Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 20, 2002
Catherine E. Karkov Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England: Narrative Strategies in the Junius 11 Manuscript Cambridge University Press, 2002. 225 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (0521800692)

In this volume, Catherine Karkov examines the textual linkages and visual stratagems that unify Oxford, Bodleian Library Junius 11, an anthology including the Old English verse Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan. Karkov presents the imagery of Junius 11 in the context of eleventh-century learning and proposes a new and more sophisticated understanding of the relationship of text and image, where the images’ performance as a commentary on the text depends on the audience’s access to a “complex and highly learned intertextuality” (6). In doing so she raises the level of discourse both for Junius 11 and for late Anglo-Saxon illumination in general, which has all too often been construed as an illustrative response to texts rather than an informed and broadly referenced commentary on them.

Produced in the second half of the tenth century, possibly at Christ Church, Canterbury, Junius 11 contains forty-eight outline drawings illustrating Genesis from the Creation to Abraham and Sarah’s journey into Egypt. Spaces are left for intended drawings in the remainder of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, which were envisioned as a single book. Christ and Satan, ending with the rubric “Finit Liber II. Amen,” was considered separately from the other poems and reserves no spaces in the text for illustrations, although separate full-page drawings may have been planned.

Karkov’s introduction summarizes issues raised by previous scholarship on Junius 11. Chapter 2 assesses the structure, style, and design of the manuscript, including discussion of its sections, its paleography and punctuation, the style of its illustrations and their attribution to several hands, and their use of geometric forms and figural poses to clarify narrative. Chapter 3 constitutes a close description and analysis of the extant images of the manuscript, focusing on the role of these drawings in linking ideas not only within Genesis, but also among all the poems in the manuscript. Chapter 4 focuses thematically on two forms of communication that Karkov sees as instrumental not only to the internal sense of the manuscript, but also in its transmission of that content to its audiences: word, in the form of the Word of God, the deceptive and self-pitying words of Satan, and the words transmitted through the manuscript to its audiences; and communication via dreams, visions, and signs. Chapter 5, “The book and the body,” considers the emphases in the manuscript on the genealogy of God’s chosen people, the bodily marking of outcasts, evildoers, and those not chosen, and the redemptive role of the body of Christ in the context of his dual nature. The final chapter concerns both the collection history of the manuscript itself and the historical sequence of editions of its texts, including the now-discredited attribution of the poems to Cædmon. The author concludes by pointing to the application of contemporary perspectives in the related interpretive acts of writing and reading; each generation of observers of Junius 11 from its Anglo-Saxon origins to the present has reconsidered the manuscript in light of its own priorities. An appendix provides a sequential assembly of what subjects might have been depicted in the reserved spaces in the first three poems of the manuscript according to George Henderson and Peter J. Lucas, and a summary of possible imagery on missing leaves in Christ and Satan as proposed by Israel Gollancz and James Hall.

This is a complex and highly theorized reading of Junius 11, and for the most part Karkov carefully and graciously signposts the foundations of her theoretical approach in the work of Gabrielle Spiegel and Michael Camille, among others, although in Chapter 5 the work of Camille and others who have theorized the body is somewhat undercited. The major issues a reviewer may bring to such a theoretical approach to an historical object center on degrees of interpretation. In some areas Karkov’s readings may go beyond what the manuscript bears out, while in others she might have carried the point further. Current consensus is that although the origins of the poems assembled in Junius 11 are unknown, their composition antedates their assembly here, and they may well have had no prior mutual connection. What may be new in Junius 11 is the association of these texts with one another and the addition of illustrations. This implies that unless the texts of the poems have been severely edited for this context to enhance coincidence of content, the producers of this manuscript had only two sets of interpretive opportunities, the sequenced juxtaposition of the poems and the design of the images. Karkov notes this point at several junctures, but makes repeated reference (135, 138, 147, and 172, among others) to connections among texts as well as images here, as though the poems too were produced as a group. It seems more probable that the echoes among the texts here, discovered through long familiarity, may have been what motivated their assembly into this manuscript and stimulated the hypertextuality of the manuscript’s imagery. The particulars of the process of interpretation, not only in the thorough knowledge of the poems themselves, but also in the range of references that Karkov brings to light and the consistent application of particular visual formulae, suggests the presence of both a project editor, possibly but not necessarily identical with any of the hands at work here, and also a purpose or intended context for the edition. Karkov’s clear demonstration of the emphasis on genealogy in both the selection of poems and the imagery of Junius 11 suggests a context where lineage was of serious consequence. Despite her argument that genealogy was important to all Anglo-Saxons of this period, Karkov’s examples reflect the concentration of this concern in the royal family and its connections, where the line of descent had practical ramifications of power and privilege. This would suggest a connection of Junius 11 to royalty, although whether specifically to an individual member of the royal family or to one of its connections among ecclesiastical individuals and institutions cannot yet be discerned. Karkov’s interpretation of Junius 11 presupposes that its producers anticipated a highly learned audience capable of making the multilayered associations that such a reading requires. In the tenth century such a level of learning was certainly possible but by no means ubiquitous, and the settings where a hypertextual program of this level of complexity could be not only produced but also understood were necessarily few. The conjunctions between such centers and royal interests may further narrow the field and eventually allow the intended destination of this manuscript to be situated more securely. Karkov notes in her introduction that her purpose in this book has been to open new areas for discussion in the study of Junius 11, and she has most certainly succeeded.

The attachment of meaning to a visual motif also generally requires the consistent use of the motif itself, so that reading is not undercut by unpredictable variation. Karkov’s treatment of specific motifs is occasionally problematic, as in her suggestion that the postlapsarian sexualization of bodies in the images of Junius 11 is intended to indicate the entry of evil into the world; she points out that before the Fall both Adam and Eve have long hair, no visible genitalia, and “prominent breasts” (13). However, in these images Adam can be read as showing the outlined pectoral muscles typical of medieval depictions of the male nude. Further, while Karkov notes that before the Fall Eve’s nipples are only inconsistently more pronounced than Adam’s, Adam’s are never shown as projecting, suggesting at least partial acknowledgement of sexual differences in these scenes. After the Fall Adam’s hair length varies form short to long, and while his beard first appears in the scene of the Messenger returning to hell (Junius 11 36; pl. XV and 132), it is missing in the later scene of God’s judgement on the serpent (41; pl. XVII). Such inconsistencies erode Karkov’s generalized reading of sexualized bodies as a visualization of the introduction of sin.

On the whole the level of production of this volume is high, with a few editorial glitches (“pharoah” on page 116, both “Nabuchodonosor” and “Nebuchodonosor” on page 121). Critical details in the images could have been given more prominence, notably “Robert Finnegan’s recent discovery of the figure of a man outside the arcs of Creation on page 7,” whom Karkov identifies with the reader (101–2) but who is invisible in the plate (pl. IIIb) even with a magnifier. Clarity of images has been a consistent problem in the Cambridge Studies series of which this volume is a part. The technology is now widely available to heighten contrast in scanned images, which would be particularly helpful for small-scale plates of Anglo-Saxon outline drawings.

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