The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

Stanbury explores the lost traffic in images in late medieval England and its impact on contemporary authors and artists.

The Visual Object of Desire in Late Medieval England

Sarah Stanbury

2007 | 304 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Premodern Fetishes

Chapter 1. Knighton's Lollards, Capgrave's Katherine, and Walter Hilton's "Merk Ymage"
Chapter 2. The Despenser Retable and 1381

Chapter 3. Chaucer and Images
Chapter 4. Translating Griselda
Chapter 5. The Clergeon's Tongue

Chapter 6. Nicholas Love's Mirror: Dead Images and the Life of Christ
Chapter 7. Arts of Self-Patronage in The Book of Margery Kempe

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction: Premodern Fetishes

One of the most startling survivals of English gothic architecture is the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. Begun in 1321 and completed in 1349, the chapel is an undivided, open structure measuring 100 feet long by over 40 feet wide, the widest span of any English church, with vaulting soaring to 60 feet (fig. 1). It seems, on first sight, cavernous. The sense of emptiness may derive partly from the effect of light; except for a few painted fragments on the south wall, the five perpendicular windows on each side are unglazed, as are the great east and west windows. It also may come from the absence of color. Walls, ceiling and floor are almost entirely unpainted gray limestone and marble (fig. 2). Yet the sense of starkness comes through most dramatically by the absence of images. Even though a circuit of elaborately carved canopied niches runs around the walls beneath the windows, all of them are empty; and although you can see figures, as in the spandrels above, the heads of virtually all them have been cut off. All of the 147 statues of Mary and other saints have had their heads knocked off in a purging inspired by Reformation iconoclasm—carried out, so one story goes, in the late 1530s by Thomas Cromwell's men, who rode through the chapel on horses, smashing the glass with their pikes and lopping off the heads of images with their swords, leaving the chapel a gallery of the headless (fig. 3). To call the Lady Chapel a gothic survival is in fact a misnomer, since its architectural attitude today, a kind of grand simplicity, owes far more to Reformation image-breakers than to the fourteenth-century craftsmen who designed its space and decorated its interior.

Reflecting on the dramatic iconoclasm that transformed this space in The Idolatrous Eye, Michael O'Connell also pictures Ely's chapel as a point of departure for, in his case, a study in tensions of the visual in early modern theater. What made its sculptures and its glass painting so abhorrent to sensibilities in the 1540s that they had to be defaced? My first visit, in the mid-90s, to this haunting survival made me wonder what was lost: What would the Ely Lady Chapel have looked like in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? Inference from contemporary iconography and from the surviving program indicates a particularly concerted, spare-no-expense, effort for the spectacular effect. Niches were filled with images of saints and bishops, while a narrative life and miracles of the Virgin circulated in the spandrels above. The carving, as Nicola Coldstream observes, was exceptional for its grace and detailing. Paint was used for vivid and dramatic effect. Surviving stained glass fragments suggest that all the glass would have been painted. The interior as a whole, which a nineteenth-century architectural historian described as "one of the grandest specimen of medieval architecture," was decorated in "figures of roses, lilies, and crosses, painted in prominent colours on a ground of whitewash."

Little of this remains; and indeed, only a small percentage of the devotional material culture of pre-Reformation England as a whole is still extant today. Many of the objects we can see today exist in mutilated form, like the Seven Sacraments Font in Norwich Cathedral (fig. 4). Ely's Lady Chapel is a fascinating memorial in the history of the object, testimony to the vital linkages in late medieval and Reformation England of "art" with patronage, power, and ethical passions. The century and a half preceding the Royal Injunctions of September 1538, when parish officers were ordered to remove images from their churches, saw a dramatic efflorescence in devotional art of all kinds, not only in England but also across Europe. Historians have amply documented this dramatic proliferation. Images of the saints offer just one example. Eamon Duffy, who has written extensively on the vitality of fifteenth-century lay worship, remarks on the "luxuriant flourishing of the devotion to the saints" as manifested in the long inventories of images and painted pictures that could be found in most fifteenth-century parishes. As Richard Marks has recently noted, the flourishing of saints' images in the fifteenth century reflected a transformation in their cultic use from distanced iconic objects to personalized intercessionary agents. Proliferating on chantry altars and on murals covering parish walls, saints' images transformed the nave, the single public space of the parish church, from unadorned aisle to gallery. Saints, newly personalized, also came to face the parish congregation on painted screens separating the chancel from the nave. An early fifteenth-century innovation, screens painted with images of the saints and holy family multiplied in "dazzling array" throughout English parishes, as Paul Binski says. Saints also appeared on painted wooden panels, a new portable kind of devotional object, and as wood and alabaster carvings, either free-standing or in bas relief. In addition to images of saints, paintings and statues of Christ's life and Passion, of the Trinity, of bishops and lay and even of clerical donors also proliferated throughout churches and cathedrals in late medieval England. As Michael Camille comments, late medieval Europe saw an "image-explosion" that profoundly altered the relationship between viewers and devotional objects: "Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle did not suddenly come about in the twentieth century; its roots lay in the multiplication of image investment, in altars, statues, paintings, and windows that cluttered the medieval church."

The chapters in this book, spanning the period from the 1380s to the mid-1400s, examine the dynamic image culture of late medieval England through the responses of its textual commentators. Through a reading of literary texts—and in one case, an altarpiece—I explore how the representation of devotional images in those texts engages with performances staged by what we might think of as the premier vehicle of the medieval media: the church, with its daily performances of sacred ritual in spaces visually illustrated with its founding narratives by statues in wood and alabaster, stained glass, embroidery, and panel and wall painting. As these writings and objects demonstrate, England in the late Middle Ages was keenly attuned to and even troubled by its "culture of the spectacle," whether spectacle took the form of a newly-made queen as in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, or of representation of Christ's life and death, as we see in Norwich Cathedral's Despenser Retable and in Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Life of Christ.

Although visual evidence of England's image-culture has been largely destroyed or moved to museums, testimony to a world of powerfully animate devotional forms survives in the rhetoric of affective piety. The desire to see, expressed so insistently in late medieval religious lyrics and dream vision poetry, might even have been voiced, in part, as a response to a culture of images and their strategic deployment in liturgical spectacle. A striking and recurring feature of the representation of visual experience in late medieval England is the expression of desire—at times profoundly erotic, at other times deeply spiritual—such that we may describe the drive to see as one of the great passions and great myths structuring medieval representation. The desire to see fuels some of the most important prose and poetry of the late Middle Ages, shaping the language of desire in lyrics of the Passion, with their repeated calls to look on the suffering Christ; structuring the trajectories of desire in dream visions such as Pearl; offering a set of terms for meditation in the Showings of Julian of Norwich; grounding the narrative of religious instruction in Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ; and offering defining metaphors for Chaucer's explorations of love, sanctity, and chivalric spectacle. In many texts the gaze itself, the very privilege of vision, is not only a solitary desire but a carefully orchestrated act mediated by others who tell the viewer how and what to see. The gaze, articulated by rich material displays of devotional images, even can emerge as a prize in a contest or a struggle to see—a vision contest. Seeing has the extraordinary and transformative power of witnessing: to look on the beloved, to look on the grail, to see the elevation of the host, to stand face to face with God.

