Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Virgin at Chartres, White Supremacy, and Medieval Studies

Medieval Studies blew up online this past weekend when a Rachel Fulton Brown, an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Chicago (my graduate institution, although I did not study with her), published a few pieces on her blog aimed at Dorothy Kim (an Assistant Professor at Vassar College, who I know from the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship) for her insistence that medieval studies as a field needs to grapple with the way its materials have been and are currently being used by white supremacists to support their ideology and that those of us who teach medieval materials need to signal our rejection of white supremacist beliefs to our students.

While the first post begins (and the second continues) an attack on Kim, the bulk of it is given over to an argument about the Virgin Mary that is framed around a famous window from Chartres Cathedral, known as Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (our lady of the beautiful window).  According to Fulton Brown, the window shows Mary with dark skin, identifying her as a Jew, and further identifying her with the "tents of Kedar" as a tabernacle that contained the presence of God.  Her overall argument seems to be that since medieval people could understand Mary as having dark skin and being Jewish, then medieval studies as a field can't be implicated in white supremacism today.

There are several problems with this argument.

One, the second point does not logically follow from the first: even if medieval people did not hold white supremacist views, that does not mean that materials from the Middle Ages have not been and are not being used to support those views today.  The fact that medieval materials are being used in this way has been documented repeatedly.  For documentation see David Perry recent interview with On The Media, and his piece in in Pacific Standard, as well as the Public Medievalist's special series on Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.

Two, and this is the point I want to focus on here, the Virgin in Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not have notably dark skin.  She might appear to in the extreme close-up view that Fulton Brown includes in her post (after a view of the window as a whole) as a way of proving her point and that has been repeated (on its own) in a supporting post by Milo Yiannopoulos.

But when seen in context, as in the photograph to the right here, her skin is not markedly darker than that of the child in her arms or the angels around them, particularly not the angel in the upper-right section near Mary's head.   Click here to see this image in a larger size and with more detail.

The Virgin's skin tone here does appear somewhat different from the child's in being more mottled and inconsistent in color.  Several stained-glass experts who commented on the window in a Facebook discussion in the Material Collective group over the weekend suggested that this might be the result of damage over time from exposure to the elements.

But all of this does not take into account the fact that it has been extensively restored.  The Virgin's head in particular was restored by Felix Gaudin in 1906 (Corpus Vitrearum France, Vitraux du Centre, Baie 30, p. 32 - and I owe that reference as well to stained-glass scholars commenting in Facebook).  This may account for the difference in weathering in that the 1906 glass may have reacted to the environment differently than the original 12th-century material.

Fulton Brown struggles to deal with the window's restoration in her post.  In it she quotes extensively from Margot Fassler's book on the Virgin at Chartres, including the following passage: "Radiant too is her restored head, surrounded as it is by a beaded orb of light" (Fassler, The Virgin of Chartres: Making History Through Liturgy and the Arts, p. 217-19 as cited by Fulton Brown, emphasis added).  Fulton Brown inserts an asterisk here and then states at the end of her post "Not being an art historian, I am a little unclear on what Fassler means here.  Even if Mary's face has been restored (and who is to say whether it was restored accurately) my argument still stands: somebody in Europe wanted Mary depicted as dark, whether in the Middle Ages or the nineteenth century..."

As an art historian, although not a glass specialist, I think it is quite clear that Fassler is referring here to the restoration of the head portion of the Virgin.  She seems to be doing so in order to signal the fact will not subject the Virgin's head to detailed analysis, even though she does so for the rest of the window, because it is not original.

Fulton Brown is correct that we cannot know now how accurate that restoration is to the original colors of the Virgin's head.  But the fact of the restoration should raise doubts about attributing any specific significance to the Virgin's skin tone as it appears in this window today.  If she did have a notably darker skin, then it would make a difference if that skin tone reflected the original medieval coloring of the window or if it were a product of the restoration.  But regardless, the Virgin's skin tone here is not significantly darker than that of other figures in the window.

