- Visuality and Materiality in the Story of Tristan and Isolde ed. by Jutta Eming, Ann Marie Rasmussen, and Kathryn Starkey
The edited volume Visuality and Materiality in the Story of Tristan and Isolde provides apt evidence of the diversity of scholarship possible through the [End Page 356] hermeneutic lens of material and visual culture. The editors gathered articles originally presented at a 2007 conference at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill Universities. They have organized the text into three broad sections: Part I-Courtly Bodies, Seeing, and Emotions; Part II-Media, Representation, and Perfomance; and Part III-The Visual Culture of Tristan. In the introduction, the editors provide a succinct working definition for both materiality and visuality. Materiality is at once a philological concept (textual variability), a medial concept (ivory, parchment, paint, shoe leather), and a critical concept (how a narrator arranges space in the story, or uses a poetics of visibility, or signifies with the human body through gesture and clothing in uniquely adapting the story). Visuality, as we define it, refers to depictions that convey specific meanings, as well as to images, objects, performance, and the processes of visually perceiving (2). These definitions reflect the ongoing scholarly reflection on material and visual culture, incorporating them as a useful literary interpretive tool. I would encourage the editors to think more deeply about material as actor. Although several of the authors included in this work discuss “agency,” the editors have not included any sense of what the variety of material culture they describe does. The editors note that “[t]he material/medial becomes materiality when it refers to the means of production and materials used and their typical proliferations” (3).
In Part 1, the four authors consider various material and visual aspects of the story of Tristan and Isolde. The use of light and darkness—clear or obscure seeing—highlights the romantic love of Tristan and Isolde. The light of the court where everyone sees everything stands in contrast to the light of the cave where the lovers meet. The cave is darkened by discovery and disapproval. The interplay of physical or societal barriers and darkness and light is reminiscent of Ovid’s classic Pyramus and Thisbe. Further, the love potion frees the lovers from religious and societal restraints. Shultz concludes that the potion functions as a “declaration of independence.” Finally, Lieb considers the book itself containing the story of Tristan and Isolde as providing thematic context for the story of Minne und Gesellschaft (Love and Society), where Lady Minne (Lady Love) has agency in a para-reality.
Part 2 begins with an article that maps the influence of the Tristan and “Iselte” myth across material media from ivories to combs to new poetic roles that reflect changing societal mores. Koch explores the bodily materiality of romantic love in the poem. Luyster invokes the pioneering work of David Freedberg, suggesting that the programme of Tristan murals in the château of Saint-Floret blurs the lines of materiality and visuality, “creating memories painted, as it were, on the walls of the mind.” Krüger considers how the Northern European Tristan trope finds its way to Italy under a “second order meaning.” This article adds richness to the consideration of how one interprets what one sees.
Part 3 begins with an “experiment.” Baisch considers both the materiality of a text “in its tactile, haptic, visual, and sometimes olfactory dimensions” (203) and the “materiality of meaning.” By this rather enigmatic expression, Baisch seeks to include the materiality of the manuscript transmission itself rather than opining on some original authorship. Brüggen and Ziegeler challenge an interpretation of the illuminations in a German Tristan manuscript. They insist [End Page 357] that rather than reflecting the “[Tristan] character’s ‘bourgeois’ virtues to the potential purchaser, as Saurma-Jeltsch suggests, [the illuminations] present, and at times even demonstrate, different characters in specific communicative situations governed by specific conditions” (261). Their distinction is important because it illustrates the power that an image has over...