Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

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Translated Images: French Influence, or Lack of It, on English Book-Iconography
Joyce Coleman, University of Oklahoma


The frontispieces of Franco-Burgundian literary manuscripts* reveal a widespread interest in the social context of textuality. Ranging from the highly standardized to the completely idiosyncratic, this "book-iconography" depicts the inception, the writing, the presentation, and the reading of books with a recursiveness that bespeaks a cultural fascination with the mediating authority of texts. By contrast, the frontispieces to English literary manuscripts show relatively much less interest in and range of book-iconography. This even though French influence permeated the literary culture of England, and even though French books, and French book-professionals, passed frequently across the Channel.

Presentation scenes are the most common, although appearing (post-Conquest) much later than in France, with a scattering of writing and of "authorship" pictures ("authorship" being my working label for images showing an author simply holding his or her book). Reading, when depicted, seems to be confined to prayerbooks and, on a few occasions, to scholarly texts.

So far, in a collection of over 900 images, I have not found a single English illumination that unequivocally shows public reading, a common practice in both England and France and a relatively common subject for frontispieces and incipit illuminations in French manuscripts. Although reproductions of the famous Troilus and Criseyde frontispiece (Cambridge, Corpus Christi Coll. 61, f. 1) are frequently captioned "Chaucer reading his book to the court," there is in fact no book in the picture; the viewer is intended to assume, apparently, that Chaucer is reciting the text from memory. We know or can plausibly conjecture that certain French manuscripts with reading-aloud frontispieces were available in England--were owned, in fact, by Richard II and other magnates. Yet the iconography was never picked up and reproduced within England itself.

It seems, thus, that the flow of books and book-iconography from France to England was subject to a filtering process, whereby certain kinds of depicted relationships were accepted and perpetuated, while others were not. In this paper I will review the relative popularity of book-iconography in France and England, then focus on the pictures of reading. I will advance some theories to account for English selectivity, and will welcome the comments and advice of the audience in further refining these.

* For the purposes of this abstract, "French" will be understood to include "Burgundian," i.e., manuscripts created in northern France and Flanders for the dukes of Burgundy and their dependents.


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