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Response to Review of Memory and Commemoration in Medieval Culture

The review of a large multidisciplinary collection such as Memory and Commemoration is no small task, and in discussing all 16 chapters of the book Dr. Guerry demonstrates extraordinary diligence. We are gratified by the praise that she bestows upon several of our authors, grateful for the gentleness with which she phrases her critiques, and moved by her timely final remarks. Nonetheless, we fear that some of the criticisms in this review do not take account of the constraints placed upon a volume of this kind. Guerry's occasional requests for a mode of interpretation at odds with the stated aims of a chapter suggest inattention to the way argument derives from methodology, and in her desire for more complete interpretations from other authors she overlooks the limitations of the sources, which the authors clearly describe. Because we believe that these tendencies produce a misrepresentation of some of our authors' work, we would like to revisit the chapters in question.

Following the Paris symposium, 15 chapters were submitted to us by participants (several other speakers, who had already committed to publish their work elsewhere, were unable to contribute, while another author, Elisabeth van Houts, joined us after the conference). Unfortunately, the economic realities of academic publishing today make it difficult to find a press willing to accept any book of more than 300 pages, much less an edited anthology. Although we had asked contributors to revise and expand their papers, we were obliged to limit the length of the chapters, an extenuating factor that Guerry acknowledges in her discussion of only one chapter (that of Martha Easton, which is among the shortest as measured by word count). This consideration should be accorded to all the authors.

Within the length constraints imposed, authors had to set a single goal for their chapter rather than several. In disciplines that can involve technical vocabulary or close analysis of objects (history of art or architecture, literature), authors had to choose between discussing terminology, analyzing the material closely and at length, or developing a broader historical argument. Two authors whom Guerry cites for failing to discuss terminology or engage in close analysis, Mailan S. Doquang and Mary Franklin-Brown, have in fact chosen the third route in order to demonstrate the significance of their research to an interdisciplinary readership. At the same time, they have grounded their arguments in brief close analyses of their material.

Thus, in ‘Status and the soul: commemoration and intercession in the Rayonnant chapels of Northern France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’, Doquang offers a new understanding of these chapels that will be interesting to art historians as well as a broader group of medievalists studying ritual and devotional practices. It is important to note Doquang's comments in her introduction (pp. 93–5) concerning the neglect of Rayonnant chapels by most prior architectural historians. If these chapels have been dismissed on the grounds that, formally and stylistically, they appear derivative, then the formalist mode of analysis that Guerry seems to desire would force Doquang back into this traditional assessment. Instead, Doquang is able to refocus our gaze by studying the objects the chapels once contained. Because these objects have since been removed – many destroyed or lost, others disassembled or damaged – she brings to bear hitherto unpublished archival evidence (descriptions, engravings). This allows her to reconstruct the chapels’ content and its arrangement, while offering analyses of individual objects, but it does not allow her to address stylistic questions. In fact, the objects serve principally as evidence for her larger argument about the ritual and devotional practices that they once supported. And through that argument about practice, she is able to demonstrate the significance of this architectural element.

For her part, in ‘The Speculum Maius, between Thesaurus and Lieu de Mémoire’, Franklin-Brown advances a comparative argument of a kind that had never been attempted. However, the structure of her chapter is highly conventional for her discipline, comparative literature. She has treated each of the encyclopedic texts individually, quoting the text directly and then analyzing the quotations. While Guerry appears disoriented by this structure and initially expresses perplexity about the reasons for the comparison, her own summary of the chapter’s introductory and concluding remarks makes those reasons clear.

In both cases, if the authors had engaged in sustained close analysis as well (and, in Doquang's case, a discussion of formal vocabulary), they would have increased the length of chapters that are already among the longest in the volume, and we would not have been able to publish their work. Fortunately, both Doquang and Franklin-Brown have made such analyses available elsewhere. They refer readers to that work in the early notes to their chapters.(1a)

