Two and an half years ago, I asked a historian friend for recommendations on northern European mediæval history, preferably written by a women. He replied that last qualifier was going to thin the herd considerably. Shortly after he emailed me a list, the last name on that list being Caroline Walker Bynum and her Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. He said, “Definite thematic focus, but it is an interesting focus, and one that is helpful in explaining much of late medieval (and modern Western) society; also more limited chronological range. That notwithstanding, the best book on this list, plus: written by a woman.”
Caroline Walker Bynum is always a tough read, dense, like tapestry, ideas and themes threaded together over hundreds of pages; footnotes often consume a third of the book and often impart critical additional elaboration. Hers are slow works to read, contemplative and demanding. I suppose it’s an uncommon approach to introduce myself to northern European mediæval history by going for the least forgiving of the lot, but there’s something glorious in drowning in such writing.
I started Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe a few weeks ago, it’s been in my reading pile since late-July, and I’ve been reading it around a rapidly circulating mob of new arrivals. Of all her works, this is the most accessible, also the broadest in subject. And like all her works, almost a third is devoted to extensive notes. It’s beautifully bound, plenty of margin space, many illustrations of works she discusses, one of those books that’s a pleasure to be holding. I love it. I love her writing.
How do you write to an author? To an artist? A fan letter? How do you say, “Your writing or music or dance or theatre has such a profound effect on me, I must put it in words to you”? And here they are, those words. And if you wait too long, the moment passes — or they die (Lemmy, Iain Banks, I’m looking at you). And if the moment hasn’t passed, what do you say? Do they need to read another more-of-the-same? Does a letter create an obligation? They’ve already written a book and now, what? They have to write a reply?
Fan letters. Frances overthinks them.
Here’s a fan letter:
Dear Sofia Samatar,
A Stranger in Olondria. I can’t find words to describe it. I liked it — I loved it so much I drunk words and pages until nothing was left. I saw its cover on my shelf last night and was so excited to continue reading, then remembered I’d already finished. I can see the story like a memory. I’ve already read The Winged Histories. I read it before this. Please don’t stop writing. No one writes like you. No one I’ve read, anyway. Maybe you’ve read writers who bring worlds to you like this, and maybe your writing carries traces of them. Maybe you write for them also. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation.
And then I run out of things to say, feel I haven’t said anything except on my own illiteracy, wish I could just write something like, “Yeah, Sofia, mate! Awesome book!” in a way that was neither inane nor self-consciously bogan.
I probably wouldn’t say:
Yeah, I was a little iffy on the cover—
Why were you iffy about the cover, Frances? Well, cos it’s a guy and as well it looked kinda a bit Young Adult, neither of which are grounds for me not reading, just wasn’t quite convinced I’d be into it. Plus I quite like the cover now.
So, yeah, a little unfairly iffy on the cover, and the effusive praise all over the place, cos usually that doesn’t pan out. I know, right? How wrong was I! The cover of The Winged Histories though, same artist, same style, but a woman, riding on a fucking gigantic bird! 100% would buy, totes dug that, hence read it first, only a couple of months ago. Loved Tav, and something in it caught and kept pulling at me, my day dreams wandered to the dry ground of Kestenya. I can’t describe it. It’s like a story I believe.
It’s like a story I know. I don’t know this story. I feel like now I know this story, I’ve always known part of it.
Not sure I’m anywhere near fan letter mode anymore.
I wasn’t so keen on the main character being a guy at first. Just not so into reading bro’s right now. Turns out it’s the story of a young woman, he’s just there to tell her story. Plus he’s not bad, I kinda like him, especially how cashed up and DTF he is with the Bain locals. He’s there so we can travel from his homeland to Olondria and see the land, we see through him, and if there’s a memory of anything, it’s of the land, of warm island villages, then ocean, then a city like a colossus like paradise, of the roughness of travelling, of climates shifting northwards, cooler, losing their heat and bright intensity, of forests, hills becoming mountains, closing in, and coming to a standstill at the edge of desert, land flat and empty, dressed in winter, drained of colour and light. And then to return, one full circle.
Let’s try fan letter mode again, to finish up:
I loved A Stranger in Orlondria so much I’m embarrassing myself here.
Books! Yes! Panda acquired quite some for me — and snuck a head into shot looking well smug. “Pands, how did you afford so many new books?” “Well, Xiao Fang, I sold 50 of your old ones.” Dead clever is Panda.
