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Rick Hellman
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New book details power of paratext in medieval works

Thu, 10/08/2020


LAWRENCE – Back in the days before hyperlinks – before the printed page, even – how did people make reference to one written work within the body of another? How did they relate a historic account to the context of then current times?

What they would do is literally tear up the book: They inserted new sections. Or they added prologues and epilogues. Or they added illustrations before, during and after the main text, calling attention to the book’s translator, or to its intended royal recipient, or to a particular plot point.

These and other examples of what scholars call paratext – the stuff inscribed in the margins or otherwise added to an “original” text – are the subject of the new book “Inscribing Knowledge in the Medieval Book: The Power of Paratexts” (DeGruyter, 2020), co-written and co-edited by Anne Hedeman, Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of Kansas.

The book pays particular attention to the political power relationships that are revealed in paratexts of the Middle Ages.

Hedeman said the book grew out of a symposium held at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Orleans, France, a couple of years ago, at which scholars from varying fields discussed their work on paratexts.

Because the hand-copied books that survived from this era were often held in the libraries of noblemen involved in political, religious and military conflicts, “We thought it would be interesting to consider the idea of power,” Hedeman said in a recent interview. “How could this material object be used, either by the people for whom it was being made, or by the authors, or by the scribes who wrote it, or by the artists, to shade or express power of various sorts.”

Hedeman wrote one chapter and edited others that related to her specialty – the history of art.

She chose to write about two particular paratexts in a chapter titled “Translating Prologues and Prologue Illustration in French Historical Texts.”

The first paratext Hedeman reviews is a history that translates as “The Great Chronicle of France.” In this book, originally written circa 1275-1280 and amended in the late 1300s/early 1400s, “it is the chancellor of France who's intervening to make it tighter for King Charles V — taking the book apart, adding to it, binding it and again taking it apart, adding to it and binding it again,” Hedeman said.

“As the text kept getting added to and unbound and things put it in and pictures put in, there was one point where the king made a political speech in front of the Holy Roman Emperor,” she said. “And in the speech, which gets described in the edition, he showed all kinds of documents. And somebody went back and realized half those documents weren't in the manuscript. So they went back in the book and cut pages out and inserted new pages with the documents transcribed. That is a level of paratextual embellishment that is just crazy. And in a sense, it’s very modern, resembling the way we think about propaganda.”

The second book about which Hedeman writes is Laurent de Premierfait’s circa 1410 translation into French of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1355-1360 compilation of biographies in Latin titled “Of Famous Men and Women.”

She studied two copies of the work prepared for King Charles’ brother and nephew – Duke John of Berry and Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, respectively.

In these books, the most striking features of the paratextual additions are the colorful illustrations, or illuminations, of scenes described in the text.

“What I was trying to show with those examples is the ways in which, with visual imagery, there could be inclusion and exclusion,” Hedeman said. “I considered the balance between density of illustration versus no illustration. All of those things can, through this sort of paratextual visual material, really focus your attention.”

If not exactly akin to comic books, Hedeman said, books produced for nobles in this period were expected to contain artwork.

“If books didn't have lots of pictures, they didn't catch on,” Hedeman said. “Illustrations were just part of an expectation for history, and they saw this Boccaccio as being history. So they had to be there to be appealing.”

Hedeman said these illustrations also helped the books become popular once they were more widely distributed among the literate public.

These interventions were intended not only for the royal recipients of the hand-made books, Hedeman said, but also for historians like herself.

“I think it was done partly to shape history, sure,” she said, “because if this is the official book, or one of the official books that's in the royal or ducal libraries, subsequent readers will pull it off the shelf to find authoritative accounts.”

Photo: Detail from illuminations in “The Great Chronicle of France” showing the founding of Sicambri and French armies defeating the Romans. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France



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