Sunday, February 9, 2014

Medieval PSA: Ms. Marvel and the Sarajevo Haggadah

The reboot of the Ms. Marvel comic appeared this week, and has attracted a lot of attention because the superhero has been reimagined as a Muslim high school student from Jersey City. It has invited a lot of discussion, much of it productive and positive, about comics as a medium for social commentary. This is not a totally new phenomenon, though.*


When I teach chivalric romances in my classes, I assign a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century text called Amadís de Gaula, a work perhaps most famous for being the book that Don Quixote read before going mad and inspiring his satirical chivalric adventures. I take my student up to the Metropolitan Museum to view a tapestry from a series that recounts the major events in the tale; when we talk about the visual art, I ask them to imagine superimposing comic strip panels on the tapestry since it features a series of exploits by the hero and he appears in several scenes in the single hanging. The passage of time is represented spatially.

These lower-res images are annotated with boxes that indicate
the location of the hero in each scene and the direction of "reading."

Illuminated miniatures in medieval manuscripts often bear an even more concrete resemblance to comic book pages. You can watch the action unfold in these two illustrations from a collection of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary:

To be sure, in several of these tales Muslims and Jews are the foils or the hapless victims shown the light by the Virgin, but particularly in the illuminations, the representations are more complex, demonstrating deeper relationships between members of different faiths as well as members of all three participating in regular sets of day-to-day activities ranging from playing music to engaging in diplomacy; these illustrations have become the basis for a certain kind of historical sociological study.

This is among the artistic conventions that were adopted and adapted for use in religious contexts. For example, a variety of Passover haggadot produced in Christian lands were illuminated in a style that is more typically associated with Christian than Jewish art and reflects participation in wider artistic conversations. This page from the Golden Haggadah tells the story in panels:

This panel, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, originally produced in Spain, is thought by many scholars to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century:

This one is a secular Arabo-Islamicate text from Spain, a tale of two lovers and their matchmaker. The representations of Andalusi architecture come to make up the "panels" of the medieval "comic strip."


All of which brings me to the new Ms. Marvel. Ever since the publication of Maus in the mid-1980s, there has been little doubt that comics are a viable and powerful form for social commentary. This first installment of Ms. Marvel only gets as far as Kamala Khan realizing that she's about to become a superhero, but it still manages to address basic day-to-day negotiations of life 

These include intrafamilial tensions over religion and culture that appear in ways and forms and contexts that outsiders might not expect...

... language choice...

... and trying to negotiate an individual identity against the uncomprehending demands of others.

Comic books that deliberately or unintentionally illustrate day-to-day life and the ways in which members of different faiths negotiate their own cultures and their participation in the multiconfessional world? We've got almost a thousand  years' worth of them.


*I don't keep up with the wonderful British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog as often as I should, and so I didn't notice this post, which also identifies a sort of "medieval comic book" until a few days after I started writing this post, when I was looking for a few images to show my undergraduates. It is, then, a connection that other medievalists have made, as well.


  1. Are they eating Paella and French fries?

  2. Well... Spanish Jews do eat rice on Passover, so I suppose it's not an impossibility. I actually haven't read anything about the food in the miniatures in this particular codex (have read a decent amount about clothing, ethnic minorities and musical instruments, though) but it looks like there's some in the following two articles (which I can't access right now since I'm off campus...): Vivian B. Mann. "Observations on the Biblical Miniatures in Spanish Haggadot," Images (2010); and Michael Batterman. "The Passover Matzah in Haggadah Manuscripts from Christian Spain," in Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other, ed. Eva Frojmovic. Leiden: Brill, 2005. < /pedantry >