Signs & Things*

Last week it was jet lag. Today, well, let’s call it semiotic overload. Consider the following manuscript folio.


Imagine that you are in the British Library Manuscripts Reading Room and you have only one day to work with the manuscript—Arundel 157, if you would like the shelfmark--in which this folio (146recto) appears (click on the image if you would like to see it enlarged). Pretend, for the moment, that you can read the language (Latin) and script (an early thirteenth-century Gothic bookhand from England, probably around Oxford) in which it is written and that you are familiar with the conventions of abbreviation that the scribe has used. You cannot take photographs of the manuscript (this is, after all, the British Library; they will be very happy to make a limited number of photographs for you—at a price) and you do not know whether a microfilm is available. Assume, for the moment, that it is not; in any case, even if it were, it would not be in color. What would you include in your description of the manuscript?

Would it be enough, for example, simply to transcribe the text? Perhaps, but would you indicate every time that you expanded an abbreviation, given that you know the script fairly well and, indeed, can check yourself against the psalm texts that appear in red? What would you do about the punctuation, given that Microsoft Word does not have symbols for an upside down semi-colon or a period in the middle of the line and you are making your notes on your laptop? How about the changes in size of script (easier to deal with than the punctuation)? Or the colors (Word can do this, too; do you take the time to mark all of these)? How do you indicate the illuminated or decorated initials? Do you worry about keeping the line breaks within the text? Or do you just mark the changes in folio? If you are checking the text against another edition or, in this case, against the text of the psalms, do you preserve the misspellings and misdivisions or do you “silently” correct them, assuming that what you are actually after is the best text, rather than simply this one? What about capitalizations for names like Maria or Ihesus Christus when the names do not appear capitalized in the text? Or “v” versus “u” and “j” versus “I”? What do you do when Ave is sometimes spelled “Ave” and sometimes “aue”? Do you worry about the number of lines per column? How critical is it that you maintain proportions in indicating where the larger, illuminated letters appear? And so forth (I am sure you can think of further questions on your own—these are the ones I was struggling with today.)

The question I rather suspect most of you are asking is (okay, not you, mein Fechtbruder; you’re way ahead of me!), why should I care? It’s a book, right? The point is the words, not all of this other stuff; that’s just decoration. Or is it? The problem is, I don’t know either, not yet. Perhaps it really would be enough just to copy out only a portion of the text or perhaps even only the incipits for the various pieces in the manuscript, particularly if (as is possible, but not guaranteed) they have been edited elsewhere. In which case, it would be a much better use of my time simply to note the color changes from psalm to “ave” and move on. But what about the places where the psalms are marked not with a blue initial but, as later in the text, larger illuminated initials themselves? Or where additional prayers are interspersed with the psalter text? Okay, so clearly I have to transcribe these. And how do I know that the psalm texts are actually taken sequentially from the psalter? Okay, I’d better check that. Browsing online, I find what looks like a transcription of the first ten verses of the “aves”—but after that it changes. Oh, dear, so maybe there are different versions of this psalter in circulation in the later middle ages; now I might have to copy out the whole thing.

But I don’t have time. Well, no, I do have time; I could spend the next two days copying out the rest of the psalter text, with all of the color changes, psalm verses, and changes in letter size—but is this text really important enough for me to spend so much time on, given the hundreds of other manuscripts I might like to consult? How do I judge what is important and what is just “noise”?

Perhaps another example will make the problem that I’m struggling with here a bit clearer. Look at this painting. What do you see?


Two dogs, a gun, a stone bench with fruit and drinks, a bowl of figs, a dead wolf, some trees. This is the text of the picture, right? So I could describe it simply by listing the animals and other things that appear in it. But, of course, that is hardly enough. I would also want to say something about the way the light falls on the body of the wolf and about the massiveness of the stone alcove. About the way the light is stronger in the distance while the foreground is in shade, but balanced by the light shining on the side of the alcove. About the realism of the textures of fur and fruit, the glints on the bottles and in the eyes of the dogs. About the composition of the elements, the C-shape that the body of the right hand dog makes in contrast with the foreshortened body of the wolf. About the whiteness of the sheet and the verticality of the gun. And still I would have done little more, if this were a manuscript, than describe the color changes and size of the script. For what, after all, is significant about this painting?

Well, it’s much bigger in real life (193x260cm) than on a computer screen, of course, and it’s hanging in the Back State Room of Hertford House, the home of the Wallace Collection. It was painted in 1721 by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) in oil on canvas. At least in part, it is what is typically known as a still-life. I don’t know what it is valued at, but, like the manuscript, I predict rather a lot. And yet, at first glance, again like the manuscript, the painting is relatively easy to dismiss. There are, I suspect, hundreds of similar paintings scattered about the galleries and stately homes of Europe, just as there are hundreds of similar manuscripts (thirteenth-century “psalters” with Marian prayers) housed in Europe’s various libraries. Neither of them can really tell me much that is unique. But, then, again, it’s all in the questions that one asks.

