Unit 3: Interdisciplinary Practice
The Monstrous Races
During the Medieval Period, travellers, such as Marco Polo and Sir John Manderville, alongside chroniclers and members of the lay community, reported the presence of monstrous races on the continents of Africa and Asia. My interest lies in the depiction of these characters, created by medieval painters and craftsman based in the West. I wanted to explore to what extent these individuals allowed racism to guide their tools, and how far the images they created were representative of their believed reality. I was also introduced to Green Men, found predominantly in Europe. These creatures provided me with an example of how isolated segments in society were depicted, and offered an interesting contrast to the monstrous races abroad. The similarities and differences deepened my project and aided my investigation significantly.
In order to do the project justice, I sought the opinions of academics whose expertise lie in this field. I first contacted the Rare Books Department at Cambridge University Library, home to some of the finest medieval texts in existence. The rare books superintendent, Agnieszka Drabek-Prime, recommended the medieval text, The Nuremberg Chronicles, as a starting point. I booked an appointment and viewed the manuscript in person, and the images were unrivalled, both in their quality and their content, to anything I had previously seen (Fig.1).
Whilst at the library, Dr. James Freeman, the Medieval Manuscript specialist at the university, suggested I consult the department’s catalogues to find other examples of the monstrous races. This led me to the works of Manderville, alongside many others I found in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library.
Eager to seek out examples of ambiguous hybrids, I contacted Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, who forwarded me to Dr. Suzanne Reynolds, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books. After corresponding with her, she suggested I read, Alixe Bovey’s, Monsters & Grotesques, which proved critical to my investigation. I was also instructed to view the many illuminated manuscripts that the museum had digitalized, including the Macclesfield Psalter, and, The Pabenham Clifford Hours. These texts proved similarly fruitful and I built up a substantial portfolio of medieval drawings and paintings of ambiguous beings, a few of which I drew in detail Figs.2-4.
I also pursued the Green Men, visiting Norwich Cathedral, so that I could examine the medieval bosses which contained their images Figs.5-9.
Having collected a large number of drawings, I needed to categorize them and make sense of the beings I had encountered in the texts. I turned to Dr. Rosemary Horrox, a lecturer in the ‘Medieval Universe’ at the University of Cambridge. I had pre-prepared a series of questions for my interview with her, but other questions arose organically. A segment of this interview is listed below:
Layton: “To what extent do you believe that the monstrous races were racial stereotypes?”
Horrox: “In practice, relatively few of the list that Pliny makes are current currency in the Middle Ages. In theory, they could be, but when you look at things like the Holkham Bible Picture Book, Jews and Muslims are just stereotypes. They are ugly, but not monstrous.”
Layton: “Was racism towards Africans and Asians a concept in the medieval period?”
Horrox: “It is quite fashionable to emphasize that by the late medieval period there were actually quite a lot of Africans coming into Europe. I have never spotted any racism towards them.”
The further I delved into the subject the more complex it became, though I can draw three conclusions. Firstly, racism remained potent during the medieval period, but it appears that only the Jewish community fell victim to it. My readings and conversations pointed towards the notion that the Jews were actively discriminated against because of their denial of Christ as the Son of God. Western artists and craftsman depicted the Jewish community as grotesque, exaggerating facial features, especially noses and eyes, in such texts as the Birds’ Head Haggadah (Fig.10) and the Nuremberg Chronicles (Fig.11).
Muslims, on the other hand, were thought to be ignorant of Christ’s presence and were forgiven for their ignorance. It appears, also, that crusaders came to respect their Muslim opponents in battle
Secondly, and perhaps, more surprisingly, depictions from the medieval period suggest that Africans who travelled into Europe were not subjected to racism. In practice, it becomes more difficult to assert such a claim, but, certainly, depictions of Africans show no obvious signs of being purposefully portrayed as ugly or monstrous (Fig.12). In fact, as Horrox pointed out to me, we often see white figures coloured-in, black, such as one image I sourced while at the Rare Books Room (Fig.13), emphasizing that no effort was taken to exaggerate bodily features. This changed my perception of the period, for I had expected to find negative portrayals of Africans, given their troubled history.
Fig. 12 Fig. 13
Thirdly, it is clear that the monstrous races of Africa and Asia are more complex than first thought. It remains unclear as to what extent some of the monstrous races found in bestiaries and chronicles were based on actual social groupings. This becomes especially difficult when we are faced with ‘monsters’ who share characteristics with some niche tribal groups, for example, using lip plates to stretch the mouth (Figs.14-15).
In order to develop this project further, I would need to consult Cambridge and British Library catalogues, and visit churches and cathedrals which contain examples of monstrous races on their ceilings, bench ends, windows, etc. I have every intention of pursuing this next year for my MRes degree. I would like this project to evolve into a series of works – which is already under way in my current studio practice (Fig.16).
A lot can be gleaned from how artists use the medium of paint to express their dislike of different races, and this investigation has certainly enhanced my perception of painting as a discipline.