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
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.
No detailed scholarly effort has as yet contextualized the peddler-and-apes story as pertaining to the world-upside-down, yet it clearly belongs to a sub-branch of this widely popular topos. Most commonly, the art and literature depicting the world upside down featured some inversion of traditional order in the relations between the sexes, social classes, or even species; it made part of a body of comic, proverbial, and moralizing art common from the 1440s, especially in Germany and the Low Countries. (14) Examples in the visual arts range from the very simple--an orb, normally with the cross on the top, is inverted, symbolizing the world literally upside down, carved on a misericord in the St. George Chapel, Windsor Castle (15)--to more complex comic representations in manuscript miniatures, woodcuts, and engravings in which, for example, rabbits pursue human hunters, shoot them with crossbows, and carry them off as prey trussed on sticks, or a woman rides on her husband's back, beating him with a switch.
The sub-branch of this topos of interest here involves wasted labor. Taking some orthodoxy of medieval culture--that humans should rule over the animal world or that men should rule over their wives--the artist inverts it. The orthodoxy in question is that mankind must labor either because of the sin of Adam and Eve or because a large proportion of mankind, consisting of commoners, is ordained to work in serving a small proportion, the nobility, because of Noah's curse on his son Ham.
In this story, told in the ninth chapter of Genesis, after the flood when the ark has reached dry land, Noah planted grapes and made a vineyard. At some point, after liberally tasting his product, he became intoxicated and lay down; his son Ham, coming on Noah in a drunken sleep, his garments disarranged to show his genitalia, summoned his two brothers Shem and Japhet to mock their father. The brothers piously refused and covered their father without looking at him. Noah awakening and, learning what had happened, cursed Ham that his son Canaan should be the first slave and all his descendants serfs forever. Widening the reach of the story, rabbinic tradition suggested that Ham may have been guilty of a sexual attack on his father, and Christian commentators such as Basil, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom held that Ham had laughed at Noah. The story was often used as a homily against uncontrolled excess and gluttony of which drunkenness was a part. (16)
According to Siegfried Wenzel, who has studied the sin of sloth extensively, (17) medieval moralizing texts on wasted labor derived from Job 5:7's injunction that God intended man to work: "from Peraldus on, one of the main reasons why acedia is sinful and to be avoided is that the obligation to work forms an essential aspect of man's very nature, implanted by God already before the Fall." Wenzel further cites the Speculum morale: "God gave the first man a law that he should work ... in order that work may keep man from falling ... as soon as he should stop working through acedia, he would lose Paradise." Wenzel also quotes from an influential sermon by Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester (1373-1389), who says that "man is by nature born to ... the works of human servitude (such as digging, plowing, sowing, reaping, and working with one's hands)"; thus failure to carry out assigned tasks could be construed as a direct affront to God. (18)
In short, when a person fails to work at a particular task or wastes in some way the fruits of labor through inattention or through responding to temptation, the world order is inverted as surely as in the more widely known examples of pigs chopping up butchers or women dominating men. Generally, representations of wasted labor are subtler than those showing a simple inversion of role or status and often have a strong comic component.
One such comic example of wasted labor involves the failure of domestic vigilance: a housewife is asleep, her distaff in her lap and her dog on a cushion--a traditional symbol of sloth--at the moment a fox seizes and runs off with one of her geese. This scene is carved on a misericord at the Church of St. Mary and All Saints, Whalley, Lancashire. The carving, made in 1435, was formerly in Whalley Abbey. (19) Thus, just as in the main mundus inversus scheme, where power and weakness roles are reversed, so in this sub-branch, watchfulness and inattention roles are reversed: the guardians who should labor to protect the flock sleep while the household is robbed.
The symbolic inversion of particular interest to us here is the workman who does not labor or who wastes his labor through a sin or a vice. For example, in a miniature from a richly illuminated fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript of the moral treatise Somme le roi, now Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale MS 11041, folio 33v, a plowman personifying acedia, or the sin of sloth, sleeps by his plow when he should be plowing the fields for his temporal and spiritual lords. Other forms of the topos can involve domestic workers engaged in a chore like milking or butter churning but who succumb to temptation before finishing it or even a peddler who puts his burden down to sleep by the side of the road instead of reaching his destination to market his goods. If my argument has been correct, then, the peddler-robbed-by-apes story can best be understood in relation to this world-upside-down topos with particular reference to the effects on human endeavor of the two deadly sins of sloth and gluttony, where labor is metaphorically "inverted" or wasted through inattention and drunkenness.
Emerging first in manuscript painting, the peddler-and-apes story in art has no known direct sources in popular or learned literature; Janson claims that its "origin ... as a pictorial theme has never been satisfactorily explained." (20) There is, of course, a vast repertoire of vignettes in the margins of medieval manuscripts where apes parody all forms of human behavior. It is probably in just such parodic bestiary material that our story took form, while fusion with the biblical account of the drunken Noah and his three sons soon gave it a moralizing character.
Whatever the origins of the peddler-and-apes story, its representations develop differently in England and on the Continent. In the English form, the peddler is upright; in the Continental, he reclines. In England the line of transmission is hybrid. After the story's first appearance in a fourteenth-century manuscript, it recurs in misericords, where the peddler now reclines, apparently inspired by German, Flemish, and Italian woodcuts and engravings, and in the archetypal upright form in the miniature for the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Continental woodcuts, engravings, and metalwork typically depict sleeping or drunken peddlers of the reclining Noah type robbed by apes. Only the Catherine of Cleves artist returns to the English upright form as a model.
As noted above, the peddler-and-apes story, especially when the peddler's sleep is caused by wine, could express the "inverted labor" idea embodied in humorous, proverbial situations in which a domestic or agricultural worker is distracted from a task by hunger, sloth, or sexual temptation. Such scenes involving sexual temptation with resultant wasted labor occur, for example in the work of the Housebook Master, around 1490, in the well-known "hunt" sequence "In Pursuit of Lesser Game," where people are distracted from their proper tasks …
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Publication information: Article title: The Peddler-Robbed-by-Apes Topos: Parchment to Print and Back Again. Contributors: Friedman, John Block - Author. Journal title: The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. Volume: 11. Publication date: Annual 2008. Page number: 87+. © 2009 Pace University Dba: Pace University Press. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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