Looking at other images of the Virgin in the stained glass at Chartres reinforces my point that her skin tone is not shown to be notably darker, or lighter, than that of the surrounding figures.  Instead, skin tone seems to be consistent among the figures in any given window, although it does vary from window to window.  That variation may have to do with the original dates of production of the individual windows, the level of damage each has incurred over time, the amount of restoration each has been subject to, and the circumstances under which the photographs of the windows have been taken - which is an issue that should also be taken into account for Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere.  Here are some examples (all from

The Nativity from The Life of the Virgin Window (ambulatory, Bay 28B)

Virgin and Child with Adoring Angels, from the Miracles of The Virgin Window (Bay 38)
Virgin Mary from the Tree of Jesse Window (west end, Bay 49)
Virgin and Child Enthroned from the Infancy and Early Life of Christ Window (west end, Bay 50)

Virgin and Child Enthroned from the center of the North Transept Rose

 One window at Chartres where I might be willing to see a meaningful difference in skin tone is the lancet showing St. Anne holding the Virgin as an infant, from below the North Transept Rose (shown to the left).  Here Anne's skin tone does seem to be significantly darker than Mary's and that difference is reinforced by the different colors of their garments.  This difference may be meant to signal their age difference, for in medieval texts on art-making, instructions are given for special skin tones for older figures.  In his discussion of fresco painting, Cennino d'Andrea Cennini first gives a recipe for the flesh tone for youthful saints, including the Virgin, and then advises darkening it for an old man (Chapter LXVII).  Likewise, in his section on panel painting, he suggests tempering the paint used younger people with the whiter yolks of town eggs, and the paint for older people with the redder yolks of country eggs (Chapter CXLVII).

Fulton Brown continues the note at the end of her post with "Plus, this is not the only Black Madonna that survives; there are hundreds more."  She is correct here, but Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not belong in this category of images.  That group is made up of two types of works of art, Byzantine icons and western European sculptures, not stained glass windows.  Fulton Brown seems to think that motifs translate across media and genres, but art historian have long known that they do not.  

Interestingly, there are two sculptures at Chartres that have both been categorized as Black Madonnas and that Fulton Brown could have discussed in her blog post instead of Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere. Like the window, however, both are objects with long histories of restoration and even reconstruction and that has to complicate discussion of them.

The older of the two, a sculpture that dates back to at least the eleventh-century, is known as Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (our lady underground) because it was located in the cathedral's crypt.  This sculpture was burnt during the Revolution in 1793.  In 1976 a new sculpture, based on drawings of the original, was installed in the crypt in its place.  This recreated sculpture is made of cedar wood and is unpainted and so has an overall dark coloration (shown above).

The other known as Notre Dame du Pilier (our lady of the pillar), because it sits on top of a stone column, dates to the early 1500's.  It was originally placed in the nave in order to be accessible to pilgrims.  It is also wood, but was polychromed or painted, and traces of that paint survive on the sculpture today (shown to the right).  According to information from the cathedral, it was known as the Vierge Noir or Black Virgin because there was also an alabaster and so white Virgin installed in the nave.  It was renamed Notre Dame du Pilier in 1806 when it was reinstalled in its current location in the chapel in the north ambulatory.  Since 1855 it has been crowned and enveloped in richly decorated garments.

This sculpture has recently been restored, as part of a general restoration project underway at Chartres, and its skin tone has been considerably lightened, in keeping with the restoration's general lightening and brightening of the building.  The reason given for this overall change at Chartres is that it is removing layers of smoke from candles, lamps, and fires, and returning the building and its decoration to their original appearance.  The change, including the repainting of the sculpture, has been controversial.  A similar explanation has been given for the phenomenon of the Black Madonnas in general, that their dark color is the result of accumulated smoke and soot.  Only a detailed investigation of these images could determine if that is the case for each individual work of art.

Third, and finally, if some medieval sculptures did represent the Virgin with darker skin (although again Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere does not), what would tell us about medieval attitudes towards race, or more specifically, towards skin color as a marker of significant differences between people?  In that case, Fulton Brown would probably be correct in saying that the Virgin's dark skin had to do with her very particular devotional and theological identity.  It then most likely did not identify her as belonging to a group of people defined by their skin tone.  Jews are not typically distinguished in medieval art by skin color.  As Debra Strickland, Sara Lipton and others have shown, Jewish men can be identified by their beards, by distinctive pointed hats, and often by their large, hooked noses - a feature that pushes these images over the edge into antisemitic caricatures.  Images of Jewish women are rare, but the Jewish-identified figure of Synagoga is typically distinguished from the Christian Ecclesia by her blindfold and her defeated posture.

