Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 13, 2003
Debra Higgs Strickland Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art Princeton University Press, 2002. 335 pp.; 16 color ills.; 146 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0691057192)
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Capitalizing on a trend that has figured prominently in recent art-historical studies, Debra Higgs Strickland’s new book investigates the place of the Other in the art of the Middle Ages. She structures her tale around an ideological assertion that will be familiar to scholars of the medieval West: namely, that for theologians and artists in this period, the non-Christian was effectively nonhuman. Strickland’s study demonstrates how this ideology of dehumanization haunted medieval imagery in ways that are not always consistent or logical when viewed from the vantage point of the modern viewer. This simultaneous need for and hatred of outsiders cut through the art of the Middle Ages, filling it with surprising presences and absences, repressions and specters, slippages and hybridizations. The questions that the author asks about such images go to the heart of the medieval imagination haunted by figures that were thought to imperil the souls of “good Christians.” To write such a history is an exceedingly ambitious project, embracing nearly the full-range of medieval art and requiring an accounting of its ideological strategies and import. Rather sensibly, Strickland has narrowed the field of her investigation. She has chosen to concentrate on the art of northern Europe from approximately 1000 to 1500; roughly three-quarters of the images discussed in the book were created in either France or England.

Strickland’s narrative searches for origins and attempts to classify the various Others of medieval art. In a series of six linked case studies, we meet (in order) the monstrous races, demons and Ethiopians, Jews, Muslims, Mongols, and finally Antichrist and his followers. A final chapter considers “positive monsters”—images that draw on the visual language of alterity to present the sacred and the divine. Despite this emphasis on taxonomy, Strickland notes that the iconographic strategies employed by medieval artists were rarely fixed in their meanings and applications. Many of the images discussed here resist easy categorization and labeling.

In searching for the beginnings of what she calls this “pictorial code of rejection” (30), Strickland’s first chapter considers two different points of origin: first, ancient writings on alterity; and second, the specific example of the monstrous races. For her, the latter group is fundamental for understanding medieval notions of Otherness. The abject bodies of these creatures challenged medieval writers to make sense of God’s creation in its most puzzling forms. Were the monstrous races human? Medieval writers remained undecided (50). If they were human, then they had souls and could perhaps be converted (cf. the tympanum at Vézelay). If they were not, what kind of threat did they pose to the medieval Christian? In the end, their very forms made definitive conclusions impossible. The monstrous races stood as signs of ambiguity, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, symbol and fact, human and nonhuman.

In a provocative interpretive move, Strickland argues that the monstrous races can be read as the foundational Others of medieval art and thought: “I therefore suggest that the Monstrous Races tradition provided the ideological infrastructure for later medieval Christian portraits of living outcast groups” (42). Yet compared with the phobic reactions to such groups as Jews, Muslims, and demons in the Middle Ages (the very beings singled out in the title of the book), the monstrous races seem relatively benign. In medieval art, their position tended to be relatively immutable, whether relegated to the margins of world maps or sorted and described in the pages of bestiaries. Isidore of Seville even went so far as to assert that not all of the monstrous races actually existed (52).

There was, however, no denying the existence of demons in the Middle Ages. For medieval people they were ubiquitous, threatening, and ultimately elusive. As fallen angels, demons “predate” the other outcasts described in Strickland’s study. Even more importantly, however, their very forms encode their instability. As spirits become visible for the purpose of doing evil, demons had an unlimited potential to overturn notions of corporeal integrity and aesthetics. The malformed surfaces of their bodies as depicted in medieval art bespoke their desire either to enter or devour, to disintegrate or incorporate.

In this sense one might wish to argue (against Strickland) that it is demons and not the monstrous races that constitute the ideological and aesthetic foundation upon which notions of Otherness were based. The unstable and disfigured form of the demon encodes the paranoid hermeneutic that permitted medieval people to categorize such groups as Jews, Muslims, and Mongols as subhuman and therefore dispensable. Beyond this, there are more “direct” links. As Strickland notes, medieval authors strongly believed that non-Christians would join with demons at the end of time in a war against God’s faithful.

The remainder of Strickland’s study concerns those groups thought to be potential threats to Christians and Christianity in the Middle Ages—specifically, Jews, Muslims, and Mongols. Yet the task of classifying and categorizing images of these groups is perhaps not as simple as it sounds. Because medieval art is most often concerned with either the sacred past or the apocalyptic future, the roles played by these groups in art are often unrelated to their actual position in medieval society.

This is not to say that medieval art was not shaped by its social ambience; it was, of course. But social concerns were refracted through a body of subject matter that by and large did not touch directly on the everyday, but rather on what was thought to be transcendent. Thus, as Strickland notes, medieval images of Jews, for example, “tell us next to nothing about medieval Jews, but they reveal a great deal about medieval Christians” (96). Medieval artists, both consciously and unconsciously, created an imaginary Jew, generally male and bearing little resemblance to the actual Jews of medieval Europe. In the paranoid fantasies of medieval Christians, Jews were capable of ritual child murder and host desecration. Yet such scenes are relatively uncommon in medieval art. Instead, one must turn to more traditional iconography to consider the place of the imaginary Jew in medieval images. Strickland notes the fundamental ambivalence at work here. Old Testament Jews (such as David) were regularly depicted in a positive light. Passion iconography, however, figured the Jews as malevolent deicides. This contradictory attitude ultimately carried over into apocalyptic imagery, which was inspired by the belief that Jews would at first join forces with Antichrist but eventually be converted to Christianity.

If anti-Jewish imagery is ubiquitous in medieval art, images of Muslims are less frequent and are not easily gauged. Strickland mines the most relevant sources, such as illustrated Crusader chronicles, but, rather surprisingly, medieval artists seem only occasionally interested in demonizing the Muslim enemy. They are regularly shown, like Jews, as idolaters, which of course neither group was in the Middle Ages, and they are often distinguished by exotic costume (turbans are perhaps the most common motif) and darker skin. In scenes of battle, Muslim armies are shown as relatively equal in prowess to their crusading counterparts. Why medieval artists were so comfortable with demonizing Jews but less so with Muslims is a question that remains open for future investigation. It is a cultural blind spot requiring additional theorizing.

Even more curious are the small number of images that deal with the Mongol threat to Christian Europe. They range from the gruesome scene of cannibalism drawn by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century to the refined and courtly image that Strickland reproduces from an illustrated Marco Polo manuscript created in England some 150 years later.

In her previous book (published under the name Debra Hassig), Strickland examined word-image relations in medieval bestiaries. A similar method is employed here, often moving from text to image, to create what might be called an encyclopedia of the medieval Other. In her compilation of images, texts, and secondary sources, scholars and students will find a rich field for further study. The taxonomy that Strickland creates will be appropriated, manipulated, questioned, and perhaps occasionally remade. In this sense, her book is a generous work; its strength resides not so much in the author’s reading of individual images as in the way she has synthesized a large body of earlier research published by a range of scholars. In essence, Strickland has mapped out a territory crucial for a responsible accounting of the ideological power of medieval art. Her work stands as both a reference work and a starting point for future investigation.

Gerald B. Guest
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Humanities, John Carroll University

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