Wotchagot then? From left to right:
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF by Jo Walton
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia edited by Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng
Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures by Miri Rubin
Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe by Caroline Walker Bynum
Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire edited by Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi
The Public in the Picture: Involving the Beholder in Antique, Islamic, Byzantine and Western Medieval and Renaissance Art edited by Beate Fricke and Urte Krass
Mauritius: Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen
And not making it in cos I forgot cos I’ve already read them:
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
Fifty out for ten in. Plus a few extra euros. Bargain! And how good is that list? Jo Walton again! Caroline Walker Bynum again! Afsahneh Najmabadi again! Saint Mauritius! Mediæval Art! Science-Fiction! It’s a pity that my remaining books, now filling three entire bookshelves, are entirely too good to sell, otherwise I’d be repeating this and polishing off my wish list (it’s been sitting at around 110 books for a couple of years). It’s a fukken library in here.
Awesome book arrival yesterday. Two in fact! Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice is the one I’m talking about here.
Ever since I discovered The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, and that the deservedly famous cover image was of the 13th century Saint Maurice sculpture residing to this day in Magdeburg (in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, yes I went there), a mere 90 minutes south-west of Berlin, and Mechthild von Magdeburg, Gertrude von Helfta, you know, all this mediæval Germanic stuff I seem to have gotten rather preoccupied with in recent years, ever since all of that, and when I discovered this book, I’ve wanted to have it.
And now I do.
Cheap as chips. A mere 14,-€, ex-library copy with the dust jacket, in remarkable good condition, save for the flouro-green highlighting of someone (sometimes I love people’e highlighting and marginalia; often though I just think, “You’re kinda picking the simple bits, no?”). Not so big either, Slightly larger than trade paperback size, hardcover, nicely bound with good paper stock, so despite its cheap price it’s a score.
I started reading it over breakfast — well, dinner really, but I was cross-eyed and started again this morning. I did not know it was sponsored by the Menil Foundation, responsible for The Image of The Black in Western Art, and it’s something of a companion work to Volume II, Part 1, which is probably the most accessible and in-depth work currently available on representations of Saint Maurice in mediæval European art.
The book is split into facing pages of German and English, the latter translation by Genoveva Nitz, Given German’s tendency to run on and use half a dozen words where English gets away with abbreviation, the two keep remarkably good pace, making comparison easy.
Highly pertinent is the publication date: 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, and when the majority of churches, museums, historical records, people consulted were in East Germany. On this point alone, I think it’s important to see this work within that historical context. When I was reading The Image of the Black, and comparing there to what I saw in Wrocław, Kraków, Budapest, Prague, I noticed a marked lack of works from the former Eastern Bloc.
Along with that, some of the language choices sound awkward and dated, like the use of words such as Mohr/Moor, Neger/Negro (that’s German/English), though equally and contextually in certain cases they might be the most accurate choice, for example referencing historical documents. Making broad generalisations here, I find German language lags by comparison to English on diction and semantics when it comes to issues of representation, equality, language reclamation, which is often in contrast to the tendency of the language to be intellectual and precise on these same issues. I started writing this paragraph thinking I could make a fairly simple, easy to understand summary of word choice, but turns out I can’t. An addendum here after finishing reading it: I rewrote some of this as I thought maybe I came across a little flippant when in fact I’d written multiple paragraphs trying to get to what was bothering me here. I think it comes down to context — which is often a subject I return to when discussing museums. My discomfort with the language is a question of how would the word choice have sounded thirty years ago; would it have read as awkward or old-fashioned then, in the context of an art-historical work. in museums, in broader society? And that language changes, not over the course of a millenium, but in decades or years.
Beyond the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, The Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg and its Historical Background I haven’t read much; enough anyway to say this is one of the clearest and most succinct summaries to the history of black representation in European mediæval art, in Christianity, in the 13th century shift which led to that sculpture of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg (and its accompanying Saint Katharina), to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal written between 1200 and 1215, the preceding images of the Queen of Sheba in the early 12th century, the subsequent representation in the Adoration of the Magi, and the loss of Saint Mauritius from the canon of Saints — despite still having his day on September 22nd.
