Book Reviews -- Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages by Ruth Mellinkoff

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Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 2 vols. 882 pp.; 503 color ills., 193 b/w. $195.00

In the hands of the connoisseur of the "ugly Jew," the amateur of the "bestial black face," and the authority on the "effeminate ass," these two red-bound volumes spell danger. The seven hundred illustrations in the plates volume might be construed as fuel for the arsenal of hatred that is building up once again in those very parts of Europe whence many of these images come. The earnest neo-Nazi neophyte could find them on the shelves of the well-stocked public libraries of France and Germany and use the highly detailed and beautifully reproduced illustrations for ideas, sources, and documents, just as the racist graffitist who draw a hideously anti-Semitic drawing on a wall I saw in Cracow last summer was following a venerable tradition traced by Ruth Mellinkoff; that of the hooked- or bulbous-nosed Jew. This capacity for misuse and appropriation is the curse as well as the creative possibility of all image collections. Fortunately, most perpetrators of hate are not that interested in history; indeed, they are often blindly ignorant of it. It is the victims of hate who most often have to remember. In this respect it is crucial that the meaning and power of past images be explored and understood and their tactics used to teach tolerance through the understanding of difference. Armed with his book young people might instead start to understand the historical roots of the visual denigration and ethnic stereotyping which they witness every day in the classroom and in the mass media. I can imagine whole courses being structured around Mellinkoffs magnificently organized material, whole semesters of discussion about costume, body, and gestural stereotyping. Useful questions might be asked as to why red-haired kids are thought to be different from others, or how more subtle signals, such as color of clothing, shape attitudes toward specific individuals and groups on campus and in society more generally. Students can then decide for themselves, for example, if the recent, controversial Walt Disney animated feature The Lion King is in this tradition of bestializing certain ethnic groups through subtle visual cues. The danger of this book, then, can be totally diffused by its proper pedagogical use and its wider availability.

Mellinkoff, whose previous publications have done so much to reveal the complex visual expressions of anti-Semitism in medieval Europe, has produced an ambitious and expansive encyclopedia of infamy covering a far wider range of "outcasts" and with a sweeping historical trajectory from the 13th to the 16th centuries.(1) As she notes in her programmatic introduction, this is not a book "to be read straight through" but "a source-book to be read selectively" (I, p. LVIII). Her focus in the first part, "Costume," is especially interesting since there is so little research on clothing and especially its color by art historians. The panoply of bodily signs, cross-eyes, sores, fat lips, bald pates, and low brows treated in the second part, "Body," is also well structured and fill of telling comparisons with literary parallels. I would have liked to see more analysis of certain medico-scientific traditions such as physiognomy in relation to the various stigmatized groups. Stereotyped Jewish and black features, used for the faces of Christ's tormentors for instance, are surely related to notions of newly explored geographical "otherness," and the theoretical issues of the relations between class and ostracization that are so evident in many examples remain to be explored in greater detail. The peasant is, after all, one of he despised categories. With so much material Mellinkoffs text does tend to synthesize and generalize but the author gracefully concedes that "more--and more profound--investigations are needed to explain these negative attitudes" (I, p. …