The Peddler-Robbed-by-Apes Topos: Parchment to Print and Back Again

By Friedman, John Block | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

The Peddler-Robbed-by-Apes Topos: Parchment to Print and Back Again


Friedman, John Block, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


I

In 1491 the Italian illuminator Bernardino di Michelangelo Ciagnoni lamented "that our art is finished, it has been killed by the sort of books which one no longer illuminates," (2) but this prophecy proved too dire by far. That the advent of printed books did not in fact render obsolete the art of manuscript painting has long been clear, for the "books which one no longer illuminates" with their riches of colored woodcuts and later of engravings served as models not only for miniaturists but for a variety of other artists, appealing to both popular and high culture in the late-medieval and early modern periods.

Indeed, current scholarship has treated the rich cross-fertilization in the fifteenth century between miniaturists and wood-carvers and the artists producing printed book illustrations, single-leaf woodcuts, and playing cards. For example, Anne Matthews and later Kathrin Giogoli (3) show how the French painter Robinet Testard used the work of Israhel van Meckenem and other engravers for his manuscript miniatures, while earlier scholars, such as J. S. Purvis (4) and M. D. Anderson (5) and most recently Christa Grossinger, (6) Malcolm Jones, (7) and Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs (8) have noted how the carvers of popular imagery in the woodwork of English cathedrals and chapels such as Ripon (1491), Beverley Minster (1520), Manchester Cathedral (1506-1508), and the St. George Chapel at Windsor Castle (1477-1484) turned to works as various as a block book Biblia pauperum, German prints, playing cards, and Caxton's Aesop woodcuts as image sources.

One of the richest repositories of imagery in the medieval English wood carving just mentioned is the misericord, a folding seat mounted on the back wall of the choir stall to enable the celebrants to rest the weight of their bodies during services. The underside of the seat was frequently decorated with a high-relief sculpture of a moralizing or satiric sort, often a scene from popular animal stories, flanked by two smaller roundels, called supporters, displaying images or floral motifs. (9)

Such misericords are important medieval transmitters of the image that occupies us in the present article, in which I explore only a very small aspect of fifteenth-century transnational and transmedia cross-fertilization: how a scene of human folly moves from manuscript painting to mechanically reproduced art, only to return, much altered, to the hand-produced book. I show here how the story of the peddler and the robber apes--first appearing about 1340--was "reinvented" in two works, a miniature illustrating a suffrage for St. Gertrude in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves around 1440, and again in a slightly later Flemish manuscript herbal, one of whose two illuminators shows a direct acquaintance with contemporary German and Italian graphic arts. (10)

My subject is the story of the sleeping peddler robbed of his wares by apes. Here are its features. A peddler or mercer, fatigued on his travels from carrying a pack full of small wares for sale to villagers (or sleepy from wine), sits or reclines near or under a tree in a rural setting. Apes appearing mysteriously rifle this pack, taking out combs, mirrors, musical instruments, and the like, and climb in the branches of the tree, mimicing human behavior as they play with their spoils. In some versions, comic scatological and sexual elements appear. This story is studied by H. W. Janson in his Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, (11) by Kenneth Varty in connection with a sleeping pilgrim in the Renart cycle, (12) by Bonnie Young with regard to a fifteenth- century goblet now in the Cloisters, (13) and most recently (and very briefly) by Christa Grossinger. In building on this past scholarship, I offer what I believe to be a new approach in showing how the peddler-and-apes story drew a moral resonance from the mundus inversus theme and borrowed comic sexual and scatological elements from the biblical story of the drunken Noah being sexually humiliated by his son Ham.

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