Situated between the Doquang and Franklin-Brown chapters in the anthology is Christian Jaser's ‘Ritual excommunication: an “Ars Oblivionalis”?’. We believe that this chapter has suffered from unfortunate misrepresentations in Guerry's review. As regards the distinction between excommunication and anathema, Jaser states clearly in the second paragraph of his chapter that medieval sources commonly employ the term ‘anathema’ for ritual excommunication, making it impossible to maintain a neat distinction (pp. 120–1). This usage is evident in Jaser’s quotations from medieval sources (pp. 124, 125, 131, 132, and 136), although he scrupulously avoids employing the word ‘anathema’ himself except during that initial discussion of terminology. Guerry's stronger criticism concerns Jaser's use of historical scholarship – specifically, that of Peter Brown. While Jaser does cite Peter Brown’s work on the cult of saints in Late Antiquity, Brown is only one among a number of historians whose work he brings to bear on the topic of excommunication: Lester K. Little, Dominique Barthélémy, Jean-Claude Schmitt, Jacques Le Goff, Caroline Walker Bynum, R. I. Moore, Patrick Geary, and many others. All of this work deals with the period that Jaser is studying. The paragraph to which Guerry refers (pp. 136–7) moves from the work of Brown to that of Schmitt and then Le Goff, according equal weight to each. Moreover, Jaser justifies his comparison between excommunicants and saints (as studied by Brown and historians working on later periods) by citing historiographical and exemplary narratives from the later Middle Ages that describe the incorruptible bodies of both. In this context, it is not clear to us why Guerry has focused on the citations of Peter Brown.  

Occasionally, Guerry seems to expect authors to draw conclusions that exceed a prudent interpretation of the surviving sources, and she represents gaps in the evidence as a lack of clarity in the presentation. This problem is evident in her review of Anne-Hélène Allirot’s chapter, ‘Longchamp and Lourcine: the role of female abbeys in the construction of Capetian memory’. Allirot summarizes all of the available evidence for the nature of the veneration that the nuns of Longchamp showed toward Isabelle of France: at the time of her burial in 1270, her dress was removed and treated as a relic; it and her other relics were preserved in the sacristy beside relics of the Passion, according to the 1325 inventory, and they were said to effect cures (pp. 248–9). However, we also know that Isabelle was not beatified till 1521. Allirot concludes, with justifiable caution, ‘Even though Isabelle was the object of a form of veneration after her death, it was only in the sixteenth century that she began to be worshipped per se, with the celebration of a special office inspired by her life’ (p. 251). It would simply be impossible, from this scanty evidence, to fill in the period 1270–1521 with any more detail. Similarly, when the only documentary evidence concerning the presence of the tunic of Saint Louis at Lourcine dates to 1674 (because the medieval inventories of Lourcine lack this level of detail, as Allirot explains, p. 250), it is not possible to discuss the subject with any more precision.

Guerry's assessment of the last chapter, Shirin Fozi's ‘”A Mere Patch of Color”: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Shattered Glass of Reims Cathedral’, exhibits problems similar to those detailed above. As in her review of Doquang's chapter, Guerry expresses a desire for more extensive visual analysis, and as in the case of Allirot's archival sources, Fozi's exploded and reconstituted window does not support such analysis. According to Fozi's account, these shards of glass, likely from a number of different windows in Reims Cathedral, were collected helter skelter from the ruins of the bombed cathedral by an American ambulance driver, Chester Howell, during several war-time visits (apparently at his own initiative, without official permission). It was Howell who transported them to the United States and gave them to the Gardner Museum, not the French government. The Gardner arranged for the glass to be reset in a new, mosaic-like panel whose visual effectiveness Fozi analyzes as fully as possible, but we must acknowledge the limitations she faces. The glass consists of a random assortment of small fragments, most of them monochromatic, and the figural elements are limited to a few unidentifiable heads. For this reason, as Fozi notes, the glass panel has been dismissed as possessing only sentimental value. However, by considering the aesthetic and ideological function of the glass mosaic in the Gardner Museum, Fozi is able to revalorize it as a case study for early 20th-century Americans' relationship to the ‘martyred’ medieval monuments of France. The problem of dating, distinguishing the medieval glass from that of 19th-century restorations, is a separate one that did not seem to trouble Howell or the post-war curators. It pertains to the treatment of the glass in the preceding century and is therefore not relevant to Fozi's argument.

On the other hand, we do understand Guerry's desire for a conclusion to the volume. The problem becomes one of organization and length: how to avoid simply restating the overview given in the introduction; how to avoid expanding the volume to a length that presses would deem unpublishable. It might have been possible to use a conclusion to pose further questions about medieval memorial practice. Yet a survey of edited volumes recently published in various disciplines reveals that conclusions are more the exception than the rule. In the end, we decided to let our authors have the final word.

In closing, we would like to thank Dr. Guerry again for her positive and extensive review of our volume and Reviews in History for allowing us to publish a response.


  1. Mailan S. Doquang, ‘Rayonnant Chantry Chapels in Context’ (PhD thesis, New York University, 2009); Mary Franklin-Brown, Reading the World: Encyclopedic Writing of the Scholastic Age (Chicago, IL, 2012).Back to (1a)