Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

12. "When Adam Delved": Laboring on the Land in English Medieval Art

Michael Camille

In that spurious "sequel" to the Canterbury Tales, The Tale of Beryn, which purports to relate the subsequent adventures of the pilgrims, is a comic passage describing the efforts of the Miller and the Pardoner, after finally arriving at the great shrine of Saint Thomas, to interpret the stained glass in the clerestory windows of Canterbury Cathedral. These "lewd sotes . . . like lewde gotes" make some wild guesses at the identity of a series of figures representing the ancestors of Christ. These had been designed in the late twelfth century and were now far above them, both spatially and cognitively. The Pardoner and the Miller argue whether the attribute of one is a weapon or an agricultural tool:

"He bereth a balstaff" quod the toon, "& els a rakis ende." "Thou faillist quod the Miller "pow hast nat wel by mynde."1 [He's carrying a quarterstaff," said the one, "or else a rake handle." You're slipping," said the Miller, "you're losing your mind."]

While this satire on the illiterate's misperception of religious art had been commonplace for centuries, it should be a warning to all would-be iconographers, suggesting that the medievals well understood how visual interpretation is dependent upon the various expectations of beholders.

One of the best preserved panels of glass from this clerestory series, which begins the sequence of Old Testament figures at the northwest extremity of the choir and which during the Middle Ages would not, I imagine, have presented such a puzzle to peasant perceptions, even if they were unable to read the four clear letters spelling out his name, depicts Adam delving (Figure 30). Here the figure's attribute is undebatably agricultural. Adam's powerful figure, emphasizing with unusual clarity the muscular

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