A New Narrative: the Power of Images Alongside Text

After reading pages 172-189 in OUMEM, I have a pretty different idea of how images supplemented medieval texts within the bindings of a manuscript. The last reading we dealt with briefly mentioned the way images had the power then to take the story in a different direction, but I didn’t realize that some images are actually completely obtuse and abstract renderings of the actual text – for better or for worse. In the case of the Pearl Manuscript, the miniaturist found ways to link all three poems (Pearl, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight respectively) with Biblical motifs. The editors of OUMEM is careful to note that “the artist can be seen not only as rendering ‘the first critical judgment of these poems’ but as creating on overarching spiritual narrative by linking the poems collectively” (173). This is a crucial role for someone to play, especially because scholars now seem to be heavily reliant on images and symbols. Their art served as a conduit for their own personal interpretations of the text and are now pretty important guides for us. I found it intriguing that, as opposed to more modern narratives, medieval stories’ underlying morals and meanings are contradicted by their illustrations, not enhanced by them. When I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, I did not even perceive it in the way that the artist seemed to. In relation to that of the artist, my interpretation was pretty much based on the poem’s face value: the most literal translations of its words. I see now that the illustrations were procured in a way that evokes revered or well-known Biblical representations; the beheading of the Green Knight is presented as an example of “the circumcision or the beheading of John the Baptist” (185). The OUMEM editors also link the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustration’s use of an otherworldly landscape to the motif of afterlife visions; this element, they argue, is one that unites the three Pearl poems. Again, I wouldn’t have perceived the text itself in this way without 1) having a more extensive knowledge of Biblical and medieval trends/tropes and 2) (most importantly) actually being able to see the illustration while or shortly after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It makes sense, though, for the miniaturist to have opened up possibility for that sort of analysis. Widely regarded as a romance, the poem would not have seen much success to members of the church if it hadn’t been able to appeal to “the secular court” as well as “the heavenly one” (189).

Gesture, Color, and Scale

I was thinking about the ways this class might relate to graphic comics/novels. The reading suggested that these images should be read according to “gesture, scale, and color.” I wonder if I could meditate on this idea for a moment. The reading was careful to point out that illuminations “rarely reproduce” the text in a literal way. If I think about comics I realize that panels rarely reproduce the action described–that would be a redundant move on the artist’s part. The artist uses image (gesture, scale, and color) to add tone. In the way a movie is scored, a text is enhanced through certain visual cues–cues about genre help the reader understand the situation of the text.  In a way many of these texts were adhering to a genre–a christian/devotional genre in many cases.

I’m not entirely sure what the word gesture refers to in this case. I could take it to understand the movement of the image–or the movement of a character within an image. If someone is making some symbol, if the objects present seem to communicate some symbolism. In a comic, gesture is conveyed via juxtaposition. From panel to panel, ideas flow and change because they are in conversation; just as, text and symbol are in conversation in a manuscript. The church is a place of intense symbolism. Think of the way people signify in church mapping the trinity on their very bodies–gesturing. Imagery and gesture can be used to reference the genre conventions of the church.

What about scale? Scale in a manuscript is directly related to money. If a page is devoted to imagery it is not devoted to script and thus the manuscript will be longer. If an image is large it is also expensive. It grabs the readers attention, it requires more layers of artistry, more detail. In comics, large panels are typically important, they are emotional, or broad. They are detailed because they are meant to replace smaller images that might have communicated more meaning. Scale is directly related to importance and significance.

And of course color, color is always expensive. Even in comics from this century color isn’t ubiquitous because it is expensive. But in the medieval period color was even more important, especially the color red. Red dye was made from the cochineal bugs which were traded through France. Red was in demand, therefore it was expensive. If a text was rubricated it would be an expense. A rubricator would be a skilled scribe who would detail a manuscript with red ink. Red ink is doubly significant because it was often used to write in the calendar of saint’s. Even color is a convention or the christian genre.

Manuscript Illustrations and Social Media

I found our reading in the OUMEM for today particularly interesting, and in the midst of all things Middle English (which to me is very new!) I was able to relate to the aspect of images in manuscripts. After reading our assigned pages, I looked to the blog to see what others had to say. Kaleb’s post was especially resonate; text (such as a Cracker Barrel menu) can be completely overwhelming if there isn’t an interesting image to help represent said text. When reading this I immediately thought of social media today. The most popular social media outlets involve picture and video (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat). And I think we can all agree that when scrolling through your Facebook feed you’re less likely to stop and read that post that is paragraphs long unless there’s an intriguing picture associated with it. Initially I thought that modern culture’s move towards images, quick videos and minimal text was a new development. However, when I think back to the reading in the OUMEM, it makes sense that even in medieval manuscripts illustrations and design were a vital part of the manuscript experience. For those who were illiterate, images helped them understand and connect with the text, much like picture books help kids understand a story. I myself can remember being a kid and not knowing how to read, but I could identify a story and explain the plot because the images were familiar to me, and in my head I had a connection between those illustrations and the appropriate text. The text goes on to explain how to “read” illustrations in manuscripts. The best advice we get is to approach illustrations “with an open mind” and the “pious attitude that might have been expected of a person in the Middle Ages” (154).

Another interesting piece of the reading was how early Christians had anxiety about illustrations in manuscripts breaking the Second Commandment. This commandment argues against the making of graven images or idols. So scribes had to refrain from images that were too beautiful or too realistic for fear that Christian minds would “cling only to earthly things”. Hmm much like we “cling” to our smart phones and social media today. I wonder what early Christians would have to say about that . . .

Image literacy and Cracker Barrel

In our reading of OUMEM today I was fascinated with the concept of image literacy- the “reading” we do when we interpret images. Early in our reading the author stated “The visual adds to, complements, and sometimes changes the verbal text; it rarely literally reproduces it. Images placed before a text create certain kinds of expectation and anticipation, while those placed at the end can be particularly important in determining what the reader is to take away from the reading experience.” (p. 158) Sometimes I feel like we live in an inverse of this whole visual debate. While people went back and forth about the morality of including images with text, text was still seen as the primary means of communication. I don’t know that we still operate like that. Maybe in the classroom, but in most of my experience with life I’ve seen imagery start to displace text as the primary means of communication. Here’s one example. A few years ago I worked as a waiter at Cracker Barrel (a sit-down country cooking-style restaurant). Our menus were almost entirely text, big, folding pieces of brown paper with tiny writing and about a million combinations of the same few ingredients. People coming to the restaurant for the first time were usually overwhelmed with the menu because they couldn’t just point to a picture and say “I want that.” They usually had a ton of questions as they tried to visualize what the meals would be like. This makes sense to me because as I drive down the interstate, do my grocery shopping, watch TV, check my various social media sites, etc. I feel like I absorb more imagery than text. I have to consciously choose to read books, write letters, and read my food labels if I want to experience text as a primary way to take in information. I feel like the question of whether to include images has become a question of whether to include text instead.

A picture paints a thousand words (especially if you can’t read)

(First of all, I want to start by saying that this reading from the OUMEM described that in medieval times, many Christians found it blasphemous to have images in literature, and ultimately banned them. This totally gave me an all-dancing-is-banned Footloose vibe, once again showing that religion takes a while to warm up to creativity, for some reason).

In today’s reading from the OUMEM I learned that intertextuality can not only refer to the contents of a text, but the images paired with a text as well. I want to specifically focus on the miniature that precedes The King of Tars romance in the Auchinleck manuscript. I liked how the authors of the OUMEM decided to include that this manuscript has been seen as a “women’s manuscript” (158). The authors state that Denise Depres has observed that, “the illustration may have been influenced by images of the ‘child-as-Host’ motif in manuscript illustrations and vernacular literature” (160). The image that the book provides as an example of the “child-as-Host” motif shares many similarities to the miniature in The King of Tars. All the people depicted in both images have their hands raised towards the sky in prayer and are either standing/kneeling in front of an altar with similiarly draped fabric over it. Both images feature a child as well, and the miniature in The King of Tars story is wearing a crown, even though he is a sultan, indicating the very likely influence from the second image, in which King Edward is present and wearing a crown. I notice that the people in both images are even facing the same direction, and both images are outlined by a square border.

I agree with John of Damascus (basically Kevin Bacon) who supported the use of religious images and rebelled against ideas like iconoclasm, arguing that, “because Christ became man, images of him were permissible” (154). I know manuscripts, especially colored and illustrated ones such as the Auchinleck, were mostly only for those of high status or the clergy (those who were literate) but one could argue that images helped illiterate Christians understand their religion better and, therefore, become closer to their faith. Going off of this, I believe iconoclasm (726-80) can be viewed as an equivalent to the Dark Ages for those who could not read manuscripts. I think the banning of images and icons probably delayed the growth and full understanding of Christianity for a period of time, and reserved the religion for those of higher classes who could afford manuscripts and had the ability to read them. Perhaps nobles wanted to separate themselves from those of lower social status and banned icons so that they would be the only ones capable of learning and understanding Christian stories. Probable or not, it’s an interesting speculation nonetheless.

There’s a Poem in There: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I (Middle English)

As with any universally influential text that is through time made readable (translated, republished, etc.) for many walks of life, countries, and languages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a flourishing and entirely different sound/feel in its original form that gets quite literally lost in translation. Reading first through the modern English translation of the poem, I got the sense that the lexicon/diction of the poem was just awkward – especially if read aloud. Of course, my experience (and I’m sure everyone else’s, too) reading with much more care through the Middle English version was quite different. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much better Fitt I sounded. Anyone who has studied poetry or anyone who even just appreciates poetry knows that the entire art form itself lies in the very sound of the words, the syllables, the meter of the lines, the way it all looks and feels together. I really appreciate the way our Broadview editors lay out the two very distinct versions side-by-side; this helps us both come to familiarize ourselves with the approximate meaning of Middle English vocabulary AND get an authentic, first-hand experience with the actual rhythm of the poem itself. Even if we aren’t entirely sure of the profound implications associated with some of the Middle English words, it is fairly easy to a) use contextual clues or compare the Middle English text to the original text to pick up on the gist of the word or line and b) hear the words in our heads, knowing that the characters used in the Broadview are entirely familiar to us (aside from taking on slightly different/accented sounds). A line that clearly illustrates this significant shift in sounds is at the very beginning of Fitt I:

[Middle English]

The borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez,

The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght…

[Modern English]

The city laid waste and burnt into ashes,

The man who had plotted the treacherous scheme… (ll. 2-3)

The words used in the original text’s example, though without meaning for us today, allow for the poem’s vibrant, traditional alliterative style. Since this was a tried-and-true value of poetry in the Middle Ages, I think it is important to experience these words the way they were meant to be rehearsed. Their arrangement, syllables, and timing lend a singsong, boisterous tone to the poem that just isn’t there in the Modern English translation. On the whole, I have really appreciated hearing what would have probably been a rousing poetic performance back in the day. Just for the sound of it (if nothing else), Fitt I in Middle English was a fun read.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

While reading through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in middle English, I began to notice that the language really adds to the overall feel of the text. One thing that you got to see in the middle English version that was not present in the normal version was the rhyming that took place. The lines has a very significant rhyme scheme and this allowed more focus on the meaning of the words and it also made it flow much easier. The language also allowed for the story to seem much more poetic and it all sounded better in my opinion. However, the middle english was difficult to read and it made the story a lot less enjoyable because it took longer to read and comprehend.

Overall, Sir Gawain is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and reading the middle english version allowed me to appreciate it in an entirely new sense. Middle English is still hard to understand and it took a lot of time and effort to decode it all, but reading this version definitely allowed me to learn a lot about the story as a whole and really gives the reader a sense of what time period this actually came from. It gives us some historical context behind the piece, which allowed me to appreciate it more and even get a sense of what these people were like at the time and put more faces into the story. Although it is fictional, reading it in the language that it was first created allowed me to picture the way it was written and appreciate it on a whole separate level.

Middle English all around us

In my salon group yesterday, we talked a lot about classic medieval romances that we’d studied in courses previous to this one. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Beowulf were all stories that we were familiar with and that immediately came to mind when we thought of medieval literature. This being said, we found it very odd that both Sir Gawain and Beowulf were not widely read during their time. As we mentioned in our last class, the tale of Sir Gawain disappeared for a moment in time and wasn’t read and studied near as much as it is today. My salon group found this very interesting; how could a story that is so well known, liked and studied today fail to be circulated during its time?

After watching the “Mini Documentary: Romance of the Middle Ages” I was impressed how seemingly well preserved many of the manuscripts were. It was also interesting that upon the development of the printing press and a more advanced method of printing and publishing, many printed books took on the same look and style of classical manuscripts. The documentary also discussed how beginning in the 19th century there was a peak in interest of all things medieval. Walter Scott and William Morris both used medieval plots and nostalgia, as well as some more modern writers like C.S. Lewis. I found it so interesting that in the documentary they had a copy of a book of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that belonged to C.S. Lewis. In it he kept extensive notes and even drew small pictures that helped him better understand the Middle English text. Even the 1970s film Monty Python and the Holy Grail parodies medieval romance. It seems that the influence of Middle English manuscripts is all around us to this day, not only in our written language, but even in genres and modern forms of entertainment such as Monty Python.

The Formidable Challenger & the Brave, Humble Knight: Different Uses of the Blazon Convention

Every time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I am completely taken by the long and detailed exposition imagery of the gigantic, beastly Green Knight and the humble underdog, Sir Gawain. It’s interesting to me that the blazon/effictio (“laundry list”) convention is used to both paint a portrait of a seemingly formidable enemy as well as the enemy’s corresponding unlikely noble hero. Both descriptions evoke a sense of respectable strength, but the Green Knight appears otherworldly and fierce upon the relatively “normal” and whitewashed wintry court backdrop. The giant figure is “grattest in grene when grevez ar bare” and is so richly aglow that “forthi for fantoun and fayryye the folk there hit demed” (207, 240). The fact that the court views the giant as some strange once-in-a-lifetime sighting should be reason enough for concern/alienation. We know he is someone worthy of courtly respect, though, because he is “brayden ful ryche” – even his horse seems to command respect (220). Though Gawain’s blazon features none of the mighty physical traits that make the Green Knight so outwardly formidable, he is described as powerful in heart and purpose. His most conventionally admirable trait, then, is his dedication to Jesus and Mary. He is so reverent in battle that he has an “image depaynted” on his shield of Mary herself (649). Therefore, even though the rich descriptions of both men are significant, Gawain’s heroic visage ultimately holds the most conventional value.