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The Wonder of Paris

In response to:

A Great, Ignored Transformation? from the May 26, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

The greater part of Eamon Duffy’s review of my recent book, A History of Balance, 1250–1375, is thoughtful and attentive [NYR, May 26]. He strove to present the book’s overall argument—a challenging task given the argument’s many parts—and he was generous with his positive assessments. There were, however, a number of claims in the review’s final section that surprised me with their sharply dismissive tone. Limitations of space require that I respond to only one of these, but in doing so I hope I can respond in some measure to all.

Duffy offers a lengthy critique of my reading of the illuminated images in the Vie de Saint Denys, a wondrous manuscript produced under the direction of the Abbey of Saint Denis and presented to the French king, Philip V, in 1317. The tone is set in the opening sentence of this section, where he reduces his earlier rich description of my argument to what he now describes as its “monocausal explanation for the intellectual transformations of an entire age.” He then moves to dismiss out of hand the sharp disjunction I see between the images representing the lives of the martyrs in the upper registers of the page and the detailed images of commercial Paris in its lower registers. He argues that the recognition of such a split would be so indubitably detrimental to the reputation and interests of the abbey that its representation would never be permitted in a sumptuous manuscript intended for the king. I was aware of this interpretation before I offered mine, but I don’t think it either explains or can explain the images on the page.

My reading rests on a different set of assumptions. The disjunction between the upper and lower registers was, I believe, fully intentional—a clear representation of the abbey’s pointed critique of the commercial city and its inhabitants. Their sin was their inexcusable forgetfulness of their immense debt to the martyr Saint Denis, and, by extension, to the abbey dedicated to his holy memory. In making this case, the abbey was echoing a traditional monastic critique of the ignorant and careless world beyond the cloister—a world focused on the satisfaction of bodily rather than spiritual needs. Presenting these stark images of ignorance and indifference might well trouble the new king, but it might also move him—and have been intended to move him—to remedy the abbey’s perceived neglect with all the resources at his disposal.

Since space is short, I must leave it to readers to assess my interpretation of these stunning cityscapes through the lens of balance, i.e., as early representations (thirty altogether!) of commercial Paris’s remarkable capacity to order itself and balance itself through its daily labors and exchanges. I continue to think that these scenes provide precious visual evidence for how it became possible, in this period, to see and experience the city as a self-regulating system.

Joel Kaye
Professor of History
Barnard College
New York City

Eamon Duffy replies:

Professor Kaye suggests that I have misunderstood his reading of the apparent “disjunction” between the legend of the saint and the representations of the secular life of fourteenth-century Paris in the illuminated Vie de Saint Denys. This disjunction, he now insists, was intended as “a clear representation of the abbey’s pointed critique of the commercial city and its inhabitants,” whose “sin” consisted in their “inexcusable forgetfulness of their immense debt to the martyr.” The contrast between the saint and the city in the upper and lower registers of the illuminations, therefore, was intended to articulate “a traditional monastic critique of the ignorant and careless world beyond the cloister.”

That is a perfectly possible reading of the images Kaye discusses. It is not, however, the one he offered in his book. At no point in his discussion of the Vie de Saint Denys illuminations there did he use the morally charged language of sin and guilt he has now introduced. He nowhere suggested that the representations of the city were intended as a critique of “inexcusable” sins of the city, or to condemn the citizens for ignoring their patron saint. While he did emphasize the “pointedly and inescapably different” (p. 270) worldviews he thinks implicit in the “hierocratic” and vertical worldview represented in the scenes from the life of the saint, and the “horizontal” world of “relativized meaning” in the city scenes (pp. 276–277), Professor Kaye at no point suggested that the contrast was intended by the artist to be read to the city’s discredit, or as a pointed monastic condemnation of the citizens.

On the contrary, he tells us that the city scenes were painted by a lay artist working “outside the monastery…among the same Paris streets that provided the subject for his city scenes” (p. 269). The resulting images form “a vibrant picture of commercial Paris at the height of its prosperity” (p. 270), and represent “the essence of the wonder of the modern city” (p. 281), “an image of plenty guaranteed by human labour,” in which “vertical striving has been replaced by horizontal exchange and interchange” (p. 282). The clear implication was that in these images the secular and relativistic life of the city found its own, positive, self-expression.

Far be it from me to tell Professor Kaye what he meant in that section of his learned and absorbing book. But I do not think that any unbiased reader would have found in his discussion of these illuminations the religious and moral censoriousness he now says he intended to describe.