Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2018
Jessica Berenbeim Art of Documentation: Documents and Visual Culture in Medieval England Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2015. 242 pp.; 147 ills. Hardcover $95.00 (9780888441942)

As befits a study of the appearance of documents, Jessica Berenbeim’s Art of Documentation: Documents and Visual Culture in Medieval England is beautifully designed and richly illustrated. It also makes an important contribution to the study of medieval manuscripts, breaking out of traditional disciplinary categorizations to offer new insights that will be of relevance to both art historians and historians. Indeed, the form and function of medieval documents has become an interdisciplinary blind spot. Art historians are often tempted to focus on illumination, at the expense of questions about the overall design of charters or books, and sometimes ignore the context in which imagery appears or the accompanying text. For their part, historians have tended to treat charters and other documents as a category of material separate from books, despite the fact that some scribes and artists worked on both, and to focus on textual content. This has caused particular problems for the study of charters, as many documents survive only as copies in books. There are, of course, exceptions to these generalizations, but Berenbeim’s study is a welcome attempt to consider documents and manuscripts as part of a broad genre of documentation and to explore what these objects meant to contemporary audiences. The author’s approach is grounded in art history, but she draws upon literary and historical sources to reconstruct the circumstances in which documents were made and used, and to examine the values attached to them and their potential functions. Her research demonstrates that the authority and significance of documents lay in their appearance, as well as in their textual content, and reveals a wide range of material that may be productively examined as part of a medieval culture around the making and use of documents.

The focus of Berenbeim’s study is late medieval England; however, many important precursors are cited, providing an indication of the context in which late medieval documentation developed. These earlier examples are abundantly illustrated, though occasionally I would have liked more discussion of some of the features visible in the folios selected for illustration. Nevertheless, both the text and illustrations demonstrate the potential for the arguments of this book to be applied to the study of other periods and regions. Chapter 1 develops ideas presented by Michael Clanchy (notably in From Memory to Written Record), among others, treating documents as tangible representations of actions, such as gifts and agreements, that were imbued with significance by both their makers and recipients. This is followed, in chapter 2, by an assessment of relationships between charters and cartulary copies. The analysis presented here is particularly timely, as scholars in a range of disciplines are reassessing the functions and natures of cartularies, traditionally understood as having been made to preserve copies of documents. The evidence Berenbeim brings together in this book demonstrates the varied choices made by the makers of cartularies, which may be understood partly as a response to their source material but also as having been informed by the concerns of communities at particular moments in time.

Chapters 3 and 4 use the broad definition of documentation developed in the previous chapters as part of the framework for a study of the complex Sherborne Missal. Calling the missal a cartulary (as the author does at one point) seems to be stretching the term to extreme lengths. Nevertheless, Berenbeim’s exploration of the representations of documents in the missal demonstrates the richness of contemporary attitudes to records and record keeping. Through the manuscript’s imagery, donations were recorded at the heart of a volume associated with the church’s most important ritual, the Mass. Both the content and form of the missal’s expensive decoration are a long way from Christ’s instruction to sell everything and give the money to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21), yet the imagery demonstrated that the community remembered and celebrated its benefactors. Indeed, the potential of saints, whose relics were also preserved in churches, to provide fixed, powerful, reference points as beneficiaries who transcended terrestrial time is a recurring motif in this study. The decoration of the Sherborne Missal resonates with images in other contexts, for example the well-known image of King Offa presenting his charter at the altar of Saint Albans Abbey in the thirteenth-century Life of Saint Alban illustrated by Matthew Paris (Dublin, Trinity College, MS 177). The observations Berenbeim offers about the missal may well prove a fruitful starting point for the study of other books and imagery, which may shed further light on monastic attitudes to documents.

The representation of documents in books is given a counterpoint in chapter 5, through a consideration of the seals of Evesham Abbey. Seals were appended to documents as signs associated with their authors, and thus markers of authority, and occasionally featured imagery related to documents and donations. The potential for seals to serve complex functions and carry rich meanings has recently become an extremely fruitful area of research, notably by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak. This chapter demonstrates that just as documents could be incorporated into narratives when they were copied into books, so narratives could be added to documents through the use of seals, further illuminating the richness of contemporary appreciations of documents.

Although narratives usually depended on shared attitudes to the power and status of documents as a genre, the value of a document lay in its status as a unique object, created in specific circumstances. The relationship between documents and copies is a central problem in Berenbeim’s study, and is the subject of chapter 6, which tackles the paradoxes and challenges inherent in evidence manufactured to document often intangible actions, and the need for its preservation and interpretation as circumstances changed. The chapter focuses on Croyland Abbey, but once again the findings resonate with documentation from many other sites. The starting point for this chapter is the concept of inspeximus or vidimus, in which a document that had been inspected became the basis for a copy or expanded version that was deemed to replace the original. In theory this activity could legitimize copies, which otherwise could not carry the same evidential value as the originals. Yet in practice this seems to have provided additional opportunities for forgers, as plausible documents were presented to the king for inspection in the hope that he would endorse them with his seal or that new documents would be issued. The practice of inspeximus has received considerable attention in the context of its twelfth-century origins, but Berenbeim’s study draws attention to its consequences in the later Middle Ages, when monks might inherit documents containing layers of rights and endorsements. The author explores how the monks of Croyland attempted to replicate and perhaps also improve upon forms found in their documents, including witness marks, and transformed the contents of older charters into “monumental” documents that were visually striking in both their size and decoration, reshaping the contents for new audiences. Indeed, the chapter concludes by presenting the remaking of these documents in the context of the even larger display of the building of the new church.

The decision to structure the study around a series of case studies allows Berenbeim to mine some rich seams, while largely (and justifiably) avoiding the problem of the inconsistent survival of late medieval archives. The importance of a sense of distinct collective identity at many sites emerges from the cases presented, but at the same time the makers of documents, copies, and representations of documents had to work within a shared framework of acceptable forms for their creations to be accepted beyond their own communities. In the same way, Art of Documentation has much to offer to specialists working on particular topics, including cartularies, forgery, and the reception of documents, but it is also a reminder of the benefits of looking beyond the standard subjects of our disciplines.

Laura Cleaver
Ussher Lecturer in Medieval Art, Trinity College Dublin

Please send comments about this review to