Yet even when visual desire takes as its goal a purely mystical sight beyond the material world, the mechanics of vision link it with sensory experience and even material objects. As recent work on medieval visuality has shown, writings about vision and on optics in the Middle Ages often understand sight to be a property of physical contiguity. In looking we are connected physically to the object we see by the agency of species, or visual rays. Images, through their species, literally touch us, linking us physically with them in ways that underwrite the dramatic physicality of late medieval affective piety. When we desire to feel Christ's pain as we look on his suffering body, our empathy is charged by a physical as well as emotional cathexis. And is this a desire for Christ the exemplar, or is it for Christ as image, come to life? At the moment of consecration and elevation during the Eucharist, the host becomes Christ's living flesh, a transformation that occurs at the moment when it is held up before the congregation. Affixing or transfixing the gaze, the inanimate object becomes a living body. Discourses on images in the late Middle Ages repeatedly instruct us to use images only as devotional aids to get to the ideas beyond them; we are exhorted to worship the idea beyond the image and not the image itself. Images themselves seem to confuse this hermeneutic, however. What do we love, the thing or the idea behind the thing? The carving and color at Ely's Lady Chapel, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries fully comparable to the splendor of Paris's St. Chapelle, in many ways celebrates the pleasures of objects. The spectral lives of images in the popular imagination suggest that images crossed the lines between matter and spirit or the living and the dead. In the language of affective piety, object and exemplar often seem to fuse uncannily, as desires to see, touch, know the suffering Christ are articulated in relation to a body that often seems very like Passion scenes carved above the rood screen or on alabaster panels in a parish's side chapels.

Voicing the most direct and immediate expressions of the vision contest in late medieval England were Wycliffite attacks on devotional images, critiques that sparked a complex debate on the role of devotional objects in public life. In the late 1380s and '90s statements arguing both for and against the uses of images were emerging from both university and lay circles, chiefly but not exclusively in connection with the Lollard movement. As studies by W. R. Jones and Margaret Aston have shown, Wyclif himself was moderate about abuses of images, writing in his 'Treatise on the Decalogue,' the Tractatus de mandatis divinis of 1375-76, that although images can be worshipped for deviant forms of pleasure, they can serve to rouse the faithful: "It is evident that images may be made both well and ill: well in order to rouse, assist and kindle the minds of the faithful to love God more devoutly; and ill when by reason of images there is deviation from the true faith, as when the image is worshipped with latria or dulia, or unduly delighted in for its beauty, costliness, or attachment to irrelevant circumstances." Within Wycliffite writings, however, opposition to images was the chief distinguishing feature from the beginning of the movement until the end, generating public response as early as 1383 when Thomas Brinton, bishop of Rochester, delivered an Easter sermon that included the statement that heretics "newly preach and assert that the cross of Christ and images should not be worshipped." Arguments pro and con, defending the uses of images as visible texts for the laity and attacking carved images and pilgrimages as twin forms of idolatry, emerged as a topic of heated academic debate and public controversy in the last decade of the fourteenth century, according to Aston. Wyclif's acknowledgment that images can serve as useful guides to Christians as well as his cautionary note about the possibility of abuse when we love the thing and not the form of devotion to which the object is directing us were to become the chief points in a growing public debate, which itself portended the mass destruction of devotional images in the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century.

Central to this debate, and implicit in Wyclif's own statements, is acknowledgment of a problematic interpretive line, hard to make out, where legitimate use of an image for spiritual ends shifts into possession, and worship before images slips into idolatry, worship of the thing itself rather than the abstraction to which the thing directs us. The debate about images took place not only across the lines of orthodoxy and heresy, but within orthodox circles as a central component of a reformist polemic, and consistently pointed to problems of interpreting "correct" or legitimate use. Just as Walter Hilton uses the "merk image" as a provocative metaphor for desire and disgust, as I argue in Chapter 1, writings on images by his contemporaries, both orthodox and Wycliffite, grants to them a mesmeric corporeality, disciplining the subject before the image with a moral rhetoric that in our own time might be reserved for sexual deviance.

A text that dramatizes, in dialogue form, the problems of distinguishing between rightful and idolatrous uses of images is In the Dives and Pauper, an anonymous treatise on the Ten Commandments that has been dated from 1405-1410. This text is important as one of the fullest surviving contributions to the debate on images from pre-Reformation England, and also one that dramatizes, in its dialogue form, the social desires and public anxieties surrounding images in the church. In the First Precept or dialogue on graven images, Dives, who according to Priscilla Heath Barnum, personifies the text's intended audience and represents the newly literate and worldly class, is advised and instructed on how to worship images by Pauper (the voice of orthodox rectitude) before the discussion shifts into a long analysis of astrology, human will, and God's authority. Asking questions that doubtless the reader of the book would be expected to be able to answer correctly, Dives takes the part of a rube, a credulous but troubled literalist who has trouble distinguishing between objects and signs; for in fact the interpretation of signs forms the subtext of the First Precept. Much in the same way that the questions asked in Q and A articles in popular magazines will often seem obtuse, even embarrassingly so, and hence create a safe space for the airing of our most intimate fears, the anxious ordinariness of Dives (who is us) makes us willing to listen to the smart Pauper (not us, but one who occupies the moral high ground). Worried about the proper responses to images in a world in which images are proliferating, Dives shows himself a conformist concerned with doing the right thing in a changing world: to what extent should he be like everybody else and do as other "men doon"?

And þow meen doon makyn þese dayis ymages gret plente bothin in cherche and out of cherche, and alle meen, as me thynky3t, wurshepyn ymagys, and it is wol hard to me but that I doo in þat as alle meen doon, & 3yf Y wurshepe hem me thynky3t I doo ydolatrye and a3ens Godys lawe.
To Dives' question about how to respond to images, "how shulde I rede in þe book of peynture and of ymagerye?," Pauper, who defends their uses, offers a line that doubtless had the familiarity of a chatechism by the early 1400s, 'worship God and not the image': "wurshepe hym abouyn alle thyngge, nought þe ymage, nought þe stok, stoon ne tree, but hym þat deyid on þe tree for þi synne . . . so pat þu knele, 3yf þu wylt, aforn þe ymage nought to þe ymage." This dialogue, introducing the commentary on the Commandments that comprises the text, clearly points to public or lay doubts about the relationship between ordinary members of a church community (Dives) and the material and ritual structure of the church, for Dives repeatedly expresses concerns that other members of the congregation and even the clergy, during the performance of the Mass, seemed to be worshipping images themselves rather than using them as signs for God. Even though Dives voices concerns central to the Lollards, saying early on, "Qherof seruyn þese ymagys? I wolde þey weryn brent euerychon," even implying here that images are like heretics, appropriate for burning, the dialogue form allows his voice safe play. Through Pauper's answer the text can expound an orthodox defense of images while also voicing concerns that traverse a cross-section of positions. Dives' wish that images be burned even voices a social reality that would have lent his question and wish a particularly dramatic frisson in the years following the 1401 edict, "De Heretico Comburendo," licensing the burning of heretics. Speaking from the position of a Lollard who wants all images to be burned, he also points to the fate of Lollards who make that very claim.

