Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. In this episode we speak with Jill Caskey and Adam Cohen, two of the three co-authors of the new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages, exploring a connected world. Jill Caskey is professor of medieval art at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her publications focus on cross cultural encounters, and include Confronting the Borders of Medieval Art. Adam Cohen is Associate Professor of medieval art at the University of Toronto. He is the author, editor or co-editor of six books, including Signs and Wonders. We spoke to Jill and Adam about how this project came to be, why the field of medieval art history has generally focused on the Western European Christian tradition, and why this fact necessitated a much more expansive approach that includes the Byzantine, Judaic and Islamic traditions, as well as embraces a much larger geographical reach, and a much broader definition of what constitutes art itself. Hello, Adam and Jill, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks, great to be here.
I'm so happy to be with you.
Great to have you. And we're here to celebrate your new book Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring the Connected World. We have Jill Caskey, Adam Cohen on, we're sorry that Linda Safran couldn't make it. But those are the three authors of this new textbook. It's a 400 page textbook, more more than 450 color images. It's beautiful. It's beautiful, and also has a companion website, which we'll talk about in a little bit. So I guess the question, first question I have is what inspired you to write this book,
A lot of teaching experience in a way and teaching in an environment where the majority of the students were not necessarily familiar with a Western art tradition, or even the fundamental ideas that might have informed it a generation or two ago like ancient Greek and Roman classicism or Judeo Christian culture. And so to some extent, being in a classroom, like that made me really questioned the value of teaching from a mono cultural perspective, teaching medieval art from a purely European and a purely Christian perspective. And on top of that, the the materials that are out there to teach with textbooks primarily for this level, tend to have that mono cultural perspective. And I in the classroom, and indeed, in my own research, from from way back, really wanted to put pressure on this idea of the Middle Ages being exclusively Christian, and effectively about almost a European triumphalism. And so that desire to teach a different kind of Middle Ages, which had more players in it, so to speak, more diversity, both within Europe itself and outside of you have of the Middle Ages and of medieval art in which many different cultures are connected over broad expanses of territory. Those are some of the ideas that really pushed us.
I'm happy to endorse everything Jill just said, and in what I think is my typical way, I'll simplify it in and make it a little more personal from my own perspective. For me, a lot of the stimulus came from a very simple example of what Joe was just saying, I did not feel well equipped to include the teaching of Islamic art in architecture, in my own surveys and introductions of medieval art. And there was simply no suitable book that would allow me to do that. And so I was delighted that I had colleagues like Jill and Linda with whom I already had a fine working relationship that we could combine together and put all of our skills in one around one table, as it were, and produce a book that I could use. And obviously, I hope that many others will be able to use it in a similar way.
Yeah, if I could just just expand upon that to also draw out a few more things. The three of us have very complementary interest in specializations. So no individual one of us could have written this book, but together, it worked.
That's great. That's great. Yeah, I mean, some you know, necessity is the mother of invention. It sounded like this book was needed, not only by you individually, but the field writ large. I like the subtitle you have Exploring a Connected World. And Joe, you had mentioned, you know that there's there was a monoculture proach to the field, your book is the exact opposite. It weaves together the Art History of Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world. Why is it that medieval art history world, the field tends to tended to isolate these fields or even ignore them completely?
Well, I think there's probably a combination of practical and ideological reasons. And this picks up on some of Jill's opening comments. Most scholars from previous generations were themselves trained in a tradition in which the pinnacle of medieval art was generally agreed to be French Gothic cathedrals, and the painting in Italy that would lead to the great moment of the Renaissance, when finally we could get out of the so called Dark Ages, and into the enlightenment that would ultimately lead to our modern world. So the Middle Ages was, on the whole, a very foreign alien thing. And scholars at for all kinds of reasons, were attracted to the kinds of things I just touched on. And practically, it's very hard as we discovered ourselves, to try and pack as much into one book, as we did. So it's a lot easier to just write a book about Islamic art in architecture, Byzantine art in architecture. And so most medieval art historians were trained in western medieval art. And their audiences were mostly interested in western medieval art, and they had a relatively restricted view of what that meant. And we are living in a moment where we recognize that that's not satisfactory anymore, either practically, or intellectually. And this is what we set out to expand.
Great, everything you said, Adam, I totally concur. I'd also point out that the fields have emerged at different times in history and with different priorities. And the field of Islamic art is the youngest, I think, of all of the ones that we were looking at. And so as fields develop, as they deepen the knowledge that is available to us priorities can shift. And so I think we're at a time now where the, the connective tissue among all of these different groups of people in the artworks that they produced centuries ago, can, can be more tangible can be seen can be worked with.
I think that that's a very important point. And I want to make clear, and I think Jill and Linda agree with me, although in many ways, our book is a critique of what has come before, we are very aware of the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of people who came before us. And we don't want to denigrate completely. Everything that has been done all that scholarship, all of the work that has brought the field to where we are now. And and so in our own conception of the book, we didn't imagine a radical revision, but rather a perhaps logical extension of what has already been been done by so many and so we don't throw out the great monuments that are beloved by so many people, but we try to re envision those.
That's great. That's great. Yeah, like the the words using expansion and extension. So you've you've extended the geographical location, you extended the religious focus, but I think that's also refreshing about the book that you've also extended what you know, what is art, that in addition to the impressive cathedrals or the stunning manuscripts, your book features jewelry, tableware, houses, in fact, we now will bring in the companion website for the book art of the middle ages.com has nearly 140 categories of artwork, everything from astronomical instruments to belt buckles, drinking horns to game pieces and Kranz to Torah shrines. Why is it important for the field to expand its interpretation of art as well?