The possibility of medieval artists showing Mary with darker skin feeds into the complexity of medieval attitudes towards skin tone as a potential marker of difference.  That complexity is demonstrated in several of the pieces in the Public Medievalist's series on Race and Racism.  In a piece entitled "Were Medieval People Racist?," for example, Paul Sturtevant argues:
Medieval people were likely not significantly more racist than we are today (if such a thing could even be quantified). In both times, if you look to find racism, both personal, institutional, and structural, it can be readily found. And in both times, you can find those who reject it. What we can say is that medieval racism was very different. This should not offer us any comfort; nothing gives modern-day racism a pass. Racism is a problem that plagues most periods and cultures in humanity, but the most successful, innovative and just societies are those that can most effectively conquer it.
It is this complexity of the medieval past that Kim, Perry, and others are calling for medievalists to emphasize in their teaching, emphasizing specifically the fact that this complexity should undermine any attempts by white supremacists today to appropriate this past to legitimate their own beliefs.  Kim, Perry, and others are further calling for medievalists to make that point explicitly in their teaching.  Otherwise, as Perry states in his On the Media interview, we risk leaving a blank space that white supremacists are able to fill with their own agenda.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

Make + Risk = Craftivism: A Roundtable and Yarnbomb Project for Babel 2017

For the 2017 Babel Working Group Meeting in Reno, I'm organizing a project for The Material Collective.  The full proposal appears below.  Get in touch if you are interested in participating!

Make + Risk = Craftivism: A Roundtable and Yarnbomb Project

A dominant symbol of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington was the pink pussyhat: a knit or crochet hat constructed in such a way that cat ears appear on the wearer’s head.  Large numbers of women participated in making pussyhats and wore them at marches in Washington and other cities.  Yet the hats were also a focus for critique, as the product of a white middle-class feminism that often fails to take into account the experiences of other women, and as excluding transwomen in particular through their reference to biological sex.  In many ways, this combination of responses to the pussyhats mirrors the responses to the March itself.  It also demonstrates both the productive potential and the potential pitfalls of “craftivism:” that is, of activism pursued through forms of craft production that have traditionally been done by women.

Through this proposed roundtable session and hands-on project for Babel 2017, The Material Collective seeks to engage with the issues raised by the pussyhats in two ways.  First, through a roundtable session featuring multiple short presentations and time for discussion, we aim to set the hats within a larger historical context of craftivism, to further explore the potential of this form of activist production, and simultaneously to further its critique.  Secondly, we aim to explore these issues through practice in a “yarmbomb” project: yarnbombing refers to knit and/or crochet projects that are installed in public space on the model of street art or graffiti.  While not all yarnbomb projects are also craftivist projects, some are, and yarnbombing itself is open to critique on a number of levels.  We envision a yarnbomb project conceived with the themes of the Babel 2017 conference in mind, produced largely at the conference itself, facilitated through a knit and/or crochet workshop or workshops as part of the conference, and installed throughout the conference space.  We invite participants to present in the roundtable, to collaborate with us in conceptualizing the yarnbomb project, to make work for that project in advance of the conference, to lead a workshop or workshops in knit/crochet techniques at the conference, and to contribute materials (yarn from stashes, hooks and/or needles) for the project.  Participants may chose to be involved in one or more or all of the above.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Buran (Meatballs in Eggplant Sauce)

Since election day, writing about medieval food and cooking has seemed a little silly to me.  I've wanted to privately take refuge in the Middle Ages, reading books and writing my lectures about medieval art, but putting medieval stuff out over the interwebs has seemed to be beside the point.

But.  Then I got thinking about this recipe, which I made the week before the election, and is a medieval Middle Eastern dish.  According to Pleyn Delit, Middle Eastern or "Saracen" food was the trendy new cuisine in western Europe in the Middle Ages.  That fits a pattern I often talking about in teaching medieval and Islamic material: the medieval perception of the east and specifically of the Islamic world as a source of good things that people wanted for themselves.  In the current political climate, it also strikes a useful contrast against perceptions of the Middle Ages that have begun to concern the broad community of medievalist scholars: specifically the idea that the medieval past can serve as the origin point for a "European" identity and so can provide historical legitimacy for contemporary extreme right and white nationalist movements in Europe and in the United States.  Sierra Lomuto's guest post on "White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies" and Dorothy Kim's on "The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies," both on In the Middle, provide an excellent introductions to these issues.   Imagining medieval people enthusiastically eating "Saracen" food can strike a very immediate blow again any idea of a "pure" European past, as it shows medieval people as actively incorporating the "other" into themselves.

