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  • Blood and Tears as Ink: Writing the Pictorial Sense of the Text
  • Martha Rust

In the world of medieval manuscripts, where specimens of intimate intermingling between pictures and written words already abound, perhaps the clearest challenges to the boundary between the domains of text and image are presented by instances of written words taking on the guise of pictures and the inverse: pictures functioning in the manner of words. The boundary-shifting effect of these phenomena is apparent in their restructurings of the very territories of the page. Rebus-like “word-pictures” in the margins of Psalter manuscripts, which represent single words or syllables in the scriptural text, increase the acreage of the page given to words and the decoding practices associated with reading.1 A marginal figure in the Luttrell Psalter, for instance, pointing an arrow at the word conspecto (from conspicere, “to behold”) points out, as Lucy Freeman Sandler has observed, that the word also contains the first syllable of the word for the point of an arrow, spiculum.2 Such “visual syllabifications,” as Sandler has called them, appropriate the margin as a parallel reading space whose picture-texts are sometimes entirely unrelated to the written text at center page.3 Conversely, the monograms that dominate [End Page 390] the incipit pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, with their intricate interlacings of knots and fantastic animals in a palette of jewel colors, transform the text-block area of the page into a territory that inspires more contemplative gazing than engagement with the linguistic content of the writing.4

Despite the corridors and overlaps between the realms of the visual and the verbal that these word-like pictures and picture-like words evince, scholars’ discussions of them tend to recur to a notion of a word-image antagonism as the norm, often framing the pictorial component as that which supplements or provides access to an implicitly hidden or univocal, but always separate and verbal, sense of the literary or scriptural work, which is the first and preeminent element of the binary pair. To cite just two examples, Lucy Freeman Sandler concludes that the marginal figures in the Luttrell Psalter “provide a heightened and intensified experience of reading, through the discovery and appreciation of all the riches both apparent and concealed in the words.”5 Similarly, Laura Kendrick remarks that the pictorial elements of early Christian inscriptions “enrich literal with figurative meaning” and goes on to suggest that illiterate viewers might be more capable of discerning the spiritual sense of these texts since they would be immune to “the distraction of attempting to decipher the words and their literal sense.”6 In this way, there is a tendency amongst even the most expert viewers of medieval manuscripts to revert to a compartmentalized, “either/or” understanding of the relationship of writing and pictures in the medieval literary or scriptural text, in which the pictorial is either auxiliary to or completely separate from the written, which is thereby conceived of as purely lexical. Indeed, such a compartmentalizing view is also evident in my analysis above, which made use of the idea that pictures and writing each have their own proper spaces on the page.

In this essay, I examine a selection of late medieval texts in which writing functions both verbally and pictorially, in order to construct a model of the relationship between visual and verbal domains in Middle English texts that supplants the antagonistic and hierarchical metaphors of territories and boundaries with the dynamic equilibrium and osmotic flow implied by metaphors of liquids. According to this model, a Middle English text would be understood to include a range of semiotic systems that flow and blend together, and ultimately seek a level, as liquids do. Conceptualizing the text in [End Page 391] this way accords with the medieval understanding of human language as but one among many systems of signs, including those of the Book of Nature—with its “languages” of gems, of beasts, and of flights of birds, for instance—all of which only gesture toward “the absolute truths of the divine author, the prelinguistic verities of the physical and metaphysical world,” as Tim William Machan has put it.7 A liquid...


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pp. 390-415
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