Illuminating the Past

Bob Clark

MANHATTAN, Kan. –  By examining illuminated drama manuscripts, one Kansas State University researcher was able to show valuable insight into social, gender and religious roles in medieval France.

Robert L. A. Clark, associate professor of French at K-State, with assistance from Pamela Sheingorn, professor of history at Baruch College, is researching illuminations in medieval drama manuscripts to obtain a unique view of medieval French culture. Illuminated manuscripts, which are small elaborate paintings along with script, tell a story, prayer or theatrical play. They were used in the homes of wealthy medieval Frenchmen. 

Clark, along with Sheingorn, challenged previous research beliefs that short medieval drama manuscripts have no significant value. These manuscripts were considered too short to provide insight into the culture of medieval Western Europe, said Clark.

“No one has really given these manuscripts value,” he said. “The paintings and manuscripts are small and have been overlooked by previous researchers. I argue that they [manuscripts] reenact culture through acting.”

Illuminated manuscripts were a private copy of a performance to be reenacted in a personal setting. Theatrical scripts were invited to be performed by all members in the home, including women, said Clark. Reading in medieval France was a more collective activity, much different than the silent and solo activity of the 21st century. In wealthy medieval homes, reading these manuscripts provided important social roles, he said.

Clark’s research, which is mostly sponsored by university funded grants, focuses on how medieval illuminated manuscripts affected gender roles and the role of female devotion. Clark

said there are many illuminated manuscripts that are erotic and challenge previous beliefs about medieval social norms.

“Religious manuscripts were written for women, especially in monasteries,” said Clark. “Nuns were told to be the brides of Christ. They were mothers, daughters and lovers in the name of the church. These manuscripts were very erotic.”

Erotica was not limited to convents and monasteries. Many manuscripts were written about theatrical performances that included instances of cross-dressing, homosexuality and erotic activity, said Clark.

“Medieval times are thought of as being conservative, but you have these plays where it actually happened,” said Clark. “Clearly there was an interest in exploring gender roles.”

Clark relates gender roles with social roles. There are many detailed descriptions of medieval Christian society being intolerant towards minority groups, such as the Jewish community, he said. Plays such as “Myster’e de la Sainte Hostie” feature Jewish characters deprecating Christian beliefs and customs. These plays reflect the beliefs and social tolerances of medieval Europe, said Clark.

“I am interested in the way Christian culture dealt with differences,” he said. “There were no strict parameters over conduct.”

Clark said he is interested in exploring conduct as a way of participating and exploring social roles.

Clark plans to expand his research to other topics in French arts. He is currently researching operas written about medieval culture.

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