The distinctions between images and idols, implied in the dialogue between Dives and Pauper, receives a particularly clear illustration in a miniature from a manuscript of Lydgate's Pilgrimage of the Life of Man. Both the Lydgate text and the accompanying illustration expressly highlight the link between idols and human manufacture and articulate as well how worship of the sculpted idol should be separated from "right worship" of images of the saints. In a colored drawing from a Lydgate manuscript (1430-1450) Dame Idolatry, partially concealed by the supporting timber, shows Pilgrim an idol, an "ymage . . . crownyd lyk a kyn" (fig. 5). A man kneels in front of this idol in a posture of worship, and on the floor are scattered chisels and other tools that expressly identify this idol as an object of human construction. As Idolatry (undermining her own position) explains, the man is the carpenter who has made the idol, forging with his two hands, "hys handys tweyne," an object that will not help him at all:

The same selue carpenter
Dyde a-forn hys bysy peyne
To forge hym, wyth hys handys tweyne
And make hym ffyrst off swych entaylle
And wot he may nothyng avaylle
To helpe hym, whan that al lys do. (20932-39)
In marked contrast with this picture of the idol as a made object, the next image in the manuscript illustrates the orthodox positioning of the self before devotional pictures (fig. 6). Men kneel before a raised altar on which a crucifix is flanked by six saints and apostles, Katherine to the far left and Margaret on the right. Pilgrim voices the standard defense: Worship the idea behind the form, "the holy seyntes/ off whom they beryn the lyknesse," and not the form itself:
"Ffor, sothly, we nothyng laboure
The ymages to honoure,
Stook nor ston, nor that men peyntes;
But we honoure the holy seyntes
Off whom they beryn the lyknesse." (20977-81)
The idol, in marked contrast, is dead "as ston or tre" (20927).

The demarcation pictured in this manuscript between the idol who is as dead as stock and stone and the ordered, hieratic devotional tableau that should direct our attention beyond the images to their abstract exemplars is very neat—-and perhaps even deceptively clear. In a recent analysis of these images, Michael Camille suggests that the illuminators might actually have been using the apparent contrast to equate them, showing image-worship as another form of idolatry. Most late medieval commentary on devotional images, either pro or con, recognize that the line is often blurred: people believe, however mistakenly, that images themselves perform the miracles.

Concerns about devotional art as voiced in reformist polemic may also have been fueled by perceived inequities in visual privilege: who gets closest to the object, who gets their name inscribed in the image. As I discuss in below, widespread discussions that arose in reformist texts underscore the close ties between images, visual regimes, and capital—the formative desires linking the gaze and its objects. Painters of crucifixes, a Wycliffite sermon writes, expend resources that should be used for the poor; they also distort history and mislead the public will by visually transforming stories of apostolic poverty to spectacles of luxury. The rich order up rich images to mirror their "owne cursid lif," and images come to signify not the ethics of sacrifice but the pleasures of the marketplace. In their public condemnation of devotional images, Lollard reformers—perhaps alluding pointedly to a particular crucifix or image of a popular saint even as they preached—were commenting broadly on the uses and abuses of public image-making in their time, targeting in their critiques not just images, but also the system of their production, circulation, and reception. In ways that seem prophetic of post-modern studies of ideology formation, these polemical texts are shrewdly attuned to the ways that a culture can imagine itself in its visual icons. They also seem fully aware of the powers of spectacle, in turn, over the public will—of how images operate, in Zizek's words, as the "sublime object[s] of ideology." Do we worship the idea behind the object, or is it the beautiful object itself that we adore? How do we position the self in relation to a devotional image and still heed the second commandment forbidding worship of graven images? Less clearly articulated but also central to what we might call the "image debate" were social and economic anxieties: Where do we locate ourselves in a material field in which images are proliferating, the technologies of production and display are rapidly transforming, and the liquid capital for endowing and even purchasing images is becoming increasingly (if unequally) available? Voices from the image debate express anxieties about objects; images are not only devotional signs but are also forms of circulating capital, part of the culture of things.

This book contributes to a broader inquiry that has increasingly recognized the profound impact of these debates on contemporary aesthetics and practices of representation. Art historians, especially Michael Camille, have drawn our attention to the close discursive ties between devotional images and idols in late medieval writings and representation. Is our veneration of images and our pleasure in their traditional housing in the parish a form of idolatry, a corrupt worship of mammon? Kathleen Scott has speculated that Lollardy may have had a decisive and impoverishing effect on English manuscript illumination from the 1390s on, as insular painters, responding to the censorship of Lollard doctrine, shied away from the techniques of naturalism that were flourishing in continental work. Scholars have only begun to address the effects of Lollardy, and its suppression, on literature in late medieval England, but as recent research has suggested, the impact was profound and wide-ranging, particularly as crystallized in Arundel's Constitutions of 1407-09, which made it heretical to read Wyclif's books and also new books on religious matters that had not received approval by a panel of theologians approved by the Archbishop. David Aers, Lynn Staley and Nicholas Watson have contributed important reassessments of Langland and of Julian of Norwich's mystical discourse, demonstrating the close connections between allegorical and mystical self-fashioning and broader political/theological debates. Work by Watson as well as James Simpson has argued that acts of censorship that began in 1382 with the outlawing of writings by Wyclif and escalated in 1401 by the statute authorizing the burning of heretics had a profound, even impoverishing, impact on many forms of cultural production, though the extent of that impact is the subject of debate. A centralized Lancastrian authority that consolidated its powers, in part, through the aggressive suppression of Lollardy decreased possibilities for social critique and dramatically narrowed the range of subjects and approaches available for vernacular writers.

This book, taking as its primary focus literary and artistic productions from the last decades of the fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth centuries, works to understand how writers deploy accounts of sight and images to articulate some of the ideological and material concerns of late medieval England, particularly as those anxieties were inflected by the image debate. English discourses on vision from these years are often disciplinary, couched not in the mantra of denial ("see no evil . . . ") but rather enunciated through explicit instructions for how to see, as if seeing were a personal and social habitus or practice that one learns through individual and group discipline. Discourses on the gaze and its objects sometimes take the form of a contest or debate and in this form, I argue, respond to contemporary debates about images and emergent tensions of an increasingly material culture. The pressures fueling this vision contest can be traced to increasing contestation about the uses and control of social space, and chiefly the church and its treasures. In late medieval England a vision contest staged as well a debate about access to the spaces in which devotional images were housed—e.g., the choir, the high altar, and the private chapels of local parishes and of major cathedrals, filled in pre-reformation England with a brilliant array of devotional images in panel painting, sculpture, and stained glass, many of these objects gifts of prosperous lay patrons. Polemical writings that attempt to mark out the boundary between acceptable and idolatrous uses of images may thus also be voicing tensions about property and exchange, exacerbated particularly in a time of increased circulation of capital and the increased production and proliferation of manufactured goods—and among those goods, devotional images themselves. For saints, of course, are promissory, their uses transactional: One prays to the saint for something—for luck, fertility, the safety and well-being of loved-ones, for the speedy passage of one's own soul and the souls of others through purgatory. The saint's image is apotropaic to the body in a system of circulation, and the saint's own occupation of matter, taking on transactional properties of matter, is centrally at stake in the debate. Devotional images trouble reformers, I suggest, not only because they threaten a material intrusion in the devotional sphere but also because they signify the very-market based operations of the spiritual system itself.

