Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Peeps on the Edge

It's not really seasonally appropriate — more of an Easter thing than a Christmastime one — but I was talking with one of my civilian (i.e., non-medievalist) friends about her plans to put some oddly anthropomorphized marshmallows in the microwave, armed with tiny toothpicks to see which can overtake the other when the heat causes them to inflate and expand: Peeps jousting. And I started doodling while we were talking, a picture of two classic bird-shaped marshmallow Peeps approaching a movie-franchise Minion Peep, all brandishing their toothpick lances. I drew it on whatever happened to be on my desk while we were talking, and what happened to be on my desk was an essay on medieval war poetry.

The total coincidence got me to thinking about what a book like Image on the Edge — lauded for its breakthrough in relating the goofy, whimsical, weird marginalia in medieval manuscripts to the texts with which they appear to have nothing in common — would do with this scrap of paper.  This marginal drawing and its juxtaposition against a discussion of literary representations of war, and even of the weapons of war, has nothing to do with my being a medievalist or reading about medieval war poetry and instead has everything to do with the fact that I am a medievalist who happens coincidentally to live in a culture that has a pervasive fetish for neo-medieval kitsch. An art historian of the future who found this page might pick it up and, a la Michael Camille, come up with a playful, innovative reading of what she would be seeing on the page, namely some silly looking characters brandishing weapons next to a serious text about weapons of war. And yes, it would be a sound interpretation of what was left on the page, but it would also have absolutely no connection to the historical, cultural, or personal context in which the artifact was made.

It's not a totally idle or solipsistic exercise — reproducing pages, documents, texts or drawing parallels with modern modes of production is not evidence but can offer some insight into medieval modes of production or at least, in this case, serve as a caution against the dangers of over-interpreting. (I have colleagues who work on paleography who practice calligraphy in their spare time and are grateful for the insights it provides them in their professional lives, for example.)

Or it's pointless and just some doodles on a page. Which is kind of the (circular) point.

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