Thursday, September 1, 2011

Aden Kumler's "Translating Truth"

Aden Kumler is an assistant professor in the Department of Art History and the College at the University of Chicago.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge in Late Medieval France and England, and reported the following:
The German art historian Aby Warburg was fond of saying “God is in the details.” Having spent a decade looking at diminuitive, yet breathtaking paintings in medieval manuscripts, I am convinced that Warburg got it right. Putting my recent book, Translating Truth: Ambitious Images and Religious Knowledge, to Ford Madox Ford’s “Page 99 Test” I wondered what I’d find in its details.

As it happens, page 99 discovers a vibrant, if imaginary community in the painted pages of a luxury manuscript made in early fourteenth-century England. One of the texts in this book—the Lumere as lais (“Light for Lay People”)—taught Christian lay people how to understand and practice their faith in Anglo-Norman, the form of French spoken and read in medieval England. On page 99 I imagine how a medieval person, reading the Lumere might have experienced the elegant “portraits” of typical members of medieval society that were painted in a series of its initials. [Click here, here, and here to see images from this manuscript from the British Library.]
Acting as a fictive and idealizing mirror of Christian society, the compendium’s initials visually describe a community unified in its relationship to religious knowledge, yet still possessed of the marks of social distinction. Was the manuscript’s original owner enlightened by the didactic lumere of its texts and dazzled by the illuminated letters that grace almost every recto and verso? Certainly, the compendium mounted an ambitious campaign of solicitation, inviting the reader-viewer to join a company of men and women distinguished by their stature on the page and by the authorizing texts they inhabited. As the book owner voiced the words inscribed on a recto or paused to inspect a painted face, the dialogic question and answer of the Lumere’s text amplified, proliferated, and swelled into a polyphony of imagined voices and gazes. In this volume, the dialogic practice of spiritual reformation was figured as a sociable affair, a collective undertaking that welcomed the manuscript’s owner into a garrulous community of religious knowledge and worldly distinction.
Here, as in the rest of the book, I challenge the persistent myth that medieval lay people had an intellectually unengaged, submissive relationship to religious truth and authority. If we look carefully, I suggest, we can see how elite medieval men and women passionately pursued religious truth—and a relationship with the divine—in all the beautiful details of their illuminated manuscripts.
Learn more about Translating Truth at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue