Seminar: The Word Made Flesh

Books have often served as a platform where words intersect with the world of living creatures. This can be seen in the books of the Hogwarts library Restricted Section, who howl and groan and threaten the unready, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The unsettling potential of books as living things is also fully realised in this short poem by John Keates, with its thoroughly uncanny evocation of the dead author’s hand:

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calmed–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

Today, however, I attended a seminar which explored a very different interpretation of the potential for words to embody life. Given by Dr. Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, of CUNY, the seminar was entitled ‘Imaginative Piety and the Making of Books: Late Mediaeval Images from the Scottish Libraries and Collections.

Because she is currently at St Andrews on a fellowship to index the images which appear in late mediaeval manuscripts, the first part of the seminar focused upon the many ways in which a more thorough understanding of manuscript images can influence our perception of Scottish intellectual trends and book production. For example, many Scottish manuscripts either possess artistic features in a continental European style, or originated in continental workshops, where they were produced for Scottish buyers. This was both a consequence of practicality (Flemish ports were far nearer to Scotland than was London) and a conscious rejection of England’s cultural objects.

In the latter half of the seminar, however, she focused upon illuminations from two manuscripts now in Scottish hands to explore the meaning of a popular mediaeval metaphor: that textual documents, and particularly books, were an incarnation of Christ’s body.

This idea was active early in the Middle Ages due to the many Biblical verses which already used similar metaphors, such as John 1:14, And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. It became particularly popular in the later mediaeval period, however, especially amongst the scribes who were responsible for book production. By evoking the flesh of Christ through the book’s pages, and his blood through its ink, the scribes participated in the propagation of his message, and allowed him to speak as he did in life.

A passage from Rabanus Maurus’s Opusculum de passione Domini demonstrates the vivid, even graphic, manner in which the book and crucifixion were intertwined:

“Then [look at] his whole body, full of black and red letters, beaten with so many blows, bruised and spattered with bloody drops…” (translation from seminar handout.)

Such symbolism spread to a far wider audience, however, through sermons given to a lay audience, and was inventively incorporated into manuscript illuminations. One such was a schematic representation of the four wounds of Christ, with heart-shaped vessel in the centre of four red circles. One of the circles had been drawn by the artist so that it formed the O which began a word in the adjacent text. By drawing the wound as a letter (or vice versa,) the artist transferred the book/Christ comparison into the visual realm, reminding the reader that the text was a living message.

5 Wounds Wodcut

A woodcut depicting the schematic layout of Christ's five wounds. In the manuscript illumination, the four surrounding wounds were represented by circles, and the top right one took the form of an O letter.

In another Book of Hours, an illumination depicting Mary as she cradled the dead body of Christ also showed an angel using the blood from His stigmata as ink.

These images are in some ways as unsettling as the previous examples of living books, relying on the sense of mutability, overlapping boundaries, and transformation. They served a far more affirmative purpose, however, exalting the role of the written word as the means through which Christ’s teachings inspired the faith of the reader. In addition, they demonstrate the central importance of the book in mediaeval Christianity’s self-conception as a learned and missionary faith.

One thought on “Seminar: The Word Made Flesh

  1. Pingback: Where the Bodies are Buried | mediaevalmusings

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