but also for her transcendence of terrestrial powers, owing to her connection with the divine. Isabel performed very few miracles when she was alive, but she was called saint by all who knew her during her life nonetheless. After her death, her popularity continued strong for centuries and then seemed to abruptly decline. What explains this dramatic rise and fall in the popular imagination? 

In a recent conversation with my advisor, I remarked on how small and humble the miracles were that Isabel had performed during her life. I marveled at how strong the devotion was to her in spite having almost no high profile miracles. "You're right," began my advisors reply, and with her sparingly-used droll sense of humor, "only a queen, mother and saint. Why wouldn't she have had time for more miracles?" 


Until next time -- keep rustling!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Autumn Hues at the Ivory Tower

This morning I brought my camera with me to the university campus to document the gorgeous display of autumn foliage, to which I am daily treated, as I walk along the path to my office and to the library. It has never been possible for me to distract myself so completely with the stresses of deadlines and research that I cease to notice the beauty of this campus. Flowers in bloom dot the walkways, running streams cut between stone buildings, and a glance to the west offers a view of the Flat Iron mountains.

Sun filters down to the campus through an auburn canopy which has tinted the light gold. There is a satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot and the occasional snap of a crisp mountain breeze, which sweeps up the corners of scarves and threatens to bring snow down from the high peaks, whose white caps are now visible over the shorter mountains still covered with evergreen.

Everything about the campus seems to be burning in one final blaze of color before the whitewash of winter sets in upon us. Vines creep up the trees towards the dwindling light next to old staircases that twist up the sides of buildings; water reflects the bright trees standing around it; wool sweaters and hot tea turn the wind into a welcomed friend, refreshing and reviving students reading on the grass. It is truly a beautiful season - one in which I have been getting much reading and imagining accomplished...


Until next time -- keep rustling!

Monday, October 13, 2014

From the Desk to the Great Beyond of Books

A good place to imagine a medieval world
This is the chair in which I read a great deal about the denizens of medieval Europe and imagine, in as much detail as possible, the minutiae of their world: their gestures, their speech, their petty grudges and their epic grievances. The work of visualizing this world often prompts me to sit, looking out the window next to my chair, and muse on many of the details omitted from or glossed in historical texts.

Though it now seems an obvious and necessary facet of visualizing medieval culture, one of the things that I had not envisioned was what I would look like in this world. I spend my days bent over a computer, a notebook, or a book, mostly working from this chair or the kitchen table. But scribes and scholars of the premodern era had different furniture for studying and writing, which necessarily made their work look and feel differently.

So - how did medieval academic work look and feel? This weekend, Erik Kwakkel, of the Medieval Books blog, posted a most enlightening article addressing this very topic, describing a variety of medieval and renaissance desks and study practices (with pictures!).

Detail of Albrecht Dürer's 1526 portrait of Erasmus. Image from Medieval Books.
Like the space I use at home for my own studying, medieval study spaces tended to be limited and allowed for only one book to be in use at a time, as seen above. Kwakkel explains, however, that these limitations were readily circumvented by various space-saving inventions.

Rotating book wheel. Image from
Medieval Books.
Scribes would have a stacked desk, with the manuscript to be copied perched above the scribe's own copies. Others would have long desks, allowing for side-by-side reference of several books. In both cases, the desks were tilted to almost a 45 degree angle, likely to assuage wrist cramping or back discomfort caused by hunching over a text.

In my opinion, the most ingenious of these desk arrangements were those that rotated, like a lazy-Susan, enabling the reader to view multiple open books at a time without taking up more space than would a regular desk. This design was rendered, in the 17th century, into a rather large rotating book wheel (see image at right) that permits the simultaneous browsing of many books.

As much as I would love to use a desk that revolved and allowed for easy use of 5 or more open books at a time , I also appreciate the way limited space narrows my focus and forces me to deeply read a single volume, operated solely by my hands.

The reading technology of today allows for an almost infinite number of books to simultaneously appear on one's "desktop," but I suspect that the practice of envisioning precise details and specific emotional contexts of medieval people and events could be damaged by an over-commitment to too many sources simultaneously.

One book, one chair, one dog. It's a good ratio.
In the intense weeks of actually writing an article, books lay open all about the house, covering any available surface (like they do in the image of Christine de Pisan below). But this is only after I have looked closely at each one individually and am able to see the cover and know the sights and sounds of the world contained within.

Christine de Pisan applying the classic method of propping books open all
over her desks. Image from Medieval Books
I have been doing so much reading lately, for both work and pleasure, that it makes sense to reflect on the mechanics of how that reading gets done. If we owned a couch, I am sure I would prefer to stretch out there. But for now I am happy to sit in my comfy chair, with two of my most loyal companions: my dog and a good book.

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." -CS Lewis
Until next time - keep rustling!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Weight of Mountains

I used to believe that there were only two kinds of places one could end up: a place near the sea or a place in the mountains. For years I scoured the dark reaches of my soul trying to discern if I was "of the mountains" or "of the ocean." 

Colorado, USA
Through my adolescence and early twenties, I was convinced that my heart needed the constancy of waves, my feet baptized daily in salt water. I was convinced that I had been born "of the ocean" and this notion was partly responsible for my relocation to a costal town in western Costa Rica at age 18.

There I lived a mere 8 degrees off the invisible line of the equator, about 50 feet from the high tide of the Pacific Ocean. The sun rose every day at 6am and set every afternoon at 6pm; a dry season was mirrored by a wet season. Once in a while, I would wake up to a crimson beach: the red tide, a cycle of blooms in under the water's surface. There was a balance of life there that revolved around the rhythm of the ocean. I had fallen effortlessly into that rhythm and thought I'd never leave.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica
It has been a year since my feet touched seawater and almost ten years since my last trip to Costa Rica. I now live along the foot of a mountain range - in the dry shadow of the green-felted, pine covered Rockies. The mountains have their own rhythm: bears come down the slopes in spring and retreat along with the flower blossoms, with the first crisp wind of winter. The vertical orientation of the landscape draws my eyes upward, towards the deep, open sky.

Since arriving in Colorado, I've had to revisit my decision and ask myself again: of the sea or of the mountains? 

...And then yesterday I saw this documentary poetic masterpiece:

"The Weight of Mountains" is a short documentary on the life cycle of mountains - a thing I'd never considered before. Temujin Doran is the creator of this film and here he has delicately balanced geological data with prose, still images of tall and far-away mountains with close-up shots of tiny movement covering these giants. Please watch full screen.

After watching this, it seemed that there aren't only two places a person can end up. Probably, in fact, there are many, many places you can end up. But that anywhere I find myself, I am either traveling to or emerging from sea or the sky, pushing upwards against rock or sliding gently into dark blue water. 

Until next time - keep rustling!