It is easy to take such “realistic” pictures for granted, just as it is easy to see nothing exceptional in the alternation of colors or script-size in a medieval text. But look again and, suddenly, nothing is as it first seemed. Certainly, the picture was posed and the various objects carefully arranged. But why are the melon and pie shown cut rather than, like the peaches and figs, whole? Why a melon, peaches and figs? What kind of drink is meant to be in the bottles? Why that particular kind of gun? Is it the sort of gun that one would use to hunt wolves? Were dogs like the ones depicted specially bred to hunt wolves? What kind of wolf is it? Do the flowers and other plants have significance? Can we learn anything from the landscape in the distance? Is there a message in this apparent “realism” such that what appears at first as simply ornament—much like the colors and decorations in the manuscript—is, in fact, part of the meaning? Perhaps the food and drink is laid out on a stone table as a form of sacrifice. Or perhaps the dogs are meant to evoke a connection with human society as opposed to the wolf’s association with the wild. And why is the white sheet placed so prominently in the middle of the picture? Can we assume that the artist meant us to see more here than just a pleasing arrangement of animals and things?

The problem with both the manuscript and the painting is how to know what is accidental and what, at least in the artist’s or scribe’s understanding, meaningful. Perhaps the alternating colors in the scriptural (red with blue initials) and devotional (brown or black with gold initials) verses were chosen simply to provide a pleasing visual contrast. Perhaps the ornamented initials were simply chosen at random. Or perhaps not. But even if they were, this would be only the beginning of the problem, for, after all, artists and authors, as we all know, often reveal more of themselves from what they do not intend to say or depict than from what they do. Look again at the painting, as I did when I first saw it a few days ago and, as in the library, bereft of the possibility of taking photographs, decided to look closely anyway. How eerie it suddenly was to realize how much more than just a “realistic” image of animals and things I was seeing in this taken-for-granted realism, much as, with the manuscript, the text and its layout were telling me more than the scribe could ever have intended, if only I knew what questions to ask!

Were wolves a regular problem in the region in which this picture is set? Did people eat figs as part of their ordinary diet or only on special occasions, like a hunt? Who would have made the pie? Was the gun a novel design or old-fashioned? Who drank the drinks? Can we use this painting to learn something about what dogs and wolves looked like in the mid-seventeenth century? Why are there so many paintings from this period about hunts? What kind of fabric is the sheet? Are there extant examples of bottles and dishes like these? What variety of peaches are those? How did one bake such a pie? No, these still don’t seem quite the right questions; I know there is more in this painting than simply a lesson in social history. The longer I look at it, the more complicated it becomes, particularly when I start comparing it with other pictures in the same collection, such as this one, painted by Jan Weenix in 1707:


Or this one, painted by Bartolomeus van der Helst in 1654, showing Jochem van Aras with his daughter and wife:


All of these paintings seem to be saying something about life as well as death that goes beyond a simple statement of the reality that animals, as well as people, live and die. The family portrait is particularly fascinating, for, after all, now all three of these people are dead, just like the hare that the mother is holding. And yet, for the moment captured in the painting they, like the dogs in “The Dead Wolf”, are so very much alive that it seems as if one might see them tomorrow or, now, in the very next room. I’m not saying any of this very well, I know; at least, I want to be saying more than just that such portraits, like still-lives, are perhaps even more poignant than photographs as snap-shots of a particular moment, at once fully present and forever lost, the animals and people depicted in them inevitably afterwards dead, the fruit rotten and flowers wilted. Is this what the artists intended us to think about when looking at such paintings? Perhaps; but it is always difficult to tell whether irony was intentional or not. What is interesting to me is how the people are so involved with the animals, both the dogs and their prey. Is the woman holding dinner or the image of what she herself will one day become, dead flesh? How different are the human beings from their dogs in their dependence upon other animals for their life? What does it mean to be so richly dressed, as if for town, when sitting out in the countryside under a tree?

I am nowhere near being able to put even this level of question to the manuscripts that I am working with. What I do know already, however, is that nothing in them can be taken for granted, no matter how ordinary or predictable their contents, layout and visual presentation may seem. Which means, of course, that their every aspect is potentially at once not only a thing (a color, a design, a size), but also a sign of something other than itself. And yet, sometimes the color blue is just the color blue and an ornament is just an ornament. So how does one distinguish between a thing that is a sign and a thing that is just, well, a thing, like a wolf or a hare or a peach?

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