I’ve read enough back and forth to know the idea of Saint Maurice and his Thebian Legion being martyred in Switzerland in the 3rd century is a contested one, even before the idea he was black. Suckale-Redlefsen does a good synopsis of this and if we’re going to be all ‘balance of evidence’ and ‘objective’ about it, then Saint Maurice as at least North African (if not North-East African, given the proximity of Thebes to Sudan along the Nile route, or east to the Red Sea) is a reasonable conclusion to make. And she documents the presence of Africans in the courts of Frederick II in Mainz in the 13th century, so it’s not as though Saint Maurice in Magdeburg came from nowhere.
There’s a lot of excellent images of works from across central Europe, plus a small selection of colour plates, of which I’ve personally gawked at two, and which naturally get me all excited about what strange little towns in this part of Germany I can bolt to for more. The second half of the work is a catalogue, arranged approximately chronologically, so it starts with that sculpture in Dom zu Magdeburg. This section is all in German, though if anyone had gone so far as to buy this, running the text through Google Translate scrubs up fine. It’s also — I want to say lavishly illustrated, black and white photographs on most pages, sometimes three or four even.
Suckale-Redlefsen I haven’t found out much of, presuming she’s around the same generation as Caroline Walker Bynum, though Bynum is a superior writer (fully partisan here), and I believe is based in Berlin. One of the few (and incomplete thanks to academic journal paywalls) reviews I’ve come across calls this a “less than satisfactory treatment” compared to Jean Devisse’s work in The Image of the Black, which is a not invalid criticism. But let’s remember The Image of the Black costs at a minimum 50,-€ if you were lucky like me and my favourite bookseller happened to snag a complete unopened set, and more usually Volume II, Part 1 sells for around US$100 or 90,-€. So honestly, who can afford that? And Suckale-Redlefsen’s The Black Saint Maurice? Amazon UK has it for £16. Even me as a poor student could scrape that up if I really had to, and for the price it’s worth far more than that. If this kind of thing’s your gear — and it’s totally mine — irrespective of its shortcomings it’s worth it.
I am actually reading – to explain lack of book blogging. Merely finishing off a few in my pile of the non-fiction type I realised I’d left part-way through when I unpacked all my shelves a couple of months ago. New shit pile is currently getting dealt to, plus imminent arrival of a dozen or so tasty numbers.
The Pergamonmuseum’s Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam (How Islamic art came to Berlin) was not one of their huge endeavours. Sprinkled through the permanent collection on the second floor to celebrate the 150th birthday of Friedrich Sarre were objects, photographs, and documentation he’d collected from across the Levant, Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, with influences from even further east, Indian and Chinese aesthetics in Islamic, Arabian, and Persian art. Sarre was responsible for the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum’s Islamic collection, the museum which became the Bode-Museum and part of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. So, not a full exhibition; one of their many mini-exhibitions that rotate a small selection of their hundreds of thousands of objects through public display every year. And a good reason to buy a Jahreskarte.
I was there under the misguided belief there’d be plenty of Osman Hamdi Bey, one of my favourite artists of the late-19th century, who’d totally be filed under Orientalism if he was Christian European. He’s not, and there was only one work of his, Der persische Teppichhändler, which started the exhibition proper after the procession of Sarre’s photographs up both sides of the stairs. I would have bought the exhibition book for those alone if it was cheaper.
I’ve been through part of the Pergamonmuseum before, and I ended up photographing a lot of the same pieces. They appealed to me then, and they appeal now. Many of the bowls are profoundly beautiful; photographs can’t capture the deep lustre, the layers of glazing, the way the light moves through this. Also the turquoise prayer alcove (image numbers 34-39), which I discovered a way of convincing my camera to see somewhat as my eye does. Still nothing like seeing its massiveness before you, the colours shifting, it’s a lot less reflective than the photos imply, some of the closeups give a better sense of the intensity of the glaze. I also love that every time I’ve seen this piece, there’s a group of people sitting in awe before it. Perhaps it was only this visit, but there were a lot of Muslim people wandering through, which made me think the museum is doing something right.
There’s two rooms, about two-thirds of the way through which are devoted to works on paper. This time it was some of Sarre’s own collection, Persian and Indian miniatures, particularly ones which explored European influences in works from these regions, and in Mughal art. A couple of examples of this, (images 48 and 49) were on display, as well as beautiful calligraphy of Bismala in the form of a bird on gilt paper, and another calligraphy in the form of a Mevlevi Dervish.
