Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 14, 2022
Nina Rowe The Illuminated World Chronicle: Tales from the Late Medieval City New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 220 pp.; 148 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300247046)

This wonderful book provides a thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated introduction to a set of illuminated world chronicle manuscripts made in Bavaria and Austria in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The texts transmitted through these manuscripts are generally compilations from a variety of sources, including the world chronicles of Rudolf von Ems and Jans der Enikel, the Christherre-Chronik, and others, often brought together in a compilation traditionally attributed to “Heinrich von München” (although this name refers more to a textual tradition than to an actual individual) along with a great variety of other material.

Author Nina Rowe adroitly describes this complex textual situation in her introduction, although her focus is on the illustrations, which, as she argues, “provided coherence” (5) to manuscripts that present tangled mashups of textual material. Like other medieval chronicles these works bring together an enormous variety of narratives from biblical and other Christian traditions with accounts of the Greco-Roman world and more recent history. Some of this material would be considered canonical today, some would be considered history, and much could be categorized as legend or folklore. An account of Noah’s ark, for example, might bring together key elements of the biblical story with the scurrilous tale of how Noah made the married couples on the ark sleep separately and promise chastity, but the devil (who had snuck on to the ark when Noah said to Ham, “Hurry up, you devil”), seduced Ham and his wife into breaking this vow which led to the comical revelation of the devil’s presence on the ark. Or, as another example, a narration of the life of Charlemagne as a great and almost saintly Christian hero might incorporate a story of the legendary king’s persistent sin of necrophilia with his dead wife. These chronicles, perhaps especially in their illuminated versions, are a fascinating piece of medieval culture, and this book does an excellent job of introducing them to, hopefully, a somewhat larger audience than that of the specialists who have studied them up to now. It is not a popularizing book, but it could potentially reach a relatively broad audience of medievalists and awaken wider interest in these fascinating manuscripts (it could also be accessible to the knowledgeable general reader).

The book may focus slightly more than absolutely necessary on subjects that will strike modern readers as odd or amusing, like the stories already mentioned, or the one in which Nero gives birth to a toad or another in which the young Moses, having been told that he was born a Jew, checks his penis to see if this is true. And yet it would be hard to write such a book without an emphasis on such stories. They are, after all, interesting. On that level this book is extremely successful. It expertly introduces these works, includes ample illustrations, and points the reader to digital online reproductions of many of the manuscripts. 

On the next level of specificity, each chapter offers an argument about why these books, made in these times and places, stress the things that they do. For example, the fifth chapter, “Nebuchadnezzar’s Idol and Waldensian Dissidence,” argues that a group of manuscripts made in and near Regensburg around 1400 devotes special attention to the idolatry of Nebuchadnezzar because this was a region where Waldensianism was strong, with its critique of the excessive honoring of graven images. In a very well researched section on Waldensians of the time and region, Rowe makes these points: at least some Waldensians were opposed to the veneration of images; at least some high-ranking or wealthy people in the region were Waldensians; and that the illustrators of these manuscripts might have been influenced by these Waldensian concerns. In one particularly convincing example, the depiction of Nebuchadnezzar’s idol as a Gothic finial in a Munich manuscript (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, cgm 5 [fig. 5.1]) arguably alludes to what Waldensians might have perceived as an excessive use of decoration on the Regensburg cathedral, which was being built at the time. While the question of how much this emphasis owes to the chronicler Jan der Enikel (whose text the manuscripts follow here, and who wrote in the late thirteenth century, around a hundred years before these manuscripts were made) and how much to the makers of these Regensburg manuscripts might be explored more fully, the chapter is convincing overall. The section discussing the depiction of Nebuchadnezzar’s idol as a column from which the devil emerges is especially strong evidence for the idea that the illustration programs related to the idol might indeed reflect local/regional concerns of the time of the manuscripts’ production.

The basic idea that these manuscripts tend to reflect social and political concerns of their times and places is persuasive. Perhaps the fact that Jews were better treated in the Regensburg area than in many other places is expressed in “the pages of illuminated Weltchroniken where Moses’s Jewishness became the focus of poignant and suspenseful narratives, and where his difference might have inspired curiosity rather than scorn” (67). On the other hand, the fact that Nuremberg, in the late Middle Ages, was engaged in a series of escalating anti-Jewish actions might be reflected in illustrations that make Jews look bad, like the one in which the puritanical Jew tries to punish Jesus for violating strict Sabbath rules, or others in which the generosity of Christ in feeding the multitudes is arguably contrasted with the unworthiness of Jews (here fig. 7.14).

Some of these arguments, however, might be more persuasive if text and image were compared more carefully and if iconographic traditions were discussed more fully. Does the emphasis on a particular subject come from the illustrators or from the texts? And how do the illustrations here compare to other illustrations of the same scenes? For example, the richness of Mary’s clothing in the Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin in a Morgan manuscript (fig. 7.16) may reflect the interests of Nuremberg patricians whose wealth depended on the cloth trade (168), but while it differs from the text in which the humble nature of Mary’s dress is stressed, does it differ from the typical depiction of Mary’s clothing in the usual iconography of this scene? 

The lack of iconographic context for its arguments is the one weakness of the book. We are presented with images like the naked nuns in the margin of a page in a Stuttgart manuscript (fig. 7.4) without reference to the fact that such marginalia are fairly common over a long period of time in the Middle Ages. Several examples of nuns doing much more embarrassing things than dancing naked are catalogued in Lilian Randall’s Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts (University of California Press, 1966), and although the manuscripts studied by Randall might not provide ideal comparanda for the mostly later ones studied by Rowe, her work might at least provide a starting point for contextualizing the naked nuns. Without such context the reader may get the idea that nudity in the margins is more unusual than it is. The same goes for the “perky breasts” (143) of Charlemagne’s dead wife in Heidelberg, cpg 336 (fig. 6.22) or the rather less perky breasts of Noah’s daughter-in-law in ÖNB 2921, fol. 25v (fig. 2.19) and ÖNB Cod. Ser. n. 2642, fol. 26r (fig. 2.17). It’s not terribly difficult to find nakedness, especially of women, in medieval art: Bathsheba, for example, is often depicted nude. The images discussed here are interesting in their narrative context, but not strikingly unusual in their display of nakedness.

Not only regarding the naked nuns and the bare breasts, but generally throughout the book, considering iconographic traditions and comparing the images to the texts in more detail would add crucial context for the interpretations proposed. The book does an excellent job of presenting research and elucidating conditions and situations in particular times and places and suggesting connections between those conditions and the illuminations of manuscripts made in those times and places. It does a less good job of making clear just exactly how unusual those illuminations are in a broader context.

Nonetheless, this is a very good book which makes interesting and potentially significant arguments about specific connections between the illumination of world chronicles and regional or local socioeconomic and political situations, and more generally demonstrates the fascinating nature of these chronicles and their illustrations. The book has enormous potential to achieve the author’s goal of encouraging new audiences to “tune in to illuminated Weltchroniken, in all their cacophonous ebullience” (175).

James Rushing
Department of World Languages and Cultures, Rutgers University–Camden