Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 5, 2017
Kathryn M. Rudy Postcards on Parchment: The Social Lives of Medieval Books New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 362 pp.; 80 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300209891)

Kathryn M. Rudy’s Postcards on Parchment: The Social Lives of Medieval Books is an exuberant study. The title of the volume draws from its opening vignette, in which, sometime toward the end of the fifteenth century, Sister Kerstyne Vetters sent a “postcard” to her (biological) Sister Lijsbet Vetters, housed at a different convent. This postcard—a painted image of St. Barbara on a rectangle of parchment, with an inscription on its back—survives today in a small prayer book now in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Following this introduction, Rudy spins out over three hundred riveting pages to establish a new category of late medieval object, which she terms the “parchment painting.” Rudy defines the parchment painting—of which she presents roughly 250 examples, mostly from the fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Netherlands, and many of which were owned or produced by female religious—as “autonomous images made on flexible material, which had a social function outside the manuscript” (5). Unlike full-page illuminations designed specifically for and tipped into books, parchment paintings (and paper ones) had careers outside of the books where they eventually retired. Their nearly exclusive presence in manuscripts is, largely, an accident of survival, since books happen to have been the most reliable vehicle for their preservation. Postcards on Parchment not only traces the lives of these parchment paintings, but it also provides a primer to identifying them. In addition to understanding the vitality and ubiquity of the parchment painting in late medieval culture, readers will find manuscripts transformed by the freewheeling images that journeyed into and out of them.

Postcards on Parchment moves from a prehistory of parchment paintings to explorations of their social meanings and various functions. Part 1, “The Medieval Backdrop,” characterizes late medieval devotional culture as amenable to recycling and reintegration, in which reuse was a principle of artistic production. The parchment painting was ideally suited to devotees and audiences who were accustomed to augmenting works of art and devotionalia with objects they had acquired by gift, purchase, or chance; and when the parchment painting was “invented,” it was expressly with its fungibility in mind. Rudy then goes back in time to visit familiar figures like Matthew Paris and Villard de Honnecourt to trace a prehistory of the parchment painting. Early iterations appear to have been by-products of bookmaking and other artistic processes, and the casual nature of this scrappy medium as well as its sovereignty from text afforded opportunities for the invention and circulation of new image-types like the Veronica. However, when they were incorporated into manuscripts, users supplemented them with visual and textual devices to create apparent consistency where substantive coherence was lacking. Additions, in other words, engendered further additions.

Part 2 elucidates the social meanings generated by parchment paintings as gifts produced and exchanged by female religious, male monastics, and corporate institutions. In this respect, Postcards on Parchment participates in a broader movement in manuscript studies to recover the involvement of books in the social lives of medievals, explored recently in such volumes as The Social Life of Illumination: Manuscripts, Images, and Communities in the Late Middle Ages (Joyce Coleman, Mark Cruse, and Kathryn A. Smith, eds., Turnhout: Brepols, 2013) and The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches (Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen, eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Like Jeffrey Hamburger (Nuns as Artists: The Visual Culture of a Medieval Convent, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Rudy embraces the unlovely in this section, and to great success. Without glossing uncritically over aesthetic shortcomings, she detects the presence—and social meaning—of style in amateur parchment painting. A genuine tonic throughout these chapters is Rudy’s deft articulation of corporate style, which doesn’t brook the tedium of parsing individual hands. Religious houses developed group styles as recognizable trademarks, which helped to identify the producers of loose paintings to their purchasers or recipients and to solidify relationships among them. Recipients were then at liberty to customize and recontextualize the often simple paintings they received. This recontextxualization was eased by parchment paintings’ polysemy, specifically in their combination of multivalent iconography, such as the Virgin in sole and devotional “clock.” It is no coincidence, argues Rudy, that these image-types emerged from towns with multiple monasteries, where experimentation in religious life encouraged experimentation in artistic forms. This is an art history that is as much about production as it is about reception, and this is in part because the two are so often one and the same.

Important throughout Postcards on Parchment is the idea of manuscript “stratigraphy.” Manuscripts are permeable objects, and the parchment paintings they contain evince their accumulative and staggered production. Rudy is an agile spelunker of books, delving with brio into their recesses. The abundant details that emerge from these excavations never seem to grow ponderous, and they are always leavened by Rudy’s effervescent prose. But speaking of detail and profusion: writing this review has taxed my powers of selection and challenged me to capture the cornucopian storehouse of Rudy’s knowledge. I haven’t mentioned the medieval gallery of beards and the men who wear them, a translucent parchment painting of Christ among the candlesticks meant to be held up to the light, or the needle holes above images, which reminisce about the curtains once sewn above them. Did you know that pig’s grease was used to treat St. Anthony’s Fire? Or that badger-skin-covered monkey sculptures waved to park-goers in Hesdin? I did not. These delicacies—and so many more—are a great source of the book’s piquancy. Indefatigably, Postcards on Parchment serves the reader stimulating example after enticing case study, occasionally with little time to digest in between. Chapter 8, for example, tempts the reader with a snippet of a “Franciscan Scrapbook”; but hardly before our appetite has been whetted, we’re on to the Pavement Hours. If nothing else, I hope that some of these selections provide sneak previews for more sustained analyses—Rudy promises as much for the Beghards’ Book of Hours.

In addition to stratigraphy, “function” is an operative word throughout the book, particularly in part 3, where it is an organizational principle. In this section, Rudy proposes seven different uses to which parchment paintings were put. They functioned apotropaically as proxy saints and conjured the presence of the deceased. They were gathered by magpie collectors into albums, not necessarily as pilgrims’ souvenirs, but habitually as loose devotionalia in need of storage. The word-images that many contain enlivened the mystery of the word-made-flesh, and in their simplicity they also expanded opportunities for art production to scribes and untrained artists (the pragmatism of Postcards on Parchment is yet another of its strengths). The roundels enclosing Christ’s name or the Agnus Dei, which are commonly found, deputized the Host. Parchment paintings were miniaturized alternatives to altarpieces, adopting their aesthetic and drawing the viewer’s memory back to specific places. They were also common vehicles for indulgences, contributing to the popularity of such iconographies as the Mass of St. Gregory. Finally, parchment paintings were targets of oath-takers, once they had stopped touching their testicles for the occasion (you’ll have to read for yourself). What unites these seven chapters is adequation as the parchment painting’s driving premise: it often functions as something else. With this in mind, Rudy transitions to her conclusion, in which she considers the limits of the parchment painting as a discrete category, since, once noticed, parchment paintings seem to be everywhere.

Not only does Postcards on Parchment convince us to recalibrate our eyes to the messiness of medieval manuscripts, but it also insists that we use our hands to do so. There is a welcome political undercurrent throughout the book, which is made explicit early on when Rudy notes that firsthand access to manuscripts is essential. This statement sounds mild enough, but those attuned to its frequency will hear its demand that libraries and museums not restrict access to manuscripts that have digital surrogates. Many of the book’s discoveries were flagged or confirmed by textural differences between folios, and tactility is something that no reproduction can afford. Postcards on Parchment answers definitively why digital and photographic surrogates—while a boon—are insufficient. What’s more, Rudy presents important criticisms of institutional photographic practices, which flatten manuscript pages, crop them to the quick, and rob them of atmosphere. But Rudy is no Luddite. Aside from innovating manuscript studies with the use of a densitometer elsewhere, she illustrates in Postcards on Parchment the power of modern technology to reveal what cannot be seen by the eye unaided (42–43) and the value of personal photography in the research process. The meticulousness of her scholarship is served brilliantly by Yale University Press’s careful craftsmanship. Postcards on Parchment is beautifully disposed, and of special merit are not only the lavish images but their captions as well—full of detail, description, and even dimensions.

Without a cultish subscription to methodology, Rudy reaches for and deploys with expertise whatever tools or knowledge might illuminate the objects of her research. And she uses these tools as both a springboard and solid landing pad for her intrepid flights of scholarship. Rudy is not too timid to speculate, but when she does, it is with good reason, firm evidence, and complete transparency. Throughout the book individual case studies are wrapped up with candidly tentative reconstructions of manuscripts’ confection over time, an enterprise that breathes life back into books now arrested in archival amber. Like the manuscripts that it revives, Postcards on Parchment is prodigious with riches.

Sonja Drimmer
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Massachusetts Amherst