Book roundup: Spring 2015

Here’s just five books we’ve seen have come out in 2015 that might be of interest to our readers. We’d always welcome a review of one if you have opinions: email us!

9781782977827_2[1]Britain’s Medieval Episcopal Thrones by Charles Tracy with Andrew Budge (Oxbow Books)

This book is the first major investigation of a subject of seminal importance in the study of church history and archaeology. The two stone thrones, at Wells and Durham, the three timber monuments, at Exeter, St Davids and Hereford, and the mid-14th-century bishop’s chair at Lincoln, all come under a searching empirical enquiry.

The Exeter throne is the largest and most impressive in Europe. It is a distinguished innovatory example of the English Decorated style, with antecedents passing back to the court of Edward I. It exemplifies most of the historical and formal strands that suffuse the entire book – visual appearance, distinctiveness within the building, prestige, construction, stylistic context, finance, and the patronage and personal role of the bishop himself; as well as the subtler issues of the personal and collective politics of bishop and chapter, the monument’s liturgical applications, its relationship with the cathedral’s relics, its symbolism and what it tells us about the aspirations of the institution within the existing ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The thrones also reveal much about the personal circumstances of an individual bishop, and where he stood on the scale of a good diocesan on the one hand, and ambitious politician on the other, as exemplified at Exeter and Durham.

The text is by the art historian, Dr Charles Tracy, a seasoned expert on church furniture both in Britain and on the continent of Europe. The chapter on the stone thrones was prepared by Andrew Budge who is currently preparing a Ph.D thesis on ‘English Chantry Churches’ at Birkbeck College. The polychromy authority, Eddie Sinclair, spent many hours on the scaffold to bring forward her remarkable report on the Exeter throne. Her full report is to be published online.The Exeter throne is also interpreted by the established timber conservation practitioner, Hugh Harrison, and the St Davids throne by the experienced draughtsman, Peter Ferguson. In an age of the CAD, his meticulous measured drawings of the Exeter and St Davids monuments are one of the most remarkable features of book. The architect, Paul Woodfield prepared the drawings for the Lincoln chair.

9780198201571_450[1]The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550 by Gervase Rosser (Oxford University Press)

Guilds and fraternities, voluntary associations of men and women, proliferated in medieval Europe. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages explores the motives and experiences of the many thousands of men and women who joined together in these family-like societies. Rarely confined to a single craft, the diversity of guild membership was of its essence. Setting the English evidence in a European context, this study is not an institutional history, but instead is concerned with the material and non-material aims of the brothers and sisters of the guilds.

Gervase Rosser addresses the subject of medieval guilds in the context of contemporary debates surrounding the identity and fulfilment of the individual, and the problematic question of his or her relationship to a larger society. Unlike previous studies, The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages does not focus on the guilds as institutions but on the social and moral processes which were catalysed by participation. These bodies founded schools, built bridges, managed almshouses, governed small towns, shaped religious ritual, and commemorated the dead, perceiving that association with a fraternity would be a potential catalyst of personal change. Participants cultivated the formation of new friendships between individuals, predicated on the understanding that human fulfilment depended upon a mutually transformative engagement with others. The peasants, artisans, and professionals who joined the guilds sought to change both their society and themselves. The study sheds light on the conception and construction of society in the Middle Ages, and suggests further that this evidence has implications for how we see ourselves.

9781780232942[1]The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art by Spike Bucklow (Reaktion Books)

The Riddle of the Image explores the materials and methods that lie behind the production of historic paintings. Spike Bucklow, who works as a research scientist and restorer of paintings, analyses some of the most well-known and important medieval works of art, as well as less familiar artworks, to throw new light on art production techniques that have been lost for centuries. By examining the science of the materials, as well as the techniques of medieval artists, he adds new aspects to our understanding and appreciation of these paintings, and of medieval art in general.

The case studies include one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, London, and the altarpiece in front of which English monarchs were crowned for centuries. Many of the technical details presented here are published for the first time and some others have only been featured in exhibition catalogues and specialist academic papers. The author is internationally recognized for his work in the scientific examination of paintings and he also draws upon the work of other internationally recognized specialists. While intensive research into artists’ materials and methods has been undertaken for several decades, this book is the first intended for a general audience that examines the subject in depth.

9780226169125[1]Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages by Robert Mills (Chicago University Press)

During the Middle Ages in Europe, some sexual and gendered behaviors were labeled “sodomitical” or evoked the use of ambiguous phrases such as the “unmentionable vice” or the “sin against nature.” How, though, did these categories enter the field of vision? How do you know a sodomite when you see one?

In Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills explores the relationship between sodomy and motifs of vision and visibility in medieval culture, on the one hand, and those categories we today call gender and sexuality, on the other. Challenging the view that ideas about sexual and gender dissidence were too confused to congeal into a coherent form in the Middle Ages, Mills demonstrates that sodomy had a rich, multimedia presence in the period—and that a flexible approach to questions of terminology sheds new light on the many forms this presence took. Among the topics that Mills covers are depictions of the practices of sodomites in illuminated Bibles; motifs of gender transformation and sex change as envisioned by medieval artists and commentators on Ovid; sexual relations in religious houses and other enclosed spaces; and the applicability of modern categories such as “transgender,” “butch” and “femme,” or “sexual orientation” to medieval culture.

Taking in a multitude of images, texts, and methodologies, this book will be of interest to all scholars, regardless of discipline, who engage with gender and sexuality in their work.

130676227895079625Lincoln%20Cathedral%20Bio%20resize%20100[1]Lincoln Cathedral: The Biography of a Great Building by Jonathan Foyle (SCALA publishing)

A fascinating and personal study of one of Britain’s greatest cathedrals, illustrated with specially commissioned photography, comparative and archival images, and the author’s own plans and drawings. Lincoln is one of Britain’s greatest cathedrals, its three towers and formidable west front dominating the surrounding plains from its commanding hilltop position. It was largely built over the course of a century, up to the completion of the glorious Angel Quire in 1280.

Architectural historian and broadcaster Jonathan Foyle regards Lincoln Cathedral as an old and valued friend and writes with deep knowledge and passion about the developing character of the building. He shows how innovative and experimental the grand thirteenth-century rebuild was, influenced not only by spectacular contemporary work at Canterbury, but also by changing political and spiritual values, and by the continental travels and experience of individual bishops.

Did we miss any new books that you’re enjoying? Email us at medievalartresearch@gmail.com to let us know about it? Are you an author that’s publishing a new book of interest to medieval art historians and want a plug? Let us be your socket! 

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