Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 16, 2020
Sonja Drimmer The Art of Allusion: Illuminators and the Making of English Literature, 1403–1476 Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. 352 pp.; 27 color ills.; 97 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (9780812250497)

In her new multidisciplinary monograph, Sonja Drimmer asks a “deceptively simple” question (15): “Who is Geoffrey Chaucer?” An author? Narrator? Pilgrim? And who, for that matter, is John Gower? Or John Lydgate? The very identities of these first Middle English poets, Drimmer argues, presented an ontological challenge to the limners, or illuminators, portraying them and illustrating their texts. Drimmer contends that limners helped shape late medieval ideas about authorship, political history, and royal identity. They did so via the “art of allusion,” which Drimmer likens to the writing practices of late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century English authors; that is, the art of borrowing, modifying, and reinventing already existing models (4–5). The book opens in 1403 with the organization of scribes, limners, bookbinders, and sellers under one professional umbrella, later called the Stationers’ Company, and terminates in 1476, when William Caxton established the first printing press in the British Isles. As the intellectual respectability of vernacular literature rose during these years, it did so, Drimmer observes, in part thanks to the efforts of the limners responsible for its illustration.

In chapter 1, “The Illuminators of London,” Drimmer synthesizes the scholarship to date on fifteenth-century manuscript production. Unlike that from the European continent, evidence from England suggests two abiding characteristics of workshop culture: the decentralization of labor and the categorical flexibility of its professionals, who might copy text and also paint miniatures, initials, and border decorations (34–36). Furthermore, the author’s reading of archival sources emphasizes anonymity and collaboration among professionals in the book trade, a fact that has not prevented art historians and paleographers alike from attempting to identify individual hands and connect them with the few names to survive in the record (27, 39). Within this singular work environment, Drimmer highlights the lack of written instructions left to illuminators (26) and limners’ obvious reliance on existing visual models. Combined with the long-held definition of “authorship” as the copying, compiling, and commentating on preexisting material, these factors help to explain the challenge posed by the earliest vernacular poets (8).

In chapter 2, “Chaucer’s Manicule,” Drimmer notes that of the five surviving manuscript portraits of Geoffrey Chaucer, only one, from Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Rawlinson Poet. 223), adheres even remotely to the visual conventions of authorship (scriptorium, desk, codex, stylus). In fact, perhaps the most well-known portrait, from the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (Huntington Library, San Marino, California, MS EL 26 C 9), depicts Chaucer as simply another pilgrim. Drimmer sees these portraits in the manner of Joseph Leo Koerner, as a “locus of negotiation” between artist, subject, and audience, responding to and reflecting cultural expectations about authorship (60). Among the portraits, Drimmer finds one shared feature: the manicule, Chaucer’s own hand pointing to the text. When added by scribe or reader, the manicule serves as a nota bene for the future, an act that contributes to the process of meaning making. With Chaucer removed from the scriptorium and denied the standard attributes of authorship, this gesture identifies and validates its owner as creator.

Drimmer pursues a similar line of inquiry in chapter 3, “Gower in Humiliatio.” When presented with Gower’s multilingual, genre-blurring poem “Confessio Amantis,” narrated by a figure with a shifting identity, limners were stumped. Some portrayed the author kneeling before his patron as a youthful lover, Gower coded as his character Amans; elsewhere, he appears as an elderly man, the “historical” Gower reflecting on his life. Indeed, Drimmer suggests, it was Gower’s own “renunciation of his agency as author” that contributed to this visual variation (87). Drimmer again identifies an iconographic motif within her corpus: the author “in Humiliatio,” with arms crossed over his chest, recalling the humility of the Virgin Mary in depictions of the Annunciation. This gesture subordinates Gower to his patron, signifying and approving his abdication of authorship.