To get to the cooking: there isn't a charmingly ye olde English version of this recipe in Pleyn Delit, since its from an Arabic source.  The book has you start by boiling the eggplant, whole, and then frying it, again whole, until it gets soft.

The meatballs should be either lamb or beef: I picked lamb.  Pleyn Delit recommends buying it ground but then asking the butcher to grind it again, to get it a finer texture.  I don't have a close relationship with a butcher, so I bought it ground and then whirred it up in the food processor to break it down further.

Then the meatballs get formed up and fried.  Interestingly, they are pure meat balls - no fillers and no binders, no breadcrumb or eggs.  And the eggplant gets peeled and whirred up in the food processor with some yogurt and spices.

Finally, the eggplant sauce gets added to the meatballs and the whole thing cooked together to marry the flavors.  I obviously had a proportion problem:  since you cook the eggplant whole, I had to use the whole eggplant, but I didn't want to make more meatballs than I could eat, so I ended up with a lot more sauce than I needed.  If I had been smart, I would have saved half of the eggplant for later.  I served this with more cariota (carrots) in order to avoid carbs, but it would have been better with rice or naan or pita.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: "Tartys in Applis"

In talking about my food preferences and how they are shaping this project, I neglected to mention one thing: I have a major sweet tooth.  I love chocolate, but it's off the table for this project since it's a New World product.  I'm also a big fan of baked fruit desserts and so, when I saw a recipe for an apple tart in Plyen Delit, I knew I would have to give it a try.

The original recipe reads: "Tak gode applys & gode spycis & figs & reysons & perys, & wan they arn wel ybrayd colour wyth safroun wel & do yt in a cofyn, & do yt forth to bake wel."  I substituted prunes for figs, because I had some in my cupboard, and I didn't use any pears, because I didn't want to wait for them to get ripe.  For apples, I used Granny Smiths, as my favorite for baking in general.  The most unusual part of the recipe was the direction that the fruits be "wel ybrayd:" the authors of Plyen Delit translate that as chopping them up together in the food processor.   The result was similar to a mincemeat pie, but with no meat. 

The recipe didn't give directions for the pie crust, so I had to decide on a crust for myself.  I used this Smitten Kitchen pie crust and was very happy with the result.  My major issue with most apple pies is the soggy, flabby, mushy bottom crust.  This one was firm and light and flaky.  The only real difference I could see from pie crust recipes I've used in the past was not using the food processor for mixing in the butter.  I think Smitten Kitchen is right that using the processor always immediately over-processes but the butter, chopping it up much too finely and mixing it in much too evenly.  Doing it by hand kept the butter chunks much bigger - they were visible in the dough - and much more irregular in their distribution.  It also takes longer and requires more effort, but the results were worth it for me and I'm going to continue doing it that way.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Gourdes in Potage

I picked this for my second recipe from Pleyn Delit because it looked fairly simple and looked like it would reheat well - that's one of my major criteria for normal recipes since I don't have time to cook every night.  I was also curious about it because I couldn't imagine what texture it was going to have.  Pleyn Delit doesn't include any photographs of the prepared food so it's hard to imagine in advance was the finished dishes are going to look like. 

The original is given as "Take yong gowrdes; par hem and kerve hem on pecys.  Cast hem in gode broth, and do therto a gode pertye of oynouns mynced.  Take pork soden; grynde it and alye it therwith and with yokes of ayren.  Do therto safroun and salt, and messe it forth with powdor douce."  "Gourds" here means squash and I chose to use butternut, since its a squash I'm used to working with.  The squash is boiled in broth along with some onions and then that is mashed together: I used my potato masher and kept a fairly rough texture because that somehow seemed more appropriate, more "medieval," to me.  

Then cooked ground pork is added along with an egg or egg yolk and some spices.  I assume the egg is meant to thicken and bind the whole, although I don't know if it was really necessary.   On the first night the dish was rather bland, despite the spices.  So when I reheated it later in the week (and it does reheat well) I added additional spices, including some pepper even though that isn't mentioned in the original. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Eating Medieval Art: Chykens in Hocchee and Cariota

I'm starting this project by focusing on the cooking aspect and, for now, I'm not worrying about connecting the cooking to medieval art-making practices, but am focusing on getting familiar with medieval techniques and tastes.   Focusing on the cooking allows me to integrate this work into my everyday life, by simply making one of the meals I prepare each week a medieval recipe.  This should allow me to make progress on this new project even while I keep up on my work as department chair, teach, and put finishing touches on the book.