It is this anxious discourse about images in public spaces and private worship that forms the backdrop to this book, which offers readings of important texts from the beginning of the image controversy in the 1380s until the middle of the fifteenth-century. How do writers construct discourses on devotion within the terms of this debate, using devotional images to imagine or discipline the ethical lives of their readers? Devotional objects were social objects, bound to the community through ties of politics and patronage. In late medieval reformist polemic devotional objects display many of the same uncanny ties to commodities and even sexuality that would be targeted in much later discussions, which invented the term "fetish" to label objects that we love too much or that circulate as forms of "abnormal traffic." Chapter 1 then examines several texts in which objects and female bodies interface as fetish forms: Knighton's commentary on Lollard destruction of an image of St. Katherine; Walter Hilton's uses of the "merk ymage" as a figure for idolatrous flesh; and John Capgrave's St. Katherine, which offers a rich commentary on the morphology and powers of iconic forms through the actions of the saint and also of her token, the wheel. An image metaphorically comes to life, I argue, in Henry Knighton's account of the burning of a Katherine statue and in Capgrave's Life of St. Katherine, a compelling and popular narrative that pictures the saint as an embodied devotional image in a struggle against idolatry, with her famous wheel as both fetish item and idol. Then taking a look at a work of devotional painting that demonstrates complex social and political links to the community, Chapter 2 examines the Despenser Retable, a large altarpiece given to Norwich Cathedral in the 1380s, and takes up a long-standing scholarly hypothesis that the altarpiece was given to Norwich Cathedral as a thank-you gift for the suppression of the 1381 rebellion. Outlining Despenser's role in the suppression of the revolt, this chapter reads the panels themselves as a Passion text that should be understood in the context of the painting's frame, blazoned by the coats of arms of important local families.

In the second section, "Chaucer and the Signs of Sanctity," I consider Chaucer's responses to the image debate as well as his own figurations of ritual spectacle. In a kind of counter discourse to Hilton and Knighton, Chaucer's poems from the 1380s and '90s take a decidedly skeptical approach to images and the systems of public credulity that they subtend. As I argue in Chapter 3, Chaucer may have responded to the image debate by a practical strategy of avoidance. In his poetry, even his most overtly devotional, such as the Tale of St. Cecilia or the Prioress's Tale, we find virtually no descriptions of popular devotional forms, such as the Trinity, the crucifix, the saints, or scenes from the life of Christ and the holy family. Although Chaucer describes "images" with precise detail, evincing a keen interest in objects of representation, he restricts ekphrasis, the description of a work of art, entirely to images that would have been classed as pagan idols—and hence safely outside the contested discourse. Nevertheless, the phobic account of relics in the Pardoner's Tale and the drama of a devotional daisy in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, both of them texts that echo language from Wycliffite sect vocabulary, suggest that Chaucer was well-attuned to nuances of reformist discourse on devotional objects of all kinds, even if he engages with those debates only through irony or play. Chapters 4 and 5 take a close look not at images themselves but at sacramental spectacle and staged performance, or more exactly, at the uses of characters as devotional icons, in two of Chaucer's most troubling "religious" tales. Paired chapters on the Clerk's Tale and the Prioress's Tale examine Chaucer's representations of sacramental transformation in the context of his abiding interest in the relationship between the private will and public spectacle—the tensions between iconic bodies and uses people have for them.

Chapters in the third section, "Moving Pictures," explore texts in which Christ operates as a dynamic image, a figure articulated within reformist discourse on devotional icons and animated by a carefully orchestrated devotional gaze. The last chapters examine two well-known fifteenth-century texts, the Mirror of the Life of Christ and the Book of Margery Kempe. Both of these texts adopt explicitly orthodox positions against Lollardy, and both of them picture Christ as a living person, even one, as Kempe's text demonstrates, to whom we can speak. Through this animate Christ these texts offer a metacommentary on the vital life of images in the contemporary devotional world. In the Mirror, Nicholas Love engages with the image debate through a kind of conjuring, invoking the fifteenth-century parish with its displays of pictures through his spectral appeals to "imagination." The Mirror locates its reader/viewer before "live images," as opposed to the "dead images" condemned in reformist literature, staging a direct intervention in the image debate by orchestrating an ideal gaze and its objects. In her Book, Margery Kempe also imagines Christ as animate, engaged with her in compassionate dialogue not just as a spectral presence but also as a devotional image. Kempe seems to have been aware of uses of donor images, and in her Book works to connect herself to the material fabric of the churches that she names by imagining herself in the role of donor/patron, speaking to and kneeling before a Christ that may take pictorial form from the iconography of the indulgenced Man of Sorrows.

As these readings collectively show, writers found multiple ways of responding to England's image culture and image debate. All of the texts discussed in this book seem to recognize, however, that devotional images are complexly tied to the performance of power; images work as agents in the service of systems of authority—though as we see in the chapter of Margery Kempe, ordinary, lay women could find ways to lay claim to them. Vehemently condemned from some quarters, passionately defended from others, devotional images in late fourteenth and fifteenth-century England work as touchstones for many social and economic hot topics; witness, for example, Chaucer's brilliant satire in the Pardoner's Tale, where the selling of false relics, old bones and rags, gives a dramatic illustration of corrupt ecclesiastical practices. The Pardoner's relics give us not just a commentary on the selling of indulgences, but also engage with the contemporary discourse on devotional images in general, a conversation with increasingly high stakes in positioning its participants on issues of orthodoxy and dissent.

The uses of devotional images and sacramental display, whether addressed polemically or imaginatively, as in the texts discussed in this book, are questions with religious, economic and social import. As the "image-explosion" dramatically changed the interiors of fourteenth and fifteenth-century English churches, it also altered as well the relationships among lay patrons who donated or underwrote the images and the clergy who used them in the performance of the Mass. The image explosion linked the parish and the public in vital new alliances and conflicts, particularly as it fueled a debate that helped redefine the terms of orthodoxy and dissent. The texts discussed in this book show contemporary writers grappling with the ethics of the object, both its pleasures and its seductions. If the theatrical display of ritual objects in a text provokes sharp emotional responses from its reader or from its characters, those reactions bespeak as well a response to the image debate out there in the world. They also describe a relationship to the habitus of the image, the physical spaces and cultural performances by which images were graphically and often strategically displayed. Recent studies of English parish culture in the late Middle Ages have inspired a vigorous reappraisal of the connections between the material world of church life—the parish buildings and their rich collection of images, fabrics, glass, and plate—and the economic and social life of communities. Discourses about images and spectacle in late medieval texts are in conversation both with the controversies sparked by reformist polemic and as well as with things themselves, the devotional fetish objects that make up the material fabric of ritual life.

Premodern Fetishes

To speak of a fetish is to speak of an object that always carries an obsessional trace. As object, the fetish occupies a zone of illegitimacy, somewhere between excess and insubstantiality: too much, not enough. The fetishist's desire is both insatiable and inauthentic. Always in excess of the object of its fixation, it is fixed in things even as it announces their lack. If I fetishize shoes—or even houses, as Marjorie Garber's book Sex and Real Estate suggests is a possibility—shoes and houses stand in for other desires I might not choose to acknowledge or even know I have. As a label, "fetish" carries with it an outlaw pleasure. I do not announce or admit myself to be a fetishist—for fetishes are items of "abnormal traffic." The fetish is generally the fixation of somebody else.

This othering of the fetish, the gift of fetish-fixations to Others, whether they are identified as primitives or sexual deviants, is closely bound up with the history of the term. Recent studies of the fetish, turning the spotlight onto the term as a speech-act, have focused attention on its history as a discursive mark: what we talk about when we talk about the fetish. If I would prefer not to be called a fetishist, it is partially because the fetish implies a disavowal of spirit for matter, and hence the fetishist is, de facto, a cultural dupe, hankering for the material thing and unaware of the forces that drive his or her desire. As Sut Jhally, in a study of advertising and fetishism, puts it, "fetishism consists of seeing the meaning of things as an inherent part of their physical existence, when in fact that meaning is created by their integration into a system of meaning." Even that statement implies the superior knowledge of the analyst who recognizes ("in fact") the truth that the fetishist himself cannot see. The fetishist, who eroticizes the shoe, is incapable of seeing the oedipal prehistory that binds him to the object—or even if he does, the shoe still carries its magical charge. Discourses of the fetish, on the other hand , bespeak distance and disenchantment. The fetishist says "I know, but even so," while the fetishist's analyst or historian asserts "I know."

