Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 24, 2004
Valentin Groebner Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages Trans. Pamela Selwyn. New York: Zone Books, 2004. 192 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Cloth $32.95 (1890951374)

Valentin Groebner’s latest book, his fourth, is nothing if not timely. An engaging (but also slightly uneven) series of studies involving ways in which bodies, and markings upon bodies, carried meaning and acted as the ground for physical violence in late medieval Europe, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages treats a subject that stands more or less at the center of discussions involving Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the photographs of charred corpses in Fallujah, Iraq, and images of naked prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. Importantly, this connection is not simply coincidental; indeed, as Groebner notes, his current volume was motivated in part by his desire to understand his reactions to photographs from war-torn Haiti and Bosnia. And yet, late medieval is not contemporary, and Groebner wisely avoids oversimplifying the relations between past and present. In short, then, recent events may act as a sobering initial prompt, but his concern is ultimately historical. “How,” he asks, “did the authors of the images and texts that so vividly and so terribly described the injured and the mutilated intend them to affect spectators or readers?” (15).

The specific images and texts that he has in mind here are varied, and they often fall well outside the bounds of a traditional art history. In turn, Groebner examines signs and emblems that were used to enforce civic order or to identify civic enemies, the act of denasatio (that is, the severing of a nose), blood in images of the crucified Christ, and markings used on (and violence done to) soldiers. These rather disparate fields of signification are unified, in Groebner’s mind, not only by a basically violent tenor, but also by a common tension between the order suggested by the signs and the potential corruption, or ambiguity, of those same signs. Certain signs could uphold, through implied violence, brands of civic order—but they could also be appropriated, weakening civic order. Signs inevitably produced, too, through contrast, the uncertain realm of the ungestalt, or the formless. In a broad sense, this subject has interested Groebner before; in Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts: Presents and Politics at the End of the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), he noted the problem of counterfeit couriers, men who wore reassuringly familiar municipal coats of arms while bearing false information. In Defaced, however, ordering signs and their attendant difficulties now stand as the primary subject of study.

After a general opening chapter, in which the author comments on recent readings of late medieval violence and warns against overly simple assertions of continuity, Groebner makes his way into the archives—the ample late medieval civic records, that is, of Switzerland and the upper Rhine. These rich sources offer a wealth of anecdote, and at times Groebner’s tendency to move from intriguing set pieces into broader cultural observations and then back again resembles the work of historians as diverse as Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg. His second chapter, then, is broadly concerned with the establishment of municipal order, which was, argues Groebner, made manifest to the general public less through texts or public hearings than through coats of arms, costumes, and even graffiti. The trouble with this, of course, was that such signs could be duplicated rather easily—or, worse, could be used in varied forms by secret conspirators. Thus, the multiplication of the signs of order could destabilize not only the meaning of the signs, but also the civic order that they had worked to uphold.

This may seem rather obvious to most historians of art (or, one could add, to historians of relics, or of currency), and there are several points at which Groebner seems to want to dress up his assertions in order to make them seem more unique. Hence his airy statement that “heraldry reveals the history of the political media of visualization” (52): indeed, that’s what heraldry is, more or less. His third chapter, however, is more crisp: it collects a number of anecdotes involving noses that were severed to signify adultery and offers an overview of the course by which the nose came to be associated with sexual experience or licentiousness. This is useful material for both the iconographer and the social historian, and Groebner treats it fairly, noting that the disfigurement could bear distinct meanings in differing contexts—but that it was always meant to render visible an invisible sexual transgression.

Groebner’s fourth chapter is perhaps his most ambitious: he aims to relate reactions to late medieval images of Christ to other contemporary imageries of violence (such as Passion plays) and corporal punishments. This is, to be sure, well-trodden turf; the recent literature on compassio alone is vast, and studies of correspondences between Passion imagery and modes of punishment have been rather common since the publication of Samuel Edgerton’s Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985). As a result, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect Groebner’s notes on the subject to be all-inclusive; at times, however, they seem simply thin, and his familiarity with Italian scholarship on the subjects is often passing. Still, his emphasis upon blood as a proof of authenticity is worth considering, and his interest in the difficulties involved in recognizing the body of Christ, and in the chaos that could result from potential appropriations of that form, is happily provocative.

Finally, Groebner turns to the battlefield, and to the signs that identified the various sides. These were commonly red and white crosses, in the case of Swiss and French troops, but they also included improvised marks of identification; these signs rarely answered to any standardized system, thus making misidentifications or even outright deception quite possible. With these observations in place, Groebner then adds an interesting afterthought: that charges of deception, or of the misuse of such signs, were also in their own way signs of a sort. In fact, rumors of enemy inversions of traditional standards—rumors of falsified markings, say, but also of wartime cannibalism—were perhaps an inevitable consequence of the wartime reliance upon signs of differentiation. And so, much as the defamatory pictures that hung outside Tuscan town halls gained some of their effect from their utter inversion of traditional ennobling portraits, wartime propaganda and rumor suggested barbarism by a corruption of common sign systems or values.

How to tie these various strands together? Again, Groebner is above all interested in how signifiers could render the invisible (Frenchness, say, or adultery, or holiness) visible—but also in how signifiers and their intended meanings could drift apart. There was, he claims, a meaningful distinction between brands of violence seen as legitimate and illegitimate, but the quality of that distinction depended upon the stability of signs. And his case studies act as compelling proof that this stability was not entirely constant. This is, ultimately, not a radical proposition; think, for example, of the longstanding medieval nervousness regarding the difficult distinction between legitimate, edifying icons and dangerous idols: signs of the holy can be (mis)read in many, many ways. But Groebner is an open, graceful writer whose enthusiasm and eye for interesting detail are clear, and the translation—by Pamela Selwyn, who also translated Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts—is bright, making this a useful addition to the field.

As to shortcomings: there are a few, though slight. No translator, for one thing, could render elegant some of Groebner’s gratingly obvious methodological proclamations; for instance, we read, “We cannot know what pious fifteenth- and sixteenth-century people actually felt” (95), and, a page later, “Pictures were not simply a funnel through which scholarly contents trickled down to the illiterate laity.” Well, all right—but did anyone really think the opposite? Or does anyone doubt that images of Christ were, as he insists, used variously? Unfortunately, similar oversimplification also colors some of his broader theoretical claims. Thus, he claims at several points that violence renders its victims anonymous—a contention that is perhaps often true, but that deserves more substantial consideration. After all, the very opposite can often also be true; in the Roman Republic, as A. W. Lintott has noted, authorities used violence against those who had already been rendered, through station or rationalization, anonymous. In short, then, pictures are not funnels, and bold theoretical claims are not laws. Finally, a list of works cited would help (as would, I think, a closer attention to the writings of Jeffrey Hamburger and Michael Camille).

These are, though, relatively minor quibbles. On the whole, Defaced is an enjoyable book—and another worthwhile publication from Zone, which has done so much to revise our understanding of medieval bodies. At the book’s end, Groebner claims that he had simply hoped, in writing, to reach a deeper understanding of the petrifying images of violence that circulate in the contemporary media. He could not have known, of course, of the difficult images that would emanate from Iraq soon after publication, and yet his volume does offer a lucid and provocative prehistory to those disturbing pictures.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art

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