Since I am integrating this aspect of the work into my regular cooking, it is being shaped by my preferences and practices when it comes to food.  To set some of that out: I do eat meat and I eat a broad range of meats - chicken and beef but also pork, lamb, veal, duck, and occasionally rabbit.  Sorry if that bothers anyone.  I don't eat much fish, but I do like shellfish.  I try to avoid carbohydrates, only because if I don't try to avoid them I'll end up eating mostly carbs.  And I have a problem digesting dairy, although I really like cheese.  I will sometimes put up with a bellyache for a good cheese and sometimes will remember to take a "milk pill" first.   I typically cook more elaborate things on Saturday and Sunday nights and I look for recipes that will reheat easily later in the week.  I live alone so I half most recipes to get 2-3 servings.

For a first medieval meal I picked "Chykens in Hocchee" and "Cariota" both from Pleyn Delit.  The original recipe for "Chykens in Hocchee" is: "Take chykens and scald hem.  Take persel and sawage, with obere erbes; take garlec and grapes, and stoppe the chikenus ful, and seep hem in gode broth, so that they mey esely be boyled therinne.  Messe hem and cast therto powdour douce."

I chose this because it didn't seem so strange and so seemed approachable, but it ended up being stranger than my first reading suggested.  Making it required first stuffing a game hen with a mixture of grapes, herbs, and garlic; then sealing that shut; and then poaching it in broth.  You are supposed to add some lemon juice in with the grapes to compensate for the grapes available today being sweet and medieval grapes sour.  I forgot to do this and so added the lemon juice to the poaching liquid insead.

Poaching isn't my favorite way of cooking a bird: the flabby white skin doesn't appeal.  That's probably why Pleyn Delit suggests removing it.  My biggest surprise in cooking this one was that the grapes didn't break down at all, but stayed whole and firm.

Before the serving, the meat is sprinkled with "powder douce," a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, sugar, and salt.  It's not a combination of spices that I associate with meat - more with baked goods.  It's not bad, just, strange.  It makes everything smell a bit like Christmas.  I boiled the poaching liquid down  to create some sauce.  To go with it, I made "Cariota," roasted carrots mixed with some chopped herbs.  I kept my carrots whole for the visual appeal.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Introducing "Eating Medieval Art"

Last fall, I taught a seminar entitled "Materials, Making, and Meaning in Medieval Art," for which the main text was Theophilus' twelfth-century art-making manual, On Divers Arts.  As we read that text, my students and I kept making connections to our own, twenty-first century, culture of food and cooking: his from-scratch instructions for making artists' materials read to us like recipes; his directions for using extra fish parts (heads and guts) for making glue reminded us of the current interest in using the whole animal; and his prescription that certain twigs be gathered at a specific time of year recalled for us the movement towards seasonality in food. 

Those connections peaked my interest in exploring connections between medieval art-making and medieval cooking and food culture and so, with this blog post, I announce my new research project, "Eating Medieval Art."  To be clear, this is not a project about images of food in medieval art (not that there would be anything wrong with that as a project).  Instead, it is about overlaps in materials and processes between these two areas of medieval practice: it is about eggs, fish, cheese, and green vegetables, and about grinding, mixing, heating, and cooling.  And it is about how such overlaps might have informed the meanings of both art-making and cooking and eating for medieval people.

My work on this project is going to take two forms.  One will be the traditional, scholarly, academic work of research and reading.  The other will be experimental and experiential and will involve cooking medieval recipes along with experimenting with medieval art-making techniques.  For the latter, to begin with at least, I will be working with modern cookbooks that present somewhat modernized versions of medieval recipes, starting with Sharon Butler, Constance Hieatt, and Brenda Hosington's Plyen Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks (second edition). 

The cooking portion of this project is a way for me to bring together my personal and professional interests and so to trouble the boundary between amateur enthusiasm and properly distanced scholarly work (as advocated in Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon is Now?).  I've always enjoyed cooking and so this is a way for me to bring that enjoyment into my work.  It is also the portion of the project that I plan on documenting here.  I don't know what else may come out of this work, in terms of publications, etc.  I'm trying not to focus on the outcome(s) of the project, but rather on the process of the work itself.