Fetishism is, and has always been, a discourse about objects and about false attachments, a label marking an Other whose difference is signed by excessive attachment to a material object, whether that object is religious, financial, or sexual. The term fetish first appeared in anthropological literature to describe the magical talismen of West Africans, and from its first uses has remained a pejorative label marking material enchantments. Recent studies of fetishes and fetishism are particularly indebted to the historical genealogies of William Pietz, who traces the term from Latin facticium, a made or constructed object, to feitico, a Portuguese term for an object related to witchcraft. In their logs and accounts, fifteenth-century Portuguese traders to West Africa consistently use the term feitiçaria, witchcraft, in conjunction with idolatria, idolatry, to describe religious practices among the peoples they encounter. From this early term, which gained rapid and widespread currency, the word fetish emerged, though as it evolved in the eighteenth century, fetish came to carry with it a meaning radically transformed by post-enlightenment attitudes toward the material world. In 1757 Charles de Brosses coined the term "fetishism" [fétichisme] which was transferred by Marx in the 1840s to designate "commodity fetishism," the mystified religiosity of capital, and then in 1880 was applied for the first time to sexual perversions and obsessions—where much of the current usage of the term, post-Freud, still rests. The fetish, which came to be the common term for most forms of "primitive" worship, signified (as it still does) an object of perverse attachment, imagined wrongly to possess animate or at least surplus powers.

Discourses about devotional painting, crucifixes, and sculptures of the saints in late medieval England carry some of this disciplinary weight. In Lollard polemic devotional images are alleged to bear many of the perverse powers of attachment that later European ethnographers attributed to fetishes of primitives or that Marx would attribute to the fetish of capital, the "sensuous supersensuous thing." Explicit in Lollard commentary is that people love devotional pictures and objects sensuously, wrongly reverencing inert matter. Less explicitly stated, but liberally implied, is that lovers of images also disavow the exchanges of capital that work to give them their appearance of agency. Inert things with a mystified aura, images conceal their social investments.

As we shall see through a closer look at reformist rhetoric in the late medieval image debate, devotional objects also embody multiple contradictions, the most direct and problematic of which can be traced to money, the dynamic agent that exposes the riddle of valuation. Even as material objects, images also seem invested with spiritual powers. Inert (dead) matter, they look like living people. Money, however, attaches new and incommensurate exchange values. Objects fabricated from simple raw materials (wood, stone, or metal), painted and even dressed-up statues of saints not only appear laden with false riches but in fact take on value as commodities through their transactional uses in an art and spirit market.


In Lollard discourse on images, the love of objects and belief in their powers recurs as one of the most common refrains. An early fifteenth-century Wycliffite "Tretyse of Ymagis" speaks repeatedly of the false belief that images engender by leading people to trust in the object rather than in the idea. Addressing God, the treatise opens with the observation that people who believe that "ymagis han done þe werkis of grace and not 3ee" err because of the false work of artists who represent God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as living beings. Later the treatise expands on this circuit of credulity. Rather than sending their devotion to the saints or Christ in heaven, people turn instead to material crosses and statues, "þe swete rode of Bromholme" or "þe swete rode at pe norpe dore"—the cross at Bromholme, a priory in Norfolk possessing a fragment of the true cross or the famous rood at St. Paul's in London. They even touch them, "sadly strokande and kyssand þese olde stones and stokkis, layying doun hore grete offryngis, and maken avowis ri3t þere to þes dede ymagis to come þe nexst 3eer agayn . . . ." This disciplinary polemic makes it clear that the performance of egregious devotional sensuality is a form of idolatry. Statues crafted from wood and alabaster are only base matter—stocks and stones.

An even more graphic picture of the fetish-like physicality of devotional objects is offered in the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, a manifesto that was posted in 1395 on the doors of Westminster Hall, where devotional objects are compared to the lips of Judas. In a memorable analogy, the eighth conclusion condemning pilgrimage, relics and images claims that reverence for the cross and instruments of the passion are forms of idolatry: For if þe rode tre, naylis, and þe spere and þe coroune of God schulde ben so holiche worchipid, þanne were Iudas lippis, qwoso mythte hem gete, a wondir gret relyk." Yoking devotional images with saints' relics and brilliantly eliding the cross with graphic implements of torture and sanctified objects with a body part—Judas's lips—that presents Christianity's most graphic sign of betrayal, this stunning analogy also gives grotesque corporeal form to the objects of the passion: They are like disembodied lips. They are, that is, things we also kiss, a kiss that is itself a betrayal. These aren't only objects that we love or fear but also objects that we touch in an act of love. Like fetishes, these devotional things lure us, and seduce us, through their sensuous physicality.

In a discussion of the sacraments in medieval theater Sarah Beckwith also describes the work of sacramental signs as a touch with the lips: "They are like a kiss. For a kiss does not make love, but without it love cannot be made." Visible signs of inward grace, the sacraments of the church operate at the threshold between visible and invisible, matter and spirit. As Hugh of St. Victor explains the agency of sacraments, "A sacrament is a corporeal or material element set before the senses without, representing by similitude and signifying by institution and containing by sanctification some invisible and spiritual grace." Gate keepers at the border between the visible and invisible, the sacraments bespeak an incarnational faith in which consecrated things, words, or acts can, like the sacramental kiss, activate spiritual grace. In late medieval England, the most direct and also the most controversial action of embodied spirit occurs, of course, with the Eucharist, the one sacrament that fully embodies the miracle of the incarnation—and the one article of faith that came most fully to distinguish the true believer from the Lollard heretic. Humbert of Romans in the thirteenth century succinctly articulates this crucial distinction among the sacraments: " . . . in all other sacraments Christ's power is spiritual, but in this one —Christ exists corporeally; and this is the greater thing."

If devotional images and relics can easily masquerade as Christ's essence, that crossover is also enabled by their participation in incarnate history. Images, of course, are theologically exempt from the incarnational grace that turns the wine and the wafer into God's body, but participate nevertheless in some its actions. During the Byzantine controversies over images and idolatry in the eighth century, John of Damascus, the first writer to apply Augustine's distinctions between latria, the honor due to God alone and dulia, the reverence for his creation, to the topic of devotional representation, argued that the fact of the incarnation justifies the use of secondary images of God: "I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. . . . Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence . . . ." In his distinction between worship and reverence, John also selects matter—both flesh and, by extension, devotional images—as worthy of reverence. John's writings elaborate on the position of Germanus I, Patriarch of Constantinople at the beginning of the controversy: To reject icons is to disavow the incarnation.

In fourteenth and fifteenth-century defenses of images, the Byzantine arguments are often brought into play. In The Testimony of William Thorpe, 1407, Archbishop Arundel draws on the analogy with the incarnation in his defense of devotional ornament in the church: "Siþ Crist bicam man it is leful [lawful] to haue ymagis to schewe his manhood." A tract that is usually attributed to Walter Hilton, De Adoracione Ymaginum, also notes that the incarnation is the singular event endorsing the imaged world of Christian worship: "Even though the images of the church cannot represent to the eyes of onlookers any semblance of divine nature in themselves, nevertheless they can represent and signify the semblance of an assumed human nature, in which God brought about man's salvation . . . ." Images enter into a signifying system through their participation in incarnational action even though, as Hilton is careful to point out, they can only represent. They are to be revered "as symbols, not as things."

