Image on the Edge by Michael Camille

I am returning to Michael Camille’s work after some time, and reading the entirety of Image on the Edge for the first time. Camille’s central argument is fairly simple: that margins and their relationship to central images in medieval illuminated manuscripts are the site of an engagement between societal margins and centers. In other words, the “explosion” of marginal illustration that occurred in the thirteenth century, which coincides with the shift from oral to visual reading, create a relationship on the page where the political and scribal center relies on the margins to exist, and the margins edit, satirize, reinforce, and complicate the center. Marginal illustration not only undermines many of the binaries we have now between high and low art, sacred and profane, satire and seriousness, etc., it also possesses shifting meaning, i.e. a snail had many possible associations but not one singular possible interpretation. In this way, Camille convincingly argues that post-medieval imagery is in some ways much more restrictive and exclusive in its separations of “popular” and “art” than medieval art.

Margins show monstrosity and the edges of otherness (monasteries), humanize or other monstrous images and human monsters that represent vices and illnesses (cathedrals), and locate marginalized people like wanderers and the poor who were othered and seen as a threat, juxtaposing rich and poor in a way that would not appear natural now (cities and their representation in manuscripts). While they do have the power to satirize, Camille is careful to note that marginal illustrations were made for inclusion in books owned by the wealthy, and often reflected the goods and lands they owned or their social power, poking fun at the already disenfranchised (women, peasants, beggars, etc.). While marginalia do have the potential to question social norms, that potential is limited and not free from bias. For example, Camille mentions a manuscript made for a duke where he appears opposite a beggar dressed in the same clothes; not intended to be a social commentary, Camille argues, but a chance to poke fun and reinscribe the duke’s wealth.

One thing I had failed to notice is that Camille explicitly mentions the apocalyptic perspective of some aspects of the Middle Ages: “In contrast [to today], the people of the Middle Ages saw themselves at the edge, the last ageing dregs of a falling off of humanity, the dissipated end of a Golden Age… mostly alone” (53). This has interesting implications for the rest of my work connecting pessimistic (or maybe just accurate) representations of the end of the world today and their use of medieval imagery. It is striking to see confirmation that this belief was present, if not necessarily common, in the twelfth to fifteenth century. I’m also interested in the mental illnesses he argues were represented (84), though these are in cathedrals rather than manuscripts.

Camille’s arguments about the relationship between the margin and the center and its mirror in political and social activity has influenced my work more than I can say. Revisiting it has made me more interested in thinking through some of the things he only touches on in his overview, like health and disability in marginal manuscripts, as well as thinking more about medieval painters as laborers and their work as often precarious (174).

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