- The Queen’s Library: Image Making at the Court of Anne of Brittany, 1477–1514 by Cynthia J. Brown
The Queen’s Library: Image-Making at the Court of Anne of Brittany, 1477–1514 seeks to illuminate the relationships, tensions, and cultural assumptions operating within the court of Anne, Duchess of Brittany and two-time Queen of France, by examining a group of illuminated books and their texts selected from those known or supposed to have been associated with the Queen. Through the focused lens of a feminist reading, the book examines in particular some of the non-devotional volumes dedicated to or associated with Anne.
Though less well-known than the Queen’s magnificently illuminated devotional books (e.g., the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne; Paris, BnF, MS lat. 9474), these secular, often politically motivated works are, in many cases, highly interesting both for their textual content and for the quality of their images. Brown’s theoretical approach has yielded some useful [End Page 127] insights, while bringing with it some methodological complications. She states her frame of reference at the outset:
These text-image associations set the stage for my exploration of the larger issues surrounding female modes of empowerment in late-medieval Europe. My investigation of the cultural reconstruction of the images of noble women such as Anne of Brittany is based in large measure on the books that defined them, those they commissioned, those dedicated to them (and sometimes to their husbands), those they inherited and those received as gifts. In the belief that such books are virtual repositories of late medieval image-making in both verbal and visual terms, I consider the manuscripts, often elaborately decorated, and early printed books making up the libraries of Anne of Brittany and her female contemporaries as cultural artifacts that embody signs of contemporary harmonies and tensions — among books producers, authors, book owners, readers, and society in general — and that provide insight into how women’s roles as political strategists and cultural figures were translated by and for those in their entourage and the world at large.(7)
These few sentences reveal some of the historiographical challenges that the author is setting up. The evidence on which she bases her study is in fact highly heterogeneous. The range of works is extremely broad, and their exact relationship to the Queen and/or the King often difficult to evaluate. While some are clearly associated in some way with Anne of Brittany, through commission, ownership, or dedication, a significant number of the works discussed in this book are not, confusing the argument in places.
It is often difficult or impossible to tell who controlled the content and decoration of these books. In many cases we do not know whether Anne herself or her husbands were actually patrons of the books, or whether they were dedicated to her “on spec” by court authors seeking favor or financial support. The selection of evidence for inclusion in this study seems to be based less on what exists — the whole range of evidence — than on what might provide fodder for a feminist reading. The categories under which the author considers her selection of works, “Rituals of Entry”, “Female Patronage and Personification Allegory”, “Women Famous and Infamous”, “Famous Women in Mourning”, and “Women Mourned” sometimes fit well with the evidence, but at other times seem forced and difficult to sustain. One is left with the uneasy impression that the blanket application of a theory has had the effect of screening the evidence, retaining selected bits of it for comment and leaving the rest unexamined. As a result, the big [End Page 128] picture, the context that would perhaps make a less theory-driven, but more historically coherent explanation of the corpus of Anne of Brittany’s library, is often lacking.
Despite these methodological limitations, the author’s approach yields interesting observations in certain cases. For example, the author notes that...