The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

Synopsis

Little remains of the rich visual culture of late medieval English piety. The century and a half leading up to the Reformation had seen an unparalleled growth of devotional arts, as chapels, parish churches, and cathedrals came to be filled with images in stone, wood, alabaster, glass, embroidery, and paint of newly personalized saints, angels, and the Holy Family. But much of this fell victim to the Royal Injunctions of September 1538, when parish officials were ordered to remove images from their churches.

In this highly insightful book Sarah Stanbury explores the lost traffic in images in late medieval England and its impact on contemporary authors and artists. For Chaucer, Nicholas Love, and Margery Kempe, the image debate provides an urgent language for exploring the demands of a material devotional culture--though these writers by no means agree on the ethics of those demands. The chronicler Henry Knighton invoked a statue of St. Katherine to illustrate a lurid story about image-breaking Lollards. Later John Capgrave wrote a long Katherine legend that comments, through the drama of a saint in action, on the powers and uses of religious images. As Stanbury contends, England in the late Middle Ages was keenly attuned to and troubled by its "culture of the spectacle," whether this spectacle took the form of a newly made queen in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale or of the animate Christ in Norwich Cathedral's Despenser Retable. In picturing images and icons, these texts were responding to reformist controversies as well as to the social and economic demands of things themselves, the provocative objects that made up the fabric of ritual life.

Excerpt

The most sensational act of iconoclasm in pre-Reformation England is recorded in Henry Knighton’s Chronicle, written in an Augustinian abbey in Leicester and covering the years 1337–96. in a long discussion of the Lollard heresy, Knighton tells the story of two “collatores principales,” chief sustainers of heresy, William Smith and a chaplain Richard Waytestathe, who chopped up an image of St. Katherine and then burned it as fuel to make a cabbage stew. in this account, which is told with Knighton’s characteristic skill as a raconteur and with an eye to the lurid horrors of Lollard violations of decency, Knighton gives us information about character, motivation, and place: William Smith, “so called from his craft,” was deformed in person and had taken on an extremist sectarian faith when he was spurned in love. Place is also carefully noted, an abandoned chapel “near the leper hospital outside Leicester,” where the two lived and “had there a kind of academy of evil beliefs and opinions, in which heretical error was taught.” in a corner of this chapel, one of the two Lollards finds an old statue, “carved and painted in honour of St. Catherine” (“in honore Sancte Katerine formatam et depictam”), and says to the other, “Aha … my dear chap, now God has sent us fuel to cook our cabbage and appease our hunger. This holy image will make a holy bonfire for us. By axe and fire she will undergo a new martyrdom, and perhaps through the cruelty of those new torments she will come at last to the kingdom of heaven” (297).

Knighton’s account says little to explain the choice of a Katherine image as object of desecration, beyond a kind of arbitrary or random chance, the image that happened to be there closest at hand. It is an old image, found in a corner of the chapel, as if to imply that the chapel has been so thoroughly reconfigured into a clubhouse of heresy, an “academy of evil beliefs” (“gingnasium malignorum dogmatum,” 296), that its old gods have been pushed into its darkened corners. Nevertheless, elements of . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.