Sara's Reviews > Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art

Image on the Edge by Michael Camille
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's review
Aug 27, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: art-books, medieval-history, art-history, michael-camille

I have read a lot of medieval history, both primary and secondary sources; dozens of articles and books about medieval European culture, religion and society; works concerning medieval cities, travel, literacy, monasticism, aristocracy, gender and art. I mention this only to provide context for my statement that Michael Camille writes perhaps the most enjoyable medieval history books I have ever read.* His books blend impeccable research with inventive prose and playful enthusiasm with sophisticated insight. Most recently, I finished Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. This marks the fourth of Camille's books I have read and while a slender little volume, it packs the same intellectual wallop as the rest.

In Image on the Edge, Camille explores marginal art of the high Middle Ages (roughly the 11th through the 14th Centuries). By "marginal" he, of course, means the copiously illustrated margins of medieval manuscripts, but he also means the doorways and corners of Gothic cathedrals and the spandrels and misericords of medieval monasteries. To the medieval imagination, writes Camille, "edges were dangerous [and] they were also powerful places." (16) Edges, margins, boundaries, or liminal zones - points of ingress and egress on land, on buildings, on pages and on people - these are the spaces where order can and does break down. Camille examines the potency and possiblity of these in-between places with a view to deciphering the medieval way of viewing them. In a sense, Camille is his reader's tour guide to these marginal medieval images. He speaks the language and decodes the symbols for us. In doing so, he introduces us to a world that, despite an often-held misconception, did not represent a paragon of pristine order or of simple dichotomies - whatever medieval church fathers might have us believe. "We should not," advises Camille, "see medieval culture exclusively in terms of binary oppositions." (26) Dichotomous thinking certainly existed in the Middle Ages, but as in our own time, a rather large divide yawned between structured, hierarchical and prescriptive ideals and the chaotic, irreverent and descriptive reality of daily life. Marginal art, according to Camille, is where this divide could be bridged and muddied.

Despite its aspirations of order, the Middle Ages contained plethoric amiguities and ambivalences. It subscribed to paganism as well as to Catholicism. It idealized the sacred, but contended daily with the profane. "What we today may perceive as contradictory cultural codes might not have been seen as so separated during the Middle Ages," observes Camille. (13) Therefore, gracing the margins of sacred texts, we find monstrous creatures, lewd gestures, bare bottoms and shit.

As Camille elucidates again and again, these marginal images do not stand alone, apart from the text. Neither do they correspond straightforwardly as negative examples for the text. Rather they interact in punning ways with the text, usually undermining its authority by willfully misconstruing its meaning. For example, Camille explains an image from the missal illuminated by Petrus de Raimbeaucourt in 1323, in which monkeys merrily cavort around a scribe, one quite obviously mooning the monk. Camille writes:

"Petrus the pictor [painter] was probably playing a game with the scriptor [scribe] here, since the bas-de-page [bottom of the page] image of a monkey displaying its rear to the tonsured scribe was presumably inspired by an unfortunate word division seven lines above. This line ends by breaking the word culpa (sin) in a crucial place, thus it reads Liber est a cul - the book is to the bum!" (26)

This example also highlights an important aspect of book illumination in this period - the scribe and the illustrator were separate people. Increasingly throughout the period, illuminations were executed by lay craftspeople (sometimes even women) and not by clerics at all. This increased the possibility for marginal art to subvert the text or at least to regard it with something less than pious reverence. The same holds true for stone and wood carvers who created the beasties and related images that appeared in the nooks and crannies of cathedrals and other religious buildings - they were secular craftsmen hired, but not always closely supervised by the church. And Camille observes that, especially in the case of exterior cathedral ornamentation, often the images would be placed too high to be seen from the ground with the naked eye. Sculptors could use these details to exercise their own skills and convey their own meanings, regardless of what church regulators had in mind.

Indeed, Camille's research suggested to him that "such carvings were...the sole inspiration of the sculptors working outside ecclesiastical controls." (69) This relative independence gave medieval artists increasing freedom of expression; not in the modern sense in which artistic expression draws attention to the artist's subjective experience, but in the sense that the medieval artist could editorialize in a way not possible when all art production occurred under ecclesiastical purview. "[M]edieval artists," states Camille, "created marginal images from a 'reading,' or rather an intentional misreading, of the text." (41)

As is probably abundantly clear from my citations of Image on the Edge, Camille approaches medieval art history with a mindful and sophisticated blend of reader-response and post-modern critical theory. This academic rigor and responsibility coupled with his quirky and enthusiastic appreciation for alterity yields a plainly delightful book that also imparts to the interested reader that holy grail of scholastic endeavors - the frisson of intellectual excitement.

*Sadly, I suppose I should say "wrote". He died in 2002 at the age of 44.
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Reading Progress

August 27, 2010 – Started Reading
August 27, 2010 – Shelved
September 2, 2010 – Finished Reading
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: art-books
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: medieval-history
September 3, 2010 – Shelved as: art-history
March 30, 2012 – Shelved as: michael-camille

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