Clean, Wholesome, and Edifying Marginalia — Really! (Mmm… Marginalia)

You know Lady Fortune, Dame Nature, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice, the Pearl and Lady Reason and Fair Welcome and Forced Abstinence.* But do you recall the most famous [pair of] female medieval personification[s] of an abstract concept of all?**


That’s Synagoga and Ecclesia there, resting peacefully in the lower margin of a manuscript currently held at the National Library of the Netherlands. They represent the triumph of New Law over Old Law, which is to say the triumph of the Christian faith over Judaism. (Ann Coulter would be very proud.) Here’s another version from the carvings on the choir seats at the Cathedral of Erfurt in Thuringia, which reminds us that marginalia isn’t just for manuscripts anymore:


And while I have your attention, here’s another set from the exterior of Strausborg Cathedral (which are technically even further removed from my normal subject of marginalia, but they do hang out on the margin of the south transept portal):

Ecclesia, or The Church, is generally depicted as a woman carrying one or more of the following: a crown, a cross-staff, a chalice of the Savior’s blood, a communion wafer, or the orb of the world. Synagoga (also Synagogua and Synagogue) packs her bags with a broken spear, a discