- When Ego Was Imago: Signs of Identity in the Middle Ages by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak
The study of seals is not ordinarily a topic that arouses great enthusiasm, least of all among scholars likely to read this journal. But everyone should be enthusiastic about the publication of Brigitte Bedos-Rezak’s long-awaited book, including students of medieval Catholicism. For especially in its central chapters, When Ego Was Imago makes a number of very important arguments about the way eleventh- and twelfth-century bishops and schoolmen thought about the Eucharist and the Trinity. Although most of the chapters present material published in earlier articles, the author has so thoroughly reworked it that the old articles no longer provide a suitable entry into her complex thought. In brief, Bedos-Rezak shows that the use of seals in so-called “private” charters first began with the bishops of northern France after c. 1040, and that even when the use of seals spread to the charters of the kingdom’s lay aristocracy shortly thereafter, the practice was still consistently mediated by churches and abbeys closely associated with bishops, their schools, and their chanceries. She further demonstrates, quite convincingly, that the bishops and episcopal chancellors who introduced and promoted the sealing of charters were the very ones most deeply involved in the Eucharistic controversies surrounding Berengar of Tours. Accordingly, Bedos-Rezak argues that the sealing of nonroyal charters did not result from any of the reasons usually alleged (such as the revival of commerce and Roman law or the need of new administrations to authenticate documents) but from a relatively sudden conjuncture that led to a complete rethinking of the relationship between signs and signified. If one probes Bezak-Rezak’s sometimes elusive prose, one finds a crucial technical argument stemming from diplomatic that many readers unfamiliar with that discipline might miss, so it should be underscored here. The growing use of private charters written in the first-person singular in eleventh-century northern France made increasingly visible a long-standing problem: the “I” in whose name a charter was issued was a diplomatic convention. The use of seals—whether of bishops, abbots, or lay donors—made that Ego’s agency concrete, literally materializing it (pp. 132–39). At the same time, the use of seals to give presence to absent agents made it possible to reimagine and reformulate the sacraments in terms of sign, presence, and generativity. Those possibilities were realized in eleventh-century debates about the Real Presence and then in twelfth-century discussions of what it meant for human beings to be made in the image of God while [End Page 589] Christ was the image of God. Later chapters offer an important analysis of the language of “deformity” in the polemic of the papal schism of 1130 and a very original argument linking the appearance of individuation to the desire of urban collectivities to differentiate their cities (illustrated in plate XXXII by a remarkable seal from Soissons). This is a difficult book, but also a splendid and important one.