Let us make the past in our image, after our likeness

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Bodleian Library MS. Barlow 40, f. 1r
What can medieval manuscripts contribute to the current debate about whether questionable items from our past (the past understood as a shared experience and/or collective identity) should be excised from memory or removed from places of memory?
Western medieval manuscript art testifies to the endurance of the human disposition to recreate the past in the image of the present – to amend, remove and update inherited imagery to make it conform to the standards, beliefs and anxieties of the present age.
In this 12th-century illumination, a crowned Cicero is flanked by Cato and Caesar with a throng of figures at their feet symbolising Cicero’s defeat of Catiline’s conspiracy. The past (the 1st century BCE) is recycled, interpreted and couched in the language of the present (the 12th century CE): a medieval monarch surrounded by aristocratic allies triumphing over the enemies of the state. The Middle Ages sided with the autocratic Caesar against the Republicans (think of Brutus in Dante’s Inferno), making Cicero a natural ally of the Caesarean party (which he was not), while casting him in the role of a medieval sovereign.

The historiographical distancing which emerged during the Renaissance has shaped our own approach to the past. We like to think that, unlike the medievals, we understand our place in history and the breadth of differences between ourselves and the men and women of previous centuries. We strive towards realism and we aspire to grasp a true measure of the past. We want Cicero to look like a Roman, not like ourselves. But while this may be the case, we cannot escape the demiurgic pull towards making the past in our own image, after our likeness, just as God is said to have conceived of the human kind in the book of Genesis.

In the passage between pagan antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages, the past was re-imagined in order to conform to the beliefs of the present. Many things were reviewed and reassessed, most prominent among which was the cult of the Roman gods, which no longer had a place in a monotheistic culture. The pagan vestiges of the past were aggressively or subtly removed from view, and in time, from memory. This approach was re-enacted in the wake of all subsequent cultural revolutions, in France, Russia, China or Eastern Europe. Museums have created a safe space for the uncomfortable historic memoranda, but the truth remains that there is little museum space in our own commitment to behave like the God of Genesis. Recent events in the UK and around the world have shown that we are still committed to recasting the past in our own image, according to our own values and beliefs, and topple – often literally – the uncomfortable traces of a disavowed past.

The medieval scholars and artists who gave us the beautiful testimony of an anachronistic past in manuscripts and elsewhere may not have been aware of their impulse of aligning an increasingly unfamiliar scene with their own concerns, fears and desires. We may be aware of this impulse, but we often act just like them.

 

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