Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 29, 2001
C.R. Dodwell Anglo-Saxon Gestures and the Roman Stage Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 171 pp. Cloth $69.95 (0521661889)

The publication of Anglo-Saxon Gestures and the Roman Stage posthumously honors C. R. Dodwell’s lifelong work on early medieval art. Timothy Graham, formerly Dodwell’s research assistant, considerately saw the book through to press. In this volume, Dodwell considers the origins of the illustrations in Carolingian Terence manuscripts and their possible relationship to illuminations produced at Canterbury or under Canterbury’s influence in the eleventh century. Although its deductions are problematic, this study is nonetheless valuable for its systematic analysis of gestures in the manuscripts’ imagery; it will interest not only art historians but also intellectual historians and classicists.

Chapter 1, “The Vatican Terence and its model,” posits that the model of the ninth-century Vatican Terence (Vat. lat. 3969) was from the third century and possibly North African, rather than fifth century and Greco-Asian, as was contended by Leslie Webber Jones and Charles Rufus Morey in The Miniatures of the Manuscripts of Terence prior to the Thirteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1931). Chapter 2, “The classical miniatures and the stage,” proposes that the manuscript tradition of illustrating Terence’s comedies, most fully represented by the Vatican Codex, is derived from direct knowledge of performance practice. Chapter 3, “Dramatic gestures in the miniatures,” the most valuable and durable part of the book, identifies the meaning of eighteen gestures in the Terence illustrations based on a close reading of the text. Old Comedy was a ritualized performance medium whereby actors wore masks to indicate character type and used gestures to indicate their characters’ states of mind; if a gesture made by characters in the illustrations consistently parallels a particular emotion expressed by these characters in the text, Dodwell maintains, the gesture was used to signify that emotional state in performance. In the appendix to this chapter, Dodwell argues in opposition to Günther Jachmann’s Die Geschichte des Terenztextes im Altertum (Basel, Germany: F. Reinhardt, 1924) that the images in the Roman model for the Carolingian Terence manuscripts were produced from a working knowledge of theatrical performance. The last chapter, “Anglo-Saxon gestures,” asserts that the most probable source for six “Terentian” gestures in manuscripts from or associated with pre-Conquest Canterbury is an illustrated Carolingian Terence imported from Reims in the wake of ecclesiastical reform. In conclusion, Dodwell postulates that late Anglo-Saxon Canterbury, along with Carolingian Reims, preserved in illuminated manuscripts the performance traditions of Old Comedy, last seen on the stage in the third century. Dodwell’s argument that the gestures of the illustrated Terence tradition ultimately depend on performance practice is sound. But were these images developed in the third century to conserve fading performance traditions, or did this practice of gestural illustration originate earlier, in the heyday of Old Comedy? Dodwell’s hypothetical third-century artist could have made the same sort of comparative analysis of illustration and text while looking at an earlier model that Dodwell considers in Chapter 3, gleaning the meaning of particular gestures from the consistency of textual context. Jachmann may have been mistaken in arguing for a complete separation of the Terence illustrative tradition from the use of gesture in staging these plays, but Dodwell may be equally off the mark in arguing for the complete dependence of illustrators on live performance as late as the third century.

In Chapter 4, “Anglo-Saxon gestures,” Dodwell argues that an illustrated Terence, probably produced in Carolingian Reims, was the primary source for “Terentian” gestures in eleventh-century manuscripts from or under the influence of Canterbury. But direct evidence of the presence of Terence is scarce for pre-Conquest England and unreliable for Canterbury. Rosalind Love identifies the only Terence quotation in Anglo-Latin texts noted to date in Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, in Oda’s prefatory letter to Frithegod’s Breviloquium vitae Wilfridi (R. C. Love,“The Sources of Oda’s Prefatory letter to Frithegod’s Breviloquium uitae Wilfridi [Lapidge C. 53.02],” 2000, Fontes Anglo-Saxonici: World Wide Web Register,, accessed July 2001). Here Oda, Archbishop of Canterbury (941-958), quotes from Phormio: auribus teneo lupum, “I hold a wolf by the ears.” Love posits that Oda quoted directly from Phormio, possibly implying a Terence manuscript at Canterbury by the mid-tenth century. But Oda could have learned this vividly memorable line as a student before his arrival at Canterbury from a Terence or possibly a grammar text. Michael Lapidge points to Oda’s use of two archaic locutions possibly from Terence, as well as Oda’s confusion of two separate words of a Terentian phrase. Although Lapidge argues that Oda’s quotation implies knowledge of Terence in England, he notes that the archaisms may have come from a glossary and the confused phrase from Donatus’s Commentaries on Eunuchus (Michael Lapidge, ed., Anglo-Latin Literature 900-1066 [London: Hambledon Press, 1993], 116, 465). Similar archaisms are also found in late tenth-century Latin verse from Winchester, which Lapidge suggests had a Terence from Fleury (250, 252, 256). The sole reference to Terence in surviving Anglo-Saxon booklists, in an eleventh-century schoolroom book list—possibly from Worcester, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 3 (S.C. 9823, ff. 189v-190r)—suggests occasional but infrequent educational usage in pre-Conquest England (Michael Lapidge, “Surviving booklists from Anglo-Saxon England,” in Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes, eds. M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss [Cambridge: MA: Cambridge University Press, 1985], 70). The extant manuscripts from pre-Conquest England include only one Terence (Oxford, Brasenose MS 18) (see Helmut Gneuss, “Bücher und Leser in England im zehnten Jahrhundert,” in Medialität und mittelalterliche insulare Literatur, ed. H.L.C. Tristram, [Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr, 1992], 130). Dodwell points out that by about 1170, there were five Terence manuscripts at Christ Church Canterbury (148 n. 186), but this evidence is not necessarily retroactively valid for the pre-Conquest period. And so the plays of Terence may not have been widely available in pre-Conquest England, nor can their presence be confirmed for eleventh-century Canterbury.