The incarnational miracle that authorizes the uses of images as signs for the laity also underpins their slippery masquerade as objects containing divine nature "in themselves." The trouble with images is not unlike the trouble with the Eucharist, at least in Lollard thought. The eucharistic wafer as well as images of the crucifix and of the saints are material objects, or even material fabrications or concoctions, that are wrongly believed to contain a supersensuous essence. When, in the early 1380s, a shrewd commentator on the public scene remarked, "there's a real brawl going on about the Eucharist right now" ("quia hodie circa eucharistiam est dissensio plus brigosa"), he could easily have extended his comment to include images, which were troubled by some of the same problems of hybridity as the Eucharist. As Paul Strohm remarks in a study of political appropriations of transubstantiation in the early fifteenth century, "Denied, in the process of Lollard reasoning, is the possibility of easy transition between matter and spirit. Baldly put, this is why Lollards distrusted material images, like representations of Christ's cross, as objects of spiritual veneration in their own right." Hence the worship of the crucifix can seem like reverence for Judas' lips. Like the kiss of Judas (and radically unlike the sacramental kiss) our attachment to image or relic connects us bodily to that bodily thing, promising us spiritual change but really tying us to matter in a purely material transaction. Things, like the lips of Judas, betray.


When the word fetish emerged in the eighteenth century as a term to designate a particular type of religious object, it took its meaning from a set of attitudes toward the spiritual and material world that had been distinctively shaped by both imperialism and capitalism, according to Wiliam Pietz. In tracing the history of the fetish from object of sorcery to the "value bearing material object" imagined by later European anthropologists and explorers, Pietz argues that the idea of the fetish could emerge only with the revaluation of commodities that had occurred during sixteenth and seventeenth-century trading on the west coast of Africa. Fetishism, as first coined and understood in the eighteenth century, can be traced to specific and localized developments in the idea of goods, developments that are coterminous with modernity and indeed, even constitutive of post-medieval capitalism. Trading on the coast of Guinea, early Portuguese traders described their encounters with the problem of relative value, in which objects that they valued appeared to have little or no importance to the Guineans. In the account of the Gambians written in the 1450s, Cadamosto, one of the earliest merchants to West Africa, writes, "gold is much prized among them, in my opinion, more than by us, for they regard it as very precious; nevertheless they traded it cheaply, taking in exchange articles of little value in our eyes . . . ." This new problematic of relative value was precursor, Pietz argues, to a later splitting in contingencies of value, in which "the truth of material objects came to be viewed in terms of technological and commodifiable use-value, whose 'reality' was proved by their silent 'translatability' across alien cultures. All other meanings and values attributed to material objects were understood to be the culture-specific delusions of peoples lacking "'reason'"—or the domain of the fetish. A specific concoction of wood and feathers might give a fetish its potency on the west coast of Africa, but would have little value in the market squares of Lisbon or London—where wood and feathers bore very different commodity value as objects of construction or of fashion. In an argument extending Pietz's studies of the fetish to nineteenth-century imperialism, Anne McClintock comments that fetishes are "impassioned objects" that have been transferred among recipients in a trajectory that follows the history of European imperialism. The fetish is, at heart, a contradictory object and displaced "social contradiction," the material and symbolic ground for negotiating the mystery of value. Soap, she argues, became such a fetish; a newly marketed commodity in nineteenth-century Europe, soap came to stand in for social divisions between clean and unclean, upper and lower class, white European and black African. An item with inherent spiritual essence (cleanliness being next to godliness), soap literally whitewashed these distinctions even as its marketing campaigns made it clear that soap, or cleanliness, marked the superiority of its "civilized" users.

In the attacks on and defenses of devotional images in fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, anxieties about contingent value and materiality were very much in the air; and Pietz's argument that the European idea of the fetish had its origins in the problematic of relative valuation as first encountered in fifteenth-century west African trade could also be brought home to include as well the traffic in images. In some Lollard critiques, images are troubling not only as material things to which people falsely attribute spiritual value but also as things that have market value. Attacks on devotional images often cite practices of decorating them with precious metals and gems and of using them to attract gifts of money to the church. The "Tretyse of Ymages" repeatedly returns to the marketability of glamour. People paint images "wiþ greet cost, and hangen myche silver and gold and precious cloþis and stones þeronne," and in dressing up statues with gold and silver they not only pervert the gospel message of apostolic poverty but also create a complex social and even market object. These richly decorated images offer a mirror to the mercantile self, short-circuiting spiritual exchange with a market trade, self for self; we value them (hung with silver and gold and precious cloths) because in them we can see ourselves in glamour mode: "But þus don false men þat lyuen now in þer lustis to colour with þer owne cursid lif by þis false peyntyngis; and herfore þei lyen on seyntis, turnyng þer lif to þe contrarie . . . ." The impulse to picture the saints as rich, this passage says, comes from the worshipper who uses the image to justify his or her own worldly pursuits.

In addition to mirroring and hence justifying the finery of their worshippers, rich images also inspire more direct economic exchanges when they divert money from the poor into the pockets of priests and the coffers of the church. Painters of images use capital wrongly in their pigments and gold, and the products that result unequally attract rich gifts. Such images (statues images tricked out in gold and silver) have been created by the clerks of antichrist "to robbe pore men boþe of feyþe and hope, of charite and of worldly godis, and to mayntene anticrist clerkis furþe in her pride, coueytise and lustis a3enus Cristis lif and his apostelis." The image becomes not a spiritual conduit but a commodity in a perverse exchange of real goods—gifts in the plate for the priests who collect them. A text that articulates these tensions with skillfully dramatized descriptive vitriol is the late fourteenth-century Pierce the Plowman's Crede, an alliterative verse satire influenced both by Langland and by Wycliffite writings. In this satire a friar, an example of the corruption of his order, promises the narrator that if he gives the order money, he will get his picture displayed in the form of a donor image in the middle of the west window, folded in the cope of St. Francis and presented to the Trinity. Later in the text Peres the Plowman, the voice of Lollard rectitude, condemns distracting church imagery, tying it explicitly to the seductions of aristocratic display: 'For though a man in her mynster a masse wolde heren,/ His sight schal so be set on sundry werkes,/ The penounes [pennons]and the pommels [ornamental knobs] and poyntes of scheldes [heraldic shields]/ Withdrawen his devocion, and dusken his herte.' Voiced in this passage is a critique of images as exclusionary property. Images channel desires socially, "darkening the heart" with desires for heraldic self-representation, the satire suggests. Images also circulate a promise of life as a kind of mercantile exchange. If you can afford to pay for it, you will be portrayed with the saints in the west window. Along with your image your name will be written, "and, in remembraunce of the, yrade [read] ther forever—either read through the text inscribed or vocally read aloud when the chantry priest intones your name in his prayers for the souls of the departed. As the dialogue in the Crede illustrates with considerable dramatic force, painted windows depicting donors short-circuit desire by turning it back to the self, the real object of admiration. The temptation is either to become an image (in the west window) granted the illusion of permanence through our picture or our inscribed name, or to worship others as images through their heraldry. In various ways, these materialist critiques suggest, images sanctify the laity.

