Medieval fluidities

This enigmatic illustration features on a French charter and may depict the act of granting a charter of privilege, Amiens, Archives municipales, AA 5 f. 1r

The moderns distinguish quite well between image and text. A possible area of overlap between the two may be typographical art, but even then the extent to which a text may feed into imagery and viceversa is quite clear to us. We are trained to make distinctions when we approach books, to separate the matter for the eyes from that for the mind. Images are beautiful and evocative, while text is informative. The two categories remain distinct.

Not so for the ancients. The image in the premodern age was a complicated beast, a kind of Dantean Geryon, a hybrid having its ‘back and breast and both sides painted with knots and little wheels’. Today, scholars struggle to define the ancient and medieval image and to understand how readers read images in manuscripts. Or whether they were read as images at all. One theory is that images were memory pills. They helped readers memorise the texts associated with the images. But the associations themselves are often elusive and fail to explain how a picture may literally be worth a thousand words. Another theory is that images were pure entertainment or the mental exhaust of scribal activity. After all, the snail fighting the knight in the margin of psalters doesn’t have much to do with the psalms.

Whatever they were (for), ancient and medieval images measure the complexity of premodern book culture. A kind of ‘genderfluidity’ between text and image which was lost in the age of print. And which our feeble efforts of confounding categories in the online medium only serve to enhance our sense of forfeiture.

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