Thursday, April 15, 2010

Briefly Noted: Monumental Wildmen, an under-researched conundrum, or "Take your stinking paws off me..."

by KARL STEEL

I've been on the hunt, seeking images of the story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks. Most show--yawn--the resurrection; some show the moment before the murder; and some, the ones I want, show the murderer on the verge of stunning the clerks with the dull side of an ax, as one would stun a cow or a pig prior to slitting its throat. And, yes, thank you, I've just discovered the existence of Karl Meisen's Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande, which will save me heaps of work.

I'm glad, though, to be so tardy in finding Meisen. Had I already known his book, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of today's consultation of William Frederick Creeny's A Book of Fac-Similes of Monumental Brasses on the Continent of Europe, With Brief Descriptive Notes (Norwich, 1884). I found my Nicholas image in the lower border of the fourteenth-century engraving commemorating Bishops Burchard de Serken and John de Mul, from L├╝beck Cathedral. So, thanks much, G. G. Coulton and your skimpy annotations for compelling me to track down Creeny.

Here I also found a set of wildmen on the lower border of an enormous commemorative brass for two fourteenth-century bishops, Godfrey and Frederic de Bulowe, dated 1375. For my small flickr set, see here.

Why bishops should be commemorated with several wild men, shown at dinner, in majesty, and in the act of abduction, I don't know. Apparently such things are not uncommon. Still, I don't think I'll come close to understanding the Middle Ages, or, at least, the fourteenth century, until I understand why wildmen? Why here? Why then? And, pace this, why so civilized? Am I faced with some kind of Wodwoserie?

(when I say "under-researched," I mean I've under-researched it. Who knows? Everyone else, I suppose, who has looked at something more recent than Bernheimer)

10 comments:

Got Medieval said...

Excellent image!

Sadly, all I can offer is my usual point that mashup parody images are just hugely popular throughout the Middle Ages. They just never seem to tire of taking a famous scene or motif and replacing the participants with apes or wildmen.

But I can say that I can't think of a more "medieval dinner picture"-looking medieval dinner picture than that (ignoring the woodwoses). Go down the checklist of things you see in medieval dinner pictures and this one hits them all: central crowned figure flanked by equal numbers of participants, table represented as a rectangle facing the audience, circles for dishes, one guy drinking, wide shallow dishes being passed, a servant on his knees in front of the table, etc., etc. It is the medieval dinner distilled down to its most ideal form. Plus wildmen.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks much Carl. In re: the dinner. I noticed that too. It's indeed the standard form. If you clicked through to my totally inadequate flickr set, you'll note that the 'civilized' wildmen holds true on either side of that image...to a point. On the left, there's a wildman seated, drinking wine, I think, or getting a haircut. Hard to tell. On the right, there's a wildking in a tent in the forest. But then we get an abduction scene: two wildmen molesting a mounted notwild lady, and a notwild knight bursting out a castle to rescue her.

But what gives w/ medieval mashup parody on a MONUMENTAL BRASS. I know such things are everywhere, in even more solemn contexts: I still just don't get it.

===

AND, I could add to this: Carl, I'm waiting for Got Medieval's expose on the increasing size of the plates and portions of woodwose dinners since the fourteenth century...

Got Medieval said...

But they put them everywhere. Everywhere everywhere. The list of places where what look to us to be weird jokey images were considered inappropriate is probably quite small.

But towards a non-jokey interpretation... since saintly hermits and hermit-saints like John the Baptist are often depicted as wildmen, maybe this image is meant to suggest that those honored are so holy that they can retain their essential wildman-level holy natures even when in the midst of civilization? It's a stretch, but the abduction might then be seen as an intervention of those holy ones removing the maiden from her wordly pursuits.

Karl Steel said...

Carl, mmmmaybe. And maybe I should read Camille someday! I know I'm not convinced by the Robertson approach (iirc: margins = bad!).

What interests me finally is not this local context but, as you say, that "The list of places where what look to us to be weird jokey images were considered inappropriate is probably quite small."

As is demographically predictable, I was listening to This American Life the other day and having a good laugh at the "Funny Funerals" story. Most of the story concerned the difficulty, here in America in 2010, of finding someone willing to cop to having witnessed/put on a funny funeral. Mostly the stories were as solemn as all get out. One in, so the speak, the margins of the funeral industry, was actually funny. But only that one.

I cf'd the difficulty of finding a funny funeral to these Monumental Brasses, for example, which come pretty close to being 'funny funeral,' if by that you mean a solemn public event ringed round with something off-kilter, strange, weird, or...funny. Monkeys are funny. Ergo wildmen are also funny.

What changed here in the West--if you will!--between, say, 1350 and 2010 that made such brasses, now, impossible? Is it just the--see Bakhtin--transformation of of the open glorious peasant body (a body somehow common to the whole of the middle ages) in favor of the tightassed bourgeois body? But that's as unconvincing to me as the it's-all-caritas reading.

Karl Steel said...

You know, I bet there's a Got Medieval post on precisely this issue. You have a link for me?

ASM said...

I'll amplify the association a bit. Recalls not only standard dinner images, but the Last Supper, too, of course. Whatever the "meaning" (I'd prefer "meanings"), I'd think this would be a key part.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Gosh that looks so much like the post bar mitzvah luncheon/dancefest we planned for today. Uncanny that people invited wildmen to such shindigs even in the Middle Ages. By the way those rectangles? That is matzah on the table.

Karl Steel said...

Harh. Please try to recreate this image today. I trust you and W have invited all your Furry friends, whatever A's objections.

ken tompkins said...

Hmmm...instead of wildmen coming to a courtly dinner, couldn't we assume that it's the opposite: the central, kingly figure has brought the court to the wildmen?

Notice all of the plants in or bending into the frame. Doesn't that suggest "forest" or, at the least, IN nature?

Can't we see it as the kingly saint bringing civilization (eating at table and off of plates) to the natural world of the wildmen and the forest?

ken tompkins

Karl Steel said...

Ken, interesting reading. I'd say, maybe. I see the king as a wildman himself (he's as hairy as they are, but tricked out regally).

One would expect that 'nature' is an imaginative place of freedom. This is how it operates for the romantics, say, and also, to a degree, but only to a degree, in Richard Fitzneale’s twelfth-century Dialogue of the Exchequer. This, as I wrote in my diss., "famously portrays the forest as a place where the king and his courtiers can put “aside their cares now and then, to hunt, as a rest and relaxation. It is there that they can put from them the anxious turmoil native to court, and take a little breath in the free air of nature.”60 This forest seems to correspond to the precultural forest of my first category. Yet Fitzneale’s designation of this space as outside the court and its worries is itself a cultural gesture: safeguarding the king from workaday business requires that the pleasures of the forest be jealously guarded by the power of the English crown. More tellingly, the Dialogue prefaces its characterization of forests with the assertion that “it is in the forests too that ‘King’s chambers’ are.” Regardless of what else Fitzneale might say, the court has not been left behind; it has been transformed, even rarefied. The king’s sylvan chambers are “outside the jurisdiction of other courts of the realm,” not because they have been removed into a state of nature, but because they have been raised above the common law into the forest law, which was “solely dependent on the decision of the King or of some officer specially appointed by him.” The one thing that has been relaxed in these purportedly “primitive” spaces is common law constraint on royal authority."

However, in these wild man images, civilization has not been put off. We're not in the romantic or frontier imaginary. The only thing that's been put off, it seems, is SEXUAL constraint. Images of wildmen kidnapping (remember the Latin: raptus) women are far from uncommon (Carl P could back me up on this). This violence, this freedom, is the only new freedom. And maybe it's all they need? Make of that what you will.

Now, why this image is on a monumental brass...well, that particularly medieval touch still befuddles me.