A Review of “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling,” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
Reviewed by: Karl Fugelso (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Had it addressed ecotheory more completely and directly, this exhibition might have accomplished much more in its discussion of medieval recycling, but while it may fall short in that regard, it raises important questions about the definition of the Middle Ages and medievalism.
Though the curators did not produce a catalog for the twenty-three artifacts in this one-room show, their numerous, well-written placards construct an extensive definition of recycling. The longest and most explicit of these statements, which appears just inside the entrance to the show, classifies recycling with upcycling and adaptive reuse as common medieval practices that were not only “acceptable” but “at times even desirable,” especially given the skill with which medieval craftsmen could “artfully repurpos[e] earlier medieval culture.” And many of the labels explain how a particular example of recycling might have been motivated by convenience, economics, aesthetics, and/or historical appreciation. But especially after the curators claim that modern recycling, upcycling, and adaptive reuse are “necessary responses to the growing awareness of our planet’s limited resources and to the environmental damage caused by our everyday activities,” the show could use an explanation of the differences among these categories and a detailed discussion of the ways in which their medieval incarnations may reflect and/or have influenced contemporaneous perceptions of surrounding ecosystems. For example, beyond noting that recycled parchment indicates a scarcity of sheepskin, the curators might have examined how a particular reuse relates to the local availability of sheep, how that availability might have related to broader shifts in agribusiness, how those shifts might have related to ecological changes, and how, if at all, the recyclers and/or their contemporaries recorded their perceptions of those changes, other than through the reuse of parchment.
Yet, though the curators may not have fully explored the implications of medieval recycling, they foreground important issues through their definition of the Middle Ages. While the placards adhere to tradition in dating the start of that period to the fourth century, the exhibits include a copy of Aesop’s Fables printed in 1495 and subsequently covered in a twelfth-century folio, a thirteenth-century Bible wrapped in a fifteenth-century folio sometime during the sixteenth century, and the insertion of mid-fifteenth-century miniatures in the Lace Book of Marie de’ Medici after the first quarter of the seventeenth century. These and similar examples are a far cry from standard definitions of the Middle Ages, such as the one implicit in the mission statement for Studies in Medievalism as “an interdisciplinary medium of exchange for scholars in all fields […] concerned with any aspect of the post-medieval idea and study of the Middle Ages and the influence […] of this study on Western society after 1500.” And a traditionalist may indeed doubt that anything made for Marie de’ Medici, who was a long-term guest of, and occasional subject for, Peter Paul Rubens, could be medieval. But in ascribing these recyclings to the Middle Ages, the curators underscore the subjective nature of determining precisely when and where the period ends. Even as late as the seventeenth century, a fondness for mid-fifteenth-century miniatures may mark more a sense of continuity with the past than nostalgia for it; in many parts of Europe, the sixteenth century was not much different from the fifteenth, fourteenth, or even earlier centuries; and, though printing is often seen as signaling the end of the Middle Ages, that perception is far from universal, particularly for books as old as the aforementioned copy of Aesop’s Fables. Unless someone referring to the Middle Ages explicitly treats that period as prior to and distinct from his or her milieu—and perhaps not even then, given postmodernity’s doubts as to the reliability of such evidence—that reference may not qualify as post-medieval.
That ambiguity has obvious implications for medievalism, but our field may be even more challenged by some of the show’s earlier works. While the fourth-century belt with medallions of Constantius II and Faustina merely echoes the most recent exhibits in questioning the chronological parameters of the Middle Ages, the ninth- or tenth-century Byzantine ring built around a Greco-Roman cameo, the twelfth-century German altar incorporating eleventh-century plaques, and several of the other exhibits that fit well within traditional definitions of the Middle Ages embody the many problems inherent in the possibility of medieval medievalism.
Relative to traditional perceptions of the Middle Ages as a monolithic period stretching from Antiquity to the Renaissance, the ring cannot represent medievalism, for the cameo would not qualify as medieval. Nor, in such circumstances, can the altar embody medievalism, as it would not be post-medieval. But if the Middle Ages were seen as a collection of middle ages, the altar and all other works that date from these periods and incorporate material from an earlier, post-Ancient period could qualify as medievalism. And if the term “middle ages” were extended to any milieu that departs from the recycler’s and has a distinct predecessor, the ring and almost all other references to the past, including the aforementioned belt, could represent medievalism.
The difficulty with those approaches, particularly the latter, lies with deciding who would make such determinations and what we would accept as support for them. If the choice were to rest solely with scholars of medievalism, then virtually any material from the past would indeed be fair game, our field would risk collapsing with all other studies of the past, and the term “medievalism” would lose much of its purpose. If, however, we insist that the medievalist recognize the middle age(s) as such, then even if we brush aside postmodern doubts about knowing someone else’s thoughts, we might run into a paucity of evidence, especially for responses from the traditional Middle Ages. Though the Walters show suggests that at least some medieval artists perceived their recycled material as originating from a milieu other than their own, as when a Talmud folio was treated with so little respect as to be used for covering the aforementioned copy of Aesop’s Fables, there is no proof in this exhibition—or, to my knowledge, anywhere else—that medieval artists saw their recycled material as coming from a chronologically bracketed period. In fact, even when the recyclers imply they are aware of contextual differences, as with the Talmud folio, they do not necessarily treat these departures as diachronic. And some artists demonstrate complete ignorance of their material’s original meaning and/or purpose, as when the twelfth-century German altar (mis)pairs a panel of John the Baptist with one portraying the Holy Women at the Tomb. Thus, even if we expand our definition of the Middle Ages well beyond its traditional parameters, we do not seem to have a convincing case for medieval medievalism.
However, in merely raising that possibility, this small but stimulating show performs a great service, for it reminds us to ground our work in a clear definition of the middle ages and to explain as fully as possible how our material relates to yet departs from them. Moreover, as this show highlights the difficulties in doing so, as it calls into question the boundaries and beliefs of our field, it paradoxically advances what we do, for only by constantly asking what medievalism comprises can we answer how and why it matters.
“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling,” June 25—September 18, 2016, at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201, free museum and exhibition admission, open 10-5 Wed., Fri.-Sun., 10-9 Thu., handicapped accessible with some free parking on nearby streets, <http://thewalters.org>.