In the fourth chapter (“Lydgate ex Voto”), Drimmer notes that, as for Chaucer and Gower, limners never showed Lydgate writing; rather, as a tonsured monk, he is often pictured kneeling before God or king. In manuscripts made at Bury Saint Edmunds, England, Lydgate’s own monastery, he is sometimes depicted praying before the shrine of Saint Edmund, king, martyr, and ecclesiastical patron. This downplays Lydgate’s role as author; instead, his gesture must be read as that of a devotee, his gift of poetry intended to elevate his patron. The illustration in British Library, London, Harley MS 1766 demonstrates this. Two anonymous kneeling Benedictines flank an enthroned Edmund. Empty banderoles unfurl above their clasped hands. Fifteenth-century viewers would have been conditioned to read this image as devotional portraiture. Only later did someone inscribe “dan Iohn Lidgate” upon one of the banderoles, transforming the scene into an authorial identification. Invoking the work of Christopher Wood, Drimmer understands this image without the inscription as recursive, modeling a proper contemplative attitude and confirming Edmund’s miraculous powers. Indeed, Drimmer argues, we should see this as votive portraiture, attributing the existence of the book to the saint. The physical manuscript copy operates like wax images of eyes or limbs, deposited by devotees at a shrine, testifying to the power of the saint. In text and image, Lydgate defines himself and is defined by artists in relationship to others: to his patrons, saintly and worldly, and to the laureates and auctors whose work he translates. These images represent “the social arrangements that generate literature” rather than Lydgate himself (140).

The final two chapters, which address narrative illustrations of vernacular poetry, are case studies. In chapter 5, “History in the Making: Lydgate’s Troy Book,” Drimmer focuses on British Library Royal MS D.18.ii, begun sometime after 1457 and abandoned around 1461. At least three further campaigns of illumination were undertaken, and the planned miniatures were only completed in the sixteenth century. Initiated at the behest of William Herbert, first Earl of Pembroke, and his wife, the Royal manuscript features a prefatory image of the donors in supplication before King Henry VI, its intended recipient. After Henry’s death it descended through the Herbert family, and its protracted illumination history, Drimmer argues, was inspired—even invited—by Lydgate’s words. The poem, a retelling of the history of Troy through the Trojan War, is fraught with “overlapping temporalities,” and Lydgate filters his ancient subject matter through the moment of composition (157). This anachronistic effect was replicated by the manuscript’s owners as they added to their book (166). History, in the form of narrative illustration, is utilized by generations of the Herbert family to emphasize their connections with royalty.

In chapter 6, “History’s Hall of Mirrors: Gower’s Confessio Amantis,” the author turns her focus to an exceptional copy of the Confessio (Morgan Library, New York, MS M.126) made for Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Likely produced in the wake of Edward’s return to the throne, the deluxe Morgan manuscript boasts the work of stylish scribe Ricardus Franciscus and features 106 miniatures by two unknown limners. Drimmer demonstrates how those limners chose their subject matter carefully from Gower’s poem, drawing out historical vignettes of kingship that testify to “monarchic infallibility” (192). Here, too, we see the collapsing of time: Yorkist arms, livery badges, and collars pop up in scenes of ancient history. This is, the author observes, not only another drop in the deluge of propaganda that followed Edward’s reinstallation but also a material revisionist history, a “collection of visual resources to be plundered by the privileged royal viewer” in his self-fashioning (191). The Morgan manuscript’s mirror reflects a curated vision of the past to its special patron.

Finally, in a brief epilogue, “Chaucer’s Missing History,” Drimmer poses the following question: if limners were “coproducers” of this new genre, then “why are there no manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales with narrative illumination?” (224). While Caxton’s original printed edition also lacked images, his 1482 version featured forty-seven woodcut illustrations, including “portraits” of the pilgrims. Though conventional in appearance, the subjects nonetheless address the reader directly, just like their textual counterparts, unmediated by Chaucer. This technique, Drimmer argues, effectively “minimizes Chaucer’s governance over the poem” (226–27).

Drimmer borrows widely in building a critical framework: from philosophy (Georges Didi-Huberman, Michel Foucault) to literary theory (Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette) and art history (Michael Ann Holly). While scholars may debate some of her conclusions, Drimmer’s study nonetheless provides a nuanced analysis of material that straddles traditional disciplines. One of this book’s achievements is the rehabilitation of late medieval English illumination, historically derided for its crude or primitive appearance. This is dependent on the restructuring of traditional perceptions of text-image relationships: rather than asking how the image responds to the text, Drimmer asks how the image makes its own meaning. The resulting analysis disrupts the pernicious, persistent notion of illumination as a supplement to or, worse, as rote illustration of vernacular poetry. Drimmer urges us to see limners as active participants in fashioning sometimes viewer-specific modes of understanding history, and reorients our focus from the finished, aesthetic object to the thought processes that preceded that object. For these reasons alone, the present study is a worthy contribution to the scholarship of book production in fifteenth-century England.

Emily Savage
Associate Lecturer, School of Art History, University of St. Andrews

Please send comments about this review to