Marginal images - the potentials and limitations.


What are the potentials and limitations of the marginal image?

Why do marginal images exist? Before the traditional form of the book emerged in manuscript form, ideas and events were codified onto scrolls. Because they were one continuous roll of material it was necessary to create divisions between the text and the margin was the most practical and aesthetically pleasing solution. Medieval scholars would have to justify the text by hand in order to enhance the aesthetic quality. Books of Hours are a common example of both monastic writing and the marginal image. Their purpose was to aid people's daily prayers; often only including the first lines of certain prayers, hymns and excerpts from the Bible, in particular the Psalms. Although originally for members of the clergy and the monastic community, the wealthier classes started commissioning them to improve their status.

Marguerite's Hours is a particularly useful example - a central image shows the three Magi at Bethlehem, one points to a star. In the margin we see the patron kneeling outside the central space, she cannot enter as it is holy. Around are monkeys or babewyns (this term covers all composite creatures) and they reflect the actions of those in the central image. Camille discusses the origin of their presence: in French ape is le singe, very close to le signe. Monkeys therefore signify representation itself. Their presence also pertains to the mind of a courtier - neither a profane or sacred state of mind reflects their life at court. Marguerite is focussing her attention on the holy space but is still in the ‘carnival' margin. At first glance the marginal images seem incoherent next to the central ones. Camille suggests that the images were a verbal and visual fashion for elite audiences[1]. He also explains that margins only became an area for art when text as a cue for speech was replaced by text as a written document for its own sake. Marginal imagery became more important due to this different use of text - words needed to be recognised more easily leading to a reduced elaboration of the initials. Camille suggests that the often comical nature of the images originates from the large-scale production of the texts - mistakes were bound to occur and the illuminators took advantage of this. In the Ormesby Psalter, Camille shows that people ‘enjoyed ambiguity'[2] as it is easier to enjoy and respect the sacred when it can be contrasted with the profane. For example, there is a nun in the Psalter who is used to represent the lack of celibacy in monasticism. She should be like the Virgin Mary yet she suckles a monkey, the singe, making the image a monstrous sign of the nun's human sin.

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Maps also offer an insight into marginal images and the views of the people who commissioned them. Friedman explains that there are two types of map: the Noachid or T-O map, a cosmological and theological map of the world with ‘ethnological intent'[3]; and Macrobian which is region-centred and concerned with climate, leading to ‘extreme people in extreme places'[4]. In Noachid maps, Jerusalem is the theological and geographical centre of the world. In Freidman's example, the Hereford map (c.1290) Christ is at the top, or East of the map. It is the same in the Ebstorf map (c.1240), head in the East, hands in the North and South and Feet in the West. Both maps have a set of ‘monstrous races' clustered at the edge(s) of the map - they almost appear pushed there. In the Hereford map, there are some of these races in the north, they are held back by Alexander's Gate of Brass to ‘prevent the unclean peoples from approaching the centre in the same way the Nile confines the Plinian [southern] races'[5]. Macrobian maps are altogether different as they illustrate climatic differences including a hypothetical second temperate zone in the Antipodes (opposite-footed or Southern region). This poses sever marginal and doctrinal problems - the Antipodes was an area which had the potential to host temperate peoples just like themselves in the West, yet how would they have a notion of their creator, the Christian God while they remained purely hypothetical? This type of map projected a general idea that morality and the appearance of monstrous races were due to habitat. Friedman offers descriptions of the Plinian Races which in our eyes is almost amusing. The term Plinian originates from Greek and Roman descriptions. Pliny, being a Stoic, oversimplified the races, increasing their limitations of accurate descriptions of them. Over the centuries new races were created by splitting and combining existing ones - the medieval people enjoyed large numbers of them. However there are huge limitations in their representations: why didn't the exaggerated representations disappear when contemporaries went there? Friedman suggests that there was a psychological need, to exercise their imaginations, to promote the fear of the unknown to keep people faithful. Another reason is that some of the races actually existed - pygmies, matriarchal ‘Amazon' societies and the Amyctyrae, possibly based on the Ubangi tribal custom of lip-stretching. He also says that the description of the sciapod may have been due to the extraordinary poses of yoga. Such errors in perception lead to reduction in the potential of such images. Cohen looks in to the idea of the fear of the unknown in the form of the Donestre. It illustrates the misperception and the psychological requirements of ‘others'. Medieval people were borderline obsessed with strange people. The Donestre represents the ‘other' who can identify with you but has the power to transform you into a part of itself. ‘The Donestre transubstantiates the man'[6]. Such representations reinforce the idea that the profane being utilised to enhance the sacred. Anglo-Saxon England contained a hybrid people[7] - the Donestre became of a signifier of ‘a body that absorbs difference without completely reducing or assimilating it'[8], a useful tool to reflect their hybrid society and themselves within it.

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Maps and monstrous races offer the limitations of marginal images of the other - faraway races which were not encountered everyday. They are limited as the medieval people fabricated or misinterpreted many of them. They do have some potential however, as they provide an insight into the medieval projection of the other and their view of themselves, for instance the fear of being like those races and using themselves to demonstrate or reassure themselves of their superiority.

Marginalised Jews are altogether different as they were the visible other within society. Art is not a mirror of historical society but it can mediate for us. In marginal images, according to Strickland, they were legally-bound to be identifiable within the crowd, they are often shown wearing odd-shaped hats. This distinction was required as, unlike Muslims or monstrous races, Jews were not easy to distinguish on a purely visual basis. Rubin explores Christian representations of host desecration; in most cycles they originate from a Parisian image- typically a Jew persuades a Christian woman to steal the host from Mass and bring it to him in exchange for a garment. The Jew(s) proceed to stab the host to test it as the body of Jesus. This presents problems in itself; Jews did not accept Jesus as their Messiah so why would they feel the need to test it? The host begins to bleed after they stab it, as the body of Christ this echoes or repeats the crucifixion which happened at the hands of the Jews. The desecrators then try to destroy it by burning, boiling or hiding it. However an apparition of Christ in various forms will emerge leading to either the host being found or Christians walk in during the apparition. The Jews are usually converted by what they have witnessed. This is due to a new focus on the Eucharist and liturgical problems the congregation faced - it was difficult to understand transubstantiation. The clergy could use these images to show that if even Jews could be converted it would be foolish not to believe in the true body and blood of Christ. Even after the Jews in the tales convert they would usually be punished or executed.

Jews were subject to violence and humiliation throughout the medieval period, Christian images reinforce this mentality. Strickland also talks about a thirteenth-century image presenting the story of Theophilus, a Christian cleric who outwitted the Devil. In the image, a document is passed to the Devil by a Jew. His facial features are no different to the Christian but his hat identifies him. This image pertains to the idea that this Jew acted as an intermediary between Theophilus and the Devil. The Jew appears wealthy, perhaps due to the sin of usury, strengthening the argument of his affiliation to the Devil. It is clear that Christians used art to project a negative image of Jews. It makes us wonder why they tolerated their presence in their society if they were so repulsed by them. Although we do know that England sent all Jews into exile some years later.

For me the most interesting marginal art is that made by Jews within this largely Christian society. According to Epstein, the Jews were present in everyday society but did not assimilate fully, leading to interest anomalies in illuminated manuscripts. He also points out that there are three variables for the manuscripts: did Jewish artists illuminate them? Did Christian artists illuminate them? Does it not matter which artist as the patron may not have allowed any free reign? Epstein talks about the idea of adopting and adapting which is what a Jewish illuminator would do - adapting recognised Christian iconography to suit a Jewish purpose in a subtle way. If Christians were illuminating then ‘medieval Jewish art' cannot exist, as they would have conformed to acceptable traditions as well. The argument in essentially inconclusive: the fact that the text is Hebrew doesn't rule out a Christian artist in the same way that stylistic similarities don't rule out a Jewish one. Why would a Christian agree to make art for a Jewish purpose, especially if it was an anti-Christian one? Did the Jews not realise Christian artists were imposing their conventions on them or was it purely assimilation? It is possible that the Christians didn't realise what they were painting due to them not reading Hebrew. It is very important to realise that these images were created for a Jewish audience, that is why it is ‘Jewish art'. They were fully aware of Christian contemporary art and their unpopularity in society, so perhaps by conforming to traditions they could resist in a less overt manner. Strauss argues that learned Jews would be able to decipher the symbolic language created which would protect the community from Christian persecution. Epstein discusses the fable of the fox and the fish which promotes the idea of the weak overcoming the strong ‘If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more so should we be in the element in which we would die!'[9] Animal symbols in the margins are very interesting as they show what the marginalised parts of society do with their own margins. The hare-hunter is very useful in terms of animal symbolism. In Judaism it is forbidden to hunt so why would a Jewish man return home with a non-kosher hare? Epstein discusses the idea that it may have come from a similarity between Hebrew and Jewish words - it is not intended to be an amusing mnemonic but an identifiable symbol of the Jews as the hare, the quarry. It allows them to maintain their positive self-perception, necessary since the flight from Egypt as they can use such images to parallel contemporary social circumstances. To summarise Epstein views on ‘Jewish medieval art' it seems it provided a safe vent to release anger, hidden behind the non-vernacular Hebrew, anger about exile and persecution while appearing to accept the situation on the surface. By examining art as a safety valve it can help us understand Jewish self-perception and their internalized views as a Western Medieval minority.

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In conclusion it seems the art of these Jews seems to have the most potential in terms of marginal art. That is to say it gives a personal and ‘honest' insight into their thoughts. The problems or limitations of all the other forms discussed in the essay are they come from one western perspective, projecting views onto others which will always limit their authority.


M. Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, (London: Reaktion Books, 1992)

M. Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art, (Cambridge: UP, 1989)

J.B. Friedman, The Monstrous Race in Mediaeval Art and Thought, (Cambridge: Mass, 1981)

J.J. Cohen, Monsters, Cannibalism, and the Fragile Body in Early England,

D.B. Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, (Princeton: UP, 2003)

M. Rubin, Gentile Tales, The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews, (Yale: UP, 1999)

M.M. Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Art and Literature, (University Park, Pennsylvania: UP, 1997)

[1] Camille p. 13

[2] Camille p. 28

[3] Friedman p. 42

[4] Friedman p. 42

[5] Friedman p. 45

[6] Cohen p. 2

[7] Cohen p. 3

[8] Cohen p. 3

[9] Epstein p. 9