The larger problem in this book is methodological. Given the vast lacunae in the received spectrum of objects and documentation and the role of intent in the deployment of the art of the past, most historians of medieval art now steer clear of linear theories of origination built on visual parallels to a single model, especially where availability of that model cannot be demonstrated and where other channels of access are open possibilities. Dodwell’s thesis that particular gestures in Canterbury and Canterbury-linked manuscripts must depend on a Carolingian Terence may be countered by noting that all six of Dodwell’s “Terentian” gestures in Anglo-Saxon illuminations are applied with the same meanings in earlier Christian art. Perplexity, pointing a finger to the face or forehead, is seen in the beardless man at right in the Anointing of David on one of the David plates (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art); in the woman on the far right in the Munich ivory of the Ascension/Women at the Tomb (Germany, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum); in the related late ninth-century northern French ivory of the Women at the Tomb and the Crucifixion (England, Liverpool Museum); and in two of the Magi before Herod on the front cover of the Lorsch Gospels (Vatican, Museo Sacro). In the Expulsion on the doors of St. Michael’s in Hildesheim, Eve shows her grief by placing her palm alongside her face, as do the Virgin, John the Evangelist, angels, and the personification of the moon on ivory or metal Crucifixion book covers (Frauke Steenbock, Der Kirchliche Prachteinband im frühen Mittelalter [Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 1965], nos. 21, 24, 37, 56, 60, 62). Indicating approval or acquiescence, by partially extending an upturned palm with thumb approaching or touching the index or third finger, is seen in the figure at left in the Anointing of David in the David plates and by John the Baptist on the back cover of the Lorsch Gospels (London, Victoria & Albert Museum). Supplication is shown by partially extending both arms forward with cupped palms in the Milan ivory of the Women at the Tomb (Italy, Castel Sforzesco), in a pyxis showing pilgrims approaching St. Menas (London, British Museum), and in various scenes of Christ’s healing miracles (K. Weitzmann , ed., Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979], nos. 373, 399, fig. 87). Raising partially bent arms to the sides to indicate fear—distinguished by context from the gesture indicating prayer—is a gesture used for James and John at the Transfiguration in St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai, and for a woman at the Massacre of the Innocents in a side panel from a fifth-century five-part ivory diptych (Berlin-Dahlem, Staatliche Museen). Dodwell notes this gesture in the arrested Christ in the Tiberius Psalter (London, BL Tiberius C. vi, 12r), but the same pose had already been used for this scene in the Book of Kells (Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 58, 114r). Pondering or reflection, placing a fist against the chin, is seen in Thecla listening to Paul on a ivory casket from fifth-century Rome (London, British Museum); for the woman whose inquiry provokes the denial of Peter and for both women at the tomb of Christ in two of four plaques from another fifth-century Roman ivory casket (London, British Museum); and for John the Evangelist at the Crucifixion on an enamel book cover (Fritzlar, Germany, Stiftskirche St. Peter). Earlier Christian art, frequently deploying classical gestures for their own iconographic purposes, is a far more probable conduit for these gestures to eleventh-century Canterbury illuminators than is Dodwell’s hypothetical illustrated Terence.

The text is free of errata with one exception: page 150 is missing footnotes 190 to 193 and the end of note 189, begun on the previous page. The second half of note 189, part of a letter from François Avril, offering evidence that one of the illustrated Terence manuscripts (Paris, BN lat. 7899) remained in France into the twelfth century, is a significant loss, as it supports Dodwell’s thesis that the imported Terence manuscript in use in eleventh-century Canterbury did not survive.

Although this book is of lasting importance for its analysis of the meaning of gestures in Old Comedy, the methodological problems in the section on the transmission of this tradition to eleventh-century Canterbury diminish the value of the last section of the book. A history of the adaptation of classical gesture into the art of the Middle Ages that takes into account the complexities of historiography as well as of history has yet to be written.

Carol Neuman de Vegvar
Professor, Fine Arts Department, Ohio Wesleyan University