Well, to some extent, I, I would say there are many reasons but a lot of the objects of the sorts that you just named are the only material remains that we have that can tell us about the lives of ordinary people. Not the most elite kings and caliphs and Pope's, for instance, but people While living in small cities, merchants, farmers, and so on, people for whom the documentary evidence is more slim. And so those kinds of objects can do a lot of work to help us envision how people really lived in the Middle Ages and what they thought about. Also, I think those different categories lead us in interesting directions. So astronomical instruments can tell us about, you know, the history of science, for sure, but also people's intellectual interest at the time and how they framed them how they commissioned astrolabes that were not merely functional, but had incredible design and figural features added to them. And things like belt buckles or jewelry can tell us about different conceptualizations, of gender, of the body of display, things that we can really relate to today as as objects that help inform our personal identity, our aspirations, how we want to be perceived by others, and so on.
It's also a great way to find those points of connection among peoples and cultures, because everybody ate off plates. People were interested in astronomy, whether they were Jews, Christians, or Muslims. So this is one of the ways that we make try to make the case that the Middle Ages was in many ways a connected world. And one sees that in the practical use of the book, where we've put together things that historically have never appeared in the same chapter, and here they are on facing pages. And those juxtapositions will allow teachers and students to see that there are kids connections that they would not otherwise have imagined.
Yeah, and I would say also that smaller objects, whether they're cops or belts, or astral lathes, are mobile, right. So they, they travel across borders, they trade hands, they move around and inform the production of other works and and artists and people see them and think, Oh, I love that I want a similar thing. And so they in a way are one of the instigators of of change in the world of art and architecture.
Just to be clear, though, we won't pretend that our book is an archaeological treatment of material culture. Right? It is still art and architecture and doesn't doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive presentation of all material, or even visual culture over 1000 years and 1000s of miles.
Yes, you'd have you'd have to have multiple volumes to do that. We got one book here, which is still a 400 pages. You've done a lot. That's That's amazing. So with with over 450 images, and it was always said with a website, there's only there's over 140 categories of artwork. What particular piece of art or architecture is one of your favorites from the book.
I have to say the cross of Harriman and Ida, which starts off the book is one of my favorites, in part because it is so deeply weird. It's a cross that was carried in in religious processions. And much of it is metalwork with inscribed images of Harriman, a high ranking church official and his sister, Ida also. But what makes the work spectacularly weird is that the head of Jesus who's on this crucified is crucified on this processional cross is a lapis lazuli head that is ancient Roman, and female. And so it's incredibly jarring, almost surreal looking combination of contemporary medieval people displaying their own power and liturgical finery their their external modes of identity, their their clothing, within with medieval inscriptions, and then this ancient Roman female head in the place of Christ. And what I love about it is the weirdness for sure, but also the fact that it raises so many questions, many of which we can't really answer. And so it is is, like so many fantastic works of art from all ages, all places. We can make some interpretations, we can make some hypotheses, but a lot remains unknown or unknowable.
I like the fact that Jill selected what is turns out to be the very first object in our book, I'm going to pick something on the other hand from the last substantive chapter, which is the power of the complex of the Alhambra in southern Spain, from the early 14th century. Now, I'm impart prejudiced because the three of us had the wonderful opportunity to visit this remarkable site together. And although I myself am a scholar of manuscript illumination, and by all rights, I should have picked a book to talk about, I have to say that I found the Alhambra, simply one of the most spectacular ensembles of architecture and architectural ornament and painting. And it's just breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring. And I think this is, there's a great Islamic word, a ajab, for wonder - wonderment about things. And I think this is the kind of reaction that the original patrons and users were trying to get, and that we still share today. And although we're here to, to encourage people to pick up a copy of Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages, Exploring a Connected World from Cornell University Press, we should also use this as an opportunity to push the website, artofthemiddleages.com. Because in the book itself, we have the Alhambra as a focus, minute or a work and focus. And so we have more pictures than most things I get in the book. But on the website, one can not only find a dozen more pictures of the complex, but also links to other web resources to explore. So she'll started with the cross of Harrimann and Ida in the beginning, I'll close with the Alhambra at the end. But I think I need to invite everyone to go find their own favorite.
Like that. I like that. One. I have one. That's a great way of ending. But I have one final question. If that's okay with you. The question I had was, you had mentioned that you were you were acknowledging the your predecessors in the field, and that you're standing on the shoulders of giants, and that you are offering a new way of looking at the field. Again, based on all the great work of the previous generation, what advice do you have? Or insights do you have to a new generation of scholars? You know, what would you like to say to, you know, a new student or a new emerging professor in the field, as you hand them your book, like, what would you what would you say to them,
I would make two points, one practical and one more ideological. One, take the book, use it and use it in a way that makes sense for you. We know that our book isn't all things for all people. And it wasn't meant to be but we hope that it provides a baseline that would allow people to use it in flexible ways. I hope that any any art historians listening today would allow us to get two or three additions under our belt and then write their own textbook that will replace ours and speak to the concerns of the next generation.
Yeah, I guess my advice to students in particular is to follow they should follow their instincts if they are interested in a particular theme or work, they should go for it. And if they have a sense that a certain area or a certain idea, an area has been underdeveloped and an idea has not been probed sufficiently, they should go for it. They should not feel constrained. In other words, by the structures and the taxonomies that have been in place for decades or that that we have in our book, they should feel free to find their own way forward.
Excellent. Excellent. That's great advice. Thank you. Thank you. Well, we encourage our listeners to head on over you can go right now to artofthemiddleages.com Take a look at the many objects and works of architecture that are featured in the book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World. It was a pleasure talking with you, Adam and Jill. Thank you.
Thank you, Jonathan.
That was Jill Caskey and Adam Cohen, two of the three co authors of the new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World. If you'd like to purchase their new book, use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on our website at cornellpress.cornell.edu. If you live in the UK, use the discount code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website combined academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast.