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In Search of Medieval Beauty

Jennifer Rushworth


Mary Carruthers
The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages
Oxford University Press, 2014
£24.99 (paperback)
246 pages
ISBN: 9780198723257

The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages is the most recent work of a much revered medieval scholar, known for her pioneering work on medieval theories of memory and mnemonic arts (The Book of Memory, 1990) and medieval rhetoric (The Craft of Thought, 1998). Mary Carruthers is also a familiar figure to those in Oxford from her residencies as a Visiting Fellow here, most recently at All Souls College (2007-2009); parts of this book had their gestation in lectures and seminars during this time.

Carruthers’ book is deceptively slender; its six chapters are densely challenging and provocative, covering a variety of themes and angles surrounding medieval aesthetics, and “style” in particular. (Despite her title, Carruthers admits to a certain coyness in her avoidance of the word “beauty” for much of the book.) The whole volume is motivated in part by a desire to call out and correct two scholarly bugbears: firstly, those Romantic (or Romanticised) readings of the Middle Ages which all too often colour our approaches to that period to this day, and secondly, overly theological, moralistic, or allegorical interpretations of beauty in the Middle Ages. Carruthers wants to get back to what she considers to be the true heart of medieval aesthetics, unfettered by nineteenth-century assumptions about the purity, naivety, simplicity, morality, or ineffability of medieval art. This type of attack on the historiography of the Middle Ages is hardly new. More controversial is Carruthers’ desire to shift the terms of the debate over medieval aesthetics onto the domain of rhetoric from the more traditional stomping ground of theology, whose accounts of the art of the Middle Ages have inevitably been coloured by ideas of ineffability. Carruthers wants to rescue medieval aesthetics from the divine fire and put it back into the frying pan of human sense-experience.

A third bugbear emerges late in the text in Carruthers’s acerbic characterisation of modern literary theory. This somewhat uncharitable irritability with current academic fashions ought not, however, to overshadow the book’s evident merits and the persuasive results of its anti-theoretical, tried-and-tested mode of textual analysis. For the tools with which Carruthers aims to accomplish this long overdue paradigm shift are her stock in trade: the art of what she calls the “lexical archaeologist”, following in the footsteps of such philologists as Erich Auerbach.

Unexpectedly, the book starts not in the Middle Ages, but in Brooklyn on the cusp of the third millennium, with a summary of public responses to the art show Sensation, and a particular focus on Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. This painting combines a Klimt-esque flat Black Madonna on a gold background surrounded by floating objects à la Chagall, which on closer inspection are revealed to be scattered cuttings of images of female genitalia. The tale is a sadly typical one of political and religious outcry against a work of art that few of those apparently mortally offended by it had actually bothered to see. Carruthers, in contrast, defends the work as continuous with medieval traditions in its engagement with the mystery and nitty-gritty of the Incarnation.

Ofili’s painting serves three purposes at the outset of this book: to unsettle any reader expecting a cosy account of medieval aesthetics removed from the modern world; to show how pious moralising might be as typical (if not more so) of the modern reception of art as any putatively characteristic medieval approach; and to highlight the book’s focus on aesthetics via reception and consumption rather than any reductive notion of art produced in an atemporal vacuum. As the title of the volume indicates, Carruthers’s focus is on experience—the concrete, the contingent, the fragmentary—rather than any grand neo-Platonic views of art that have very little to say about actual art. Boethius’s treatise on music (De musica) is called out several times for such a charge, since its focus is the ineffable, inaudible music of the spheres. According to Carruthers, too much discussion of medieval aesthetics tends towards this beautifully mysterious but frustrating black hole of the divine, against which human art is often belittled, marginalised, or ignored.

While Carruthers’ opening move comes as a surprise, the first chapter, addressing the topic of ‘Artful Play’, steers us back to more familiar territory, as previously charted by Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens (1938) and Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on the “carnivalesque” in early modern Europe. Nonetheless, Carruthers’ analysis differs from these studies in important ways by dismantling the barriers these theorists erect between the “playground” and the “serious” spheres of academic, intellectual, and artistic life (Huizinga) and between “serious” aristocratic, clerical society and the “playful” lower classes (Bakhtin). Carruthers argues that neither boundary functions as a meaningful cut-off point in the Middle Ages, when play permeated all levels of society and was constantly in dialogue with the serious and/or the sacred—just as the opposites of laughter and tears are never far apart, and indeed often indistinguishable.

Play thus provides an introduction to the book’s central thesis, that medieval art is a complex, sensual game of contrast and proportion, a precarious striving towards balance and harmony that is, nonetheless, composed of antitheses. In this complicated balancing act, Carruthers usefully resorts to the familiar image of a tight-rope walker or dancer. Her key terms are varietas and “complexion”, the latter of which is understood in the medieval sense of combining qualities together. Importantly, neither concept is reducible either to a homogenous fusion or to a merely chaotic blend (mixtura) of elements. The contrast with both theological and modern readings of medieval aesthetics is stark, since Carruthers shows, with ample evidence, that neither purity nor simplicity were considered particularly desirable in medieval art. Aptly, Carruthers repeatedly cites Aquinas’s assertion that “all that is mixed is more pleasing than what is single”. Medieval writers thus follow Ciceronian tenets of ancient rhetoric in prizing varietas, which they praise for its ability to mediate between dangerous boredom (emblematised by the typically monastic vice of taedium or acedia) and the dangerous excess of curiositas, curiosity of the killed-the-cat variety.

If these nouns of complexity and antitheses (complexion and varietas) form the conceptual pillars of the book, the author nonetheless states a general preference for adjectives, in order to escape from essentialising linguistic categories. The central part of the book is thus devoted to charting the overlapping, changing meanings of adjectives such as dulcis and suavis as they relate to style and the art of persuasion. These adjectives are roughly analogous to “sweet” and/or “pleasing” in English, though, like medieval aesthetics more broadly, Carruthers demonstrates that they have paradoxical valences and are thus potentially ambivalent.

Addressing these two adjectives, the study strays into the history of medicine, emphasising further the corporeal, experiential nature of medieval aesthetics. Like medieval stylistics, physical and mental health was similarly predicated upon the ideal need for a balanced mixture of contraries, through a balancing of the four humours which, in antiquity, were thought to regulate bodily functions and emotions. In this respect rhetoric and medicine emerge as allied disciplines. Yet alongside medicine, cooking and eating materialise as additional domains invoked by the equally striking lexical connections between knowledge (sapientia) and taste (sapor). These connections are encapsulated in the etymological understanding, most popular in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, of sapientia as sapida scientia (tasty wisdom). Carruthers accordingly seeks out and examines early manifestations of the overriding eighteenth-century interpretation of aesthetic judgement as taste (gustus), particularly as related both to the adjective honestus (worthy, beneficial, and, inevitably, other shades of meaning subject to time and context) and to reading as ruminatio (chewing).

Ultimately, the book persuades not only through its plethora of well-chosen and carefully analysed examples, but also through Carruthers’ own writing which acts as a mise en abyme of medieval aesthetics in its embrace of a mixed style and playful antitheses (including the juxtaposition of Chicken Little with Peter of Celle and chocolate cake with Augustine). Persuasive and emblematic, too, is Carruthers’ eschewal of claims to encyclopaedic comprehensiveness in favour of drawing the reader in as a consenting—or at times dissenting—partner in the truths and claims being enunciated. Carruthers does not so much shed new light on medieval art and beauty as exhort the reader to join with her in scrutinising the remaining evidence afresh.

This gesture of scrutiny is analogous to that of seeking out unrestored painted faux marble in a medieval church (such as that pictured in one of the book’s illustrations) and thereby glorifying in the human skill, rich colour, and complexity of the artefact. From such a perspective, Carruthers overturns neo-Platonic approaches to medieval art, namely that art is a shadowy reflection of the divine striving after purity and oneness. This book reverses the reductive paradigm that beautiful art might be a bit like God by revealing, instead, that the Incarnational God is rather more like human art, in the love of paradox and antithesis on which each is founded and through which each beautifully works its magic. Clearly there are some issues in a reversal that upturns the usual human-divine hierarchy but does not necessarily question the terms of the polarity, but the move remains useful, subversive, and timely nonetheless. It is in this reversal that Carruthers finally introduces the word pulchritudo (beauty), through the promotion of “ordinary” rather than divine beauty in the final chapter of the book. The adjective pulc(h)er evades analysis through its lack of a known etymology as well as its association with the unknowable divine. However, Carruthers introduces it carefully in the final pages of the work as, too, a sign of plurality and humanity, in part given the frequent if false etymology of pulcher as deriving from the Greek poly-chroia (“many-coloured surfaces or skin”).

This book is essential reading for students of the Middle Ages and for those interested in the spread of ancient rhetoric into early Christian life and thought. Yet it is also, more broadly, a book for anyone interested in where we have come from as sentient, artful human beings.

Jennifer Rushworth [1] is a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.