Title Background

<i>Iconography and the Professional Reader: the Politics of Book Production in the Douce <i>“</i>Piers Plowman”.</i>

Iconography and the Professional Reader: the Politics of Book Production in the Douce Piers Plowman”.

The illustrated Douce 104 provides an example of the process by which medieval professional readers – scribes, illustrators, annotators – editorialize and adapt poetic texts in order to render them intelligible to their immediate audience. The placement of the cycle of illustrations in Douce is designed to enhance the mnemonic and meditative potential of a visionary work. As a scribe-illustrated manuscript, the Douce illustrations and annotations reflect the ideological concerns and representational systems belonging to a contemporary Anglo-Irish community of “clericists,” an audience of readers at the interface between lay and clerical cultures. [Visual Politics: Kerby-Fulton] The Douce illustrator’s choices of iconographic images are replicated in anthologies targeted for pastorally minded clergy and clerks in minor orders, such as Oculus sacerdotis and Omne bonum. At the same time, the illustrations suggest that the artist, probably a clerk of the Dublin Exchequer, held little allegiance to the religious clerical world, and disapproved of the images of standard iconography. Images of Christ, the Holy Family, the saints and the church fathers are wholly absent from Douce, and virtually no biblical figures are represented. Moral authority is most often represented by lay figures. These are by turns “voicing figures” or “silent witnesses,” providing a strategy for “voicing the text”: marking the text with identifiers or signals which narrate the text or serve as mnemonics for other remembered discourses. The Douce artist works within a reformist tradition heavily influenced both by FitzRalphian anti-mendicantism and Franciscan ideals on poverty and simplicity, and exhibits a typically Anglo-Irish distrust of authority as well as a preference for realistic representation. The production of a PPl C text in the Dublin-Pale area can be adduced to the traffic between Little Malvern Priory and its lands in this area. The colophon of Douce demonstrates that the professional readers who produced it were carrying out a commission to translate PPl into Middle Hiberno-English, and to provide the appropriate utilitarian devices of annotation and illustrations as finding devices and cues for understanding the text. Similarities between the Douce illustrations and the autograph miniatures of Matthew Paris suggest a common debt owed to legal and civil service marginal illustration, and to the visual tradition of Giraldus Cambrensis, whose Topographia provides the Douce artist with a social-realist discourse for representing visionary experience. A comparison of the different choices made by the annotator of Douce, probably a secular clerk, and that of another C text, Huntington Library MS 143, a professional London scribe, suggests that different professional readers could provide divergent cues on how to read the text, based on their own sense of the implied (or known) reader’s expectations. [Visual Heuristics: Despres] More than simply serving as “visual glosses,” the Douce illustrations contruct a visionary ordinatio, which underscores both personal reformation and social accountability, urging a retrospective, ethical response from the reader. As with most marginally illustrated works (usually devotional), the disendowed figures inhabiting the margin invite the dreamer, as well as the reader, to become Christlike by coming to share their misery and their consolation. The mode of reading encouraged by such marginal gloss is both nonlinear and contemplative. The figures become part of the reader’s memory, enabling the reader to mesh his experience with the dreamer’s, so that the reader is redirected to different sections of the text, resulting in a directed reading experience that approximates the dream vision itself. L deflects attention from his own identity in order to generalize the highly personal nature of religious experience, and the Douce illustrator, recognizing this strategy, concentrates his energies on recreating the interior experience of spiritual illumination. As part of this design, he adapts and modifies the conventional iconography of the Seven Ages of Man to reflect the dreamer’s introspective journey. The choice of the friar/physician as the final illustration, an image which conflates spiritual negligence with clerical exploitation, resists a neat closure to the narrative, offering instead another journey to seek grace.

Rev. by

  • A. Hudson, MAE 69 (2000): 131-32;
  • R. Nissé, Journal of Religion 80.4 (2000): 726-27;
  • M Hammer, Comitatus 31 (2000): 263-64;
  • E. R. Harvey, University of Toronto Quarterly 71.1 (2001/2002): 205-6;
  • Ralph Hanna, YLS 12 (1998): 179-92 (no. 91);
  • David C. Fowler, Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 28 (2002): 139-44.