The critique of gold and silver, the spirit of the argument captured succinctly in a Wycliffite text stating there is no place for a Christ "naylid on þe crosse wiþ muche gold and siluer," was ubiquitous, as Margaret Aston has documented, and became increasingly strident when picked up as part of iconoclastic rhetoric in the Reformation. Indeed, Lollard polemicists as well as orthodox defenders of images critique excesses and worry about the potential distractions of expensive display. Dives and Pauper attempts to delineate proper uses of images through the repeated injunction, "worship before the image and not to the image," a distinction that becomes ever more difficult to make in front of the seductions of lavishly decorated statuary. Voicing concerns about devotional images that were widely voiced by both sides, Dives points out that they seem to operate as signifiers not in a spiritual but an economic system of exchange: "me thynky3t þat þe feet so shoyd in syluer shewyn þat þe loue and þe affeccioun of meen of holy cherche is mechil seth in gold and syluyr and erthely coueytise, and sueche ryche clothyngge of þe ymage is but a tollyng of more offryng and a tokene to þe lewyd peple qhere þey shullyn offryn and qhat." A richly ornamented image lures people to give donations; as a "tollyng" and a "tokene," it is also a sign in a larger system of material, "erthely," exchange. Langland points to precisely this interrupted exchange in the B text of Piers Plowman, when Mede's confessor promises her, as a quid pro quo, that if she glazes the window and engraves her name as a donor, her soul will speed more quickly to heaven. Langland's wry comment, developed more fully in the Lollard Crede, is directed not against veneration of images nor against abuses of images as prompts to the giving of gifts which would be put to better use by the poor; rather, it points to rather to the wealth and passions for self-portraiture of the gentry or even merchant classes, donating images to the church and using visible records of their patronage as a means to gain public recognition.

Perhaps the most succinct marker of the liminal identity and motility of images in late medieval England is to be found in the anxious insistence that they are dead. The "Tretyse of Ymagis" reminds us of this repeatedly. People stroke and kiss old stones and stocks, promising to these "dede ymagis" to come again next year; ignorant people trust completely in these "deade ymagis" and love God and his commandments the less. The term derives from the Book of Wisdom, which condemns idol worshippers for praying "to a thing that is dead (13.10ff) and for trusting in "lifeless idols," (14.29), and from a passage from Psalm 115, "they have mouths, but do not speak;/ eyes, but do not see./ They have ears, but do not hear;/ Noses, but do not smell." The epithet is ubiquitous in Lollard polemic. In one passage from a treatise on the Decalogue, the phrase "dead images" is repeated five times:

For such dead images be lewed men's books to learn them how they should worship saints in heaven after whom these dead images are shaped. And also that when men behold these dead images [they] should have the sooner mind and the more mind of the saints that be living in heaven, and to make these holy saints their mean between God and them, and not the dead images, for they may not help themselves nor other men. And certis if men had any kindness to themselves or any belief in God, they should not regard or ascribe it to these dead images the miracles that God doth alone by his own power, and believe that the image doth it himself.
This passage, which attempts to mark a clean break between the twin worlds of living spirit and dead matter, insists that the object is inert and agency is elsewhere—with the saints in heaven and not with the carved and painted image. Dead images are books ("lewed men's books) and reminders of the saints, which are our real intercessors. Dead images themselves cannot help us at all. If people had any faith or natural reason ("kindness") they would know this, and not credit images with powers belonging to God alone.

Yet the assertion of deadness protests, of course, too much. What is this fear that images will come to life? The very insistence on the deadness of images points to their potential vivacity—to their potential for animation. Many people, this passage implies, believe in the powers of the objects, crediting them with agency and even life in a system of intercessory exchange. In the insistence that images are inert matter, we can detect uneasiness about their role in an incarnational faith and even about their circulation as commodities. If we are tempted to endow images with life, it is because we want to pray to them in a cost/benefit exchange. This temptation to impute life to man-made objects is expressly condemned in the Lanterne of Li3t, a Lollard text from about 1410, which says, "Þe peyntour makiþ an ymage forgid wiþ diuerse colours til it seme in foolis i3en as a lyueli creature" Fools impute life to dead or inert matter, granting agency to an object or picture that can only be a sign. Much like the fetish-fixations of others, the image is a manufactured ("forgid") object of perverse attachment, a concoction of materials that wrongly appear to give it agency.

A belief that the image is a living being thus generates another sort of exchange among things. Attacks on rich images not only voice concerns about church corruption, I would suggest, but may even be said to articulate tensions about images and art as new forms of capital and status. The insistence on marking images as "dead" stocks and stones, lifeless matter of little value, and the critique of their circulation in systems of patronage and luxury both voice concerns about the circulation of objects in a market economy. As images take on vivacity they claim gifts of money—and take on life as well as they come to look like living beings when people dress them up with clothes, gold and jewels. Indeed, the attachment to money is one of the most insistent refrains in the Lollard attack on images. In the Lanterne of Li3t, the same fools who believe that painted images are living creatures are also the ones who offer to them, contributing to the riches of priests and the impoverishment of the folk—though the object of the invective shifts to the priests who "beguile" people by suggesting that one image has more miracle working power than another.

The problem of materiality, in which the very substance of the image invites further participation in the exchange of goods, seems to reflect a broader anxiety about the uses of devotional objects in an era in which they were dramatically proliferating. It may also be that the new monetization of the European economy contributed to anti-image sentiments, as an increasingly active marketplace showcased devotional objects as commodities. When Dives says, "þow meen doon makyn þese dayis ymagys gret plente bothin in cherche and out of cherche," he seems to be voicing a response of the public response to production, or even overproduction; "these days," he says, images are showing up everywhere. Reginald Pecock, writing in the middle of the fifteenth century, also recognized that proliferation of images could result in their devaluation, and argued that images of saints should "not be multiplied so wijde that at ech chirche, at ech chapel, at ech stretis eende, or at ech heggis ende in a cuntre be sett such an ymage, for certis thane tho ymmagis schulden be as foule or of litel reputacioun and schulde be undeinteose [unpleasing] for the grete plente of hem." Fifteenth-century England witnessed massive building and reconstruction of its churches, supported largely by capital from international trade in wool; and along with the rebuilding of churches went a commensurable proliferation in private chapels and new demand for altarpieces and freestanding statues. Just to mention the alabaster industry alone, over two thousand English alabaster panels and figures survive from the fourteenth century until the sixteenth when all production was stopped in the Act of 1550 against superstitious books and images. English alabaster images, popular items for trade to continental Europe, were produced in a thriving workshop industry in Nottinghamshire, and were sold to churches as altarpieces as well as to private individuals as meditative images. Evidence from wills, inventories and export lists indicates that in the fifteenth century the cost of alabasters dropped dramatically, due, according to Francis Cheetham, to competition among workshops and to the use of standardized models or patterns for the most popular images, such as the trinity, crucifixion, or John the Baptist. If two thousand alabasters survive, we can only guess at the thousands more that were destroyed.

This new market for images also appears to have also influenced the ways people used them—and bought them. Devotional images and objects served multiple functions at once, bridging the status symbol and the devotional aid: As Richard Marks puts it, "personal items of adornment, like the Clare Cross and the Middleham Jewel, were simultaneously status symbols, financial assets, fashion accessories, apotropaic reliquaries and devotional aids." Eamon Duffy lists, from the parish church at Faversham in Kent, four images of the Virgin in addition to 31 images of saints—St. Agnes, All Saints, Anthony, Barbara, Christopher, Clement, Crispin and Crispinianus, Edmund, Erasmus, George, Giles, Gregory, James the Great, two of John, John the Baptist, Katherine, Leonard, Loy, Luke, Mary Magdalene, Margaret, Michael, Nicholas, Peter and Paul, Thomas the Apostle, Thomas Becket, Ronan, and Ronan. These saints were engaged with the spiritual life of the community in ways that were also vitally commercial; as Duffy puts it, "The men and women of late medieval England were busy surrounding themselves with new or refurbished images of the holy dead, laying out large sums of money to provide lights, jewels and precious coverings to honour these images."

The phrase, "to honour these images," points, however, to just the gap between object and self that collapses in many acts of donation, in the fifteenth century as much as in our own time; for in the process of honoring images, medieval gift-givers were also commemorating the self. As Joel Rosenthal notes in The Purchase of Paradise, a study of chantry bequests, virtually all acts of medieval philanthropy had "the purchase of prayers as their ultimate goal," suggesting that the medieval philanthropic gift was clearly understood to negotiate a commercial transaction, with prayers for the soul, one's own or someone else's, purchased as a form of afterlife insurance. Taking a deeply suspicious and much more material look at gifts or money, jewels or expensive clothes to devotional images, the Lollard "Treatyse of Ymagis" condemns the decoration of images of saints as grotesque projections of our own love of luxury. In this polemic the separation between self and object, body and soul, has fully collapsed; the gift to the image is a gift to the self.


Identifying longing and mystified value as common denominators of three different modern discourses of fetishism, Emily Apter comments that "fetishism records the trajectory of an idée fixe or noumen in search of its materialist twin (god to idol, alienated labor to luxury item, phallus to shoe fetish)." It is precisely the tension between the longed-for place of spirit and the consolations of objects that is the central domain of the fetish—and also a key issue at stake in late medieval polemic against images for self-commemoration. The image-lover's trajectory of desire fails to move from thing to spirit but does the reverse; the idée fixe searches out the saint's image and takes its solace there. The uses of images of saints for self-commemoration, and their use in ways that tag the transaction like a receipt, took increasingly explicit shape during the fifteenth century with the proliferation of donor images and personal inscriptions marking gifts. One form of this, for example, appears in the practice, first appearing around 1450, of signing the name of a donor or commemorative person below pictures of saints on rood screens, the wooden partitions that separated nave from chancel in English parish churches. Rood-screen paintings on the parish church in Attenborough, Suffolk, illustrate this kind of visible claim. Panels on the north and south side of each screen are each marked with an inscription, orate pro, below the picture of the saint or the trinity. Although the names of recipients have been scratched out, perhaps during the Reformation in reaction against personal claims on salvation, "orate pro" or "pray for" would have been followed with the name of a patron. Facing the nave and hence property of the devotional community, the painting is signed as the special agent of one of that community's lay members. As recent studies on the role of the laity in church ritual and maintenance indicate, the painting of screens was funded largely by corporate and lay endowments; and hence the inscriptions, when they appeared, most likely commemorate the donors who financed the projects. In a study of rood screens in East Anglia, Eamon Duffy comments that the rood screen "was a crucial focus of ritual activity and piety, of direct interest to every parishioner," and support for its construction, ornamentation and maintenance the product of "complex patterns of benefaction" involving many people, even if a single donor or married couple are named in the inscription. Practices of self-commemoration through names and donor images painted and etched onto the fabric of the parish multiplied throughout the fifteenth century. On her husband's death in 1470, Alice Chester of All Saint's, Bristol provided for the gilding of the altar of the Virgin and of images of the Virgin, St. Katherine and St. Margaret, and donated as well "in carved work a tabernacle with a Trinity in the middle over the image of Jesus, and also at her own cost had it gilded full worshipfully." On her husband's hearse cloth she had her own name listed with her husband's, the benefit of prayers redounding to both of them via her generous gifts: "Orate pro animabus Henricus Chestre et Alicie uxoris eius." Perhaps the paramount survival of visual commemoration is the parish in Long Melford where major donors in the Clopton family have their names prominently displayed throughout the church, even etched in a frieze along the outside walls.

When Bill Brown, in Things, writes that "thing theory" seems like an oxymoron, he is speaking, of course, of a post-Enlightenment idea of materiality. How can inanimate objects have theories attached to them? Things, he writes, seem to us "beyond the grid of intelligibility." In late medieval England, however, the debate on devotional images seems to offer a particularly vital kind of "thing theory." Participating in an incarnational economy, inanimate objects could easily threaten to morph into supersensuous things. That, for reformers, was the very problem. Several contemporary chroniclers describe Lollards putting images to the flames. Wyclif himself writes, "Certes, these ymagis of hemselfe may do nouther gode ne yvel to mennis soulis, but thai myghtten warme a mannes body in colde, if thai were sette upon a fire." In Wyclif's proposal, as perhaps in accounts of image-burning, we might detect not only a desire to destroy them but also a desire to return them to their proper category. As "dead stocks," things carved from pieces of wood, they are objects made for burning. Inscribed personalized prayers, "orate pro . . . ," articulate the problematic interchange among money, images, and spirit that fueled the image debate even before practices of visible commemoration became widespread. Similar practices of self-commemoration are targeted in the earlier Piers Plowman and Pierce the Plowman's Crede, both of which expressly satirize the purchase of donor images and inscriptions. The inscription orate pro invites the congregation/viewer to pray for the person named in a dialectic with the saint as intercessor. In the view of the Crede, since the prayers are financially entailed, the endowment of the image should properly be understood as payment for services.

Devotional images, especially as they assumed a new status in the marketplace of the fifteenth century, erupt from their categories particularly energetically in their troubled links to capital. Where they seem most like later fetishes is articulated in the concerns that they violate natural boundaries delineating object, body, and spirit. Money is the sign that crystallizes this hybridity. When reformers claim we love rich images more than poor ones, they are saying we confuse two systems of valuation. When reformist discourse insist that images are dead stocks and stones, the term itself points toward domestic economics (or the market) as well as to incarnational transformation: images as stocks and stones are raw materials of little value; as stocks and stones they also remain inanimate things even if they take the shape of living beings. Devotional images in late medieval England may be said to occupy a psycho/social niche unaccounted for in Pietz's periodization, which locates the idea of the fetish in a world where faith and matter are split—or as he puts it, within "Protestant Christianity's iconoclastic repudiation of any material, earthly agency" connecting a believer to God. The fetish becomes a stand-in for that traumatic severance as the material world is stripped of its essences. In Lollard polemic, likewise, the image operates as the "value bearing material object" that Pietz identifies as the uniquely modern and post-enlightenment thing. Images become, in the minds of image-worshippers, far from passive signs, but active agents uncannily attached to spirit and to capital. Whereas idols, as so often featured in narrative lives of the saints, will sooner or later display their true nature as inert matter, dead and ineffective, images are more ambiguous. The trouble with images, according to the Lollards, is that they persistently display their own materiality, and frequently this involves ventriloquizing or performing vivacity through their attachment to commercial forms of valuation—gems, goods, money. Pietz's distinction between medieval and modern valuations of objects may draw rather too sharp a divide that overlooks the debate over images in prereformation and reformation Europe, a debate deeply invested in questions about their troubled valuation in systems of patronage and currency. Like fetish historians (or analysts) of the fetish, Lollards parse the thing and its false noumen in a polemic against material culture and its social props, targeting systems of production that fabricate images, worshippers that use them for social status, and clergy that profit from their display. This polemic did not have the word "fetish" at its disposal to describe the crucifix, images of saints and the trinity, which it labeled instead "dead stocks and stones," but even so, in naming images as the fixations of others, deluded by matter, who substitute res for deus, it anticipates traits of the fetish that would take shape in much later.