All this sits on the unhappy mound of colonialism, despoiling of archaeology sites, quite a bit of European racism, of which Sarre and Bey were on both sides of. When I was in Dahlem Museum (before I got into my over-enthusiastic museum blogging), I was looking at all the works from Dunhuang Mogao Caves and elsewhere in what’s now Xinjiang and Gansu pilfered by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Albert von Le Coq and others. As much as the robbing of cultural history is unequivocally a crime, it’s certain little would have survived the 20th century of China’s Cultural Revolution. Of course some of that in turn got destroyed when Germany went all Nazi on Europe and Berlin got its teeth kicked in, so the argument goes back and forth. I’m not even sure how much value as works of art these things would have if it wasn’t for the idea of European archaeology and the monetary value that gives things lying buried for hundreds or thousands of years. We are however over a hundred years into museuming the fuck out of humanity’s history, so having these objects in museums is probably preferable, or at least inevitable, even if that means being buried once more, this time in the archives.
Later I discovered I’d never visited an entire wing or more of the Pergamonmuseum. I think I need to buy a Jahreskarte again. In the meantime, sixty images of works from Museum für Islamische Kunst or İslam Eserleri Müzesi or متحف الفن الإسلامي or موزه هنر اسلامی or Museum for Islamic Art.
Another of the quartet I acquired/purloined late last month. Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts was recommended to me by a friend who knows about medieval stuff. I asked for a book that would decipher medieval art, contextualise its development, go into the various movements, regions, workshops—as an introduction of sorts, to balance my tendency to go direct into extremely specific and narrow academic writing (I’m looking at Bynum here).
I had the idea—because I’m often very lazy at doing preparatory research—that this was written by a woman, quite recently. Well, yes, literally the case, it was translated by Jacqueline E. Jung in 2004, but Riegl himself was Viennese and died in 1905; Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste was posthumously published in 1966. So Frances, can we presume it’s going to have some questionable Teutonic themes? Hell, yes! The forward, by Benjamin Binstock is bombastic old white man stuff. Binstock isn’t even that old, but has spent considerable effort sounding like he mummified in the late-1800s, it’s bizarrely anachronistic, but I can usually forgive a work its forward having experienced Satre’s for Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, so on to Riegl.
He writes German in a similarly joyous explosion to Adorno: endless sentences of myriad clauses across chapter-length paragraphs. It’s glorious and horrific, particularly being German—albeit translated into English—of the Gründerzeit kind. Look, I haven’t read much yet, Jung’s translation feels convincing, given that even in German it is appallingly difficult to make sense of at times; and there’s stuff Riegl says that’s just fucking hideous, racist, misogynist, colonialist, arrogant, and completely unsurprising for someone of the establishment at that time and place. There’s also things he says that are disconcertingly radical even for now, which makes me keep going. Yes, I’m going to read this, even while my instinct is to nod and smile at the attitude of, “You must read this if you are at all serious about art,” and sod off to better things. It’s like the dogmatic Marxists who won’t consider any social or political (or any) theory unless it’s been run through Marx’s bowels first.
The book itself is a delight, fat margins and delectable paper, beautifully laid out, a cover a love just looking at, you know, care and attention to the tactile and sensory experience of reading, the kind of hedonistic thing I live for. I wish all books were this seductively made—or maybe not, my book spending has been eye-watering this year.
Another Bynum! This from about a month ago when I wandered into St. George’s to pick up a couple of books and exited with a quartet. I was waiting for my pickup and doing a usual round of browsing the shelves when I saw Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women nonchalently wedged between a couple of unremarkable mediæval books. I’m sure it was a trap just for me. And of course I couldn’t say no as it was cheap, on my reading list, and I seem to be determined to read everything Bynum published.
This is another early-ish one from that period in the early ’90s when she was prolific. Unlike Fragmentation and Redemption and Jesus as Mother, this isn’t a group of essays, but what she does best: establish deeply involved analysis over hundreds of pages. A quarter in, I still think Wonderful Blood is her best work, though even Jesus as Mother which I don’t think is especially memorable makes most other stuff I read look half-arsed and pedestrian.
As with all her books, I’ll be reading this for a couple of months. It’s slow, dense, opaque work, and I enjoy every sentence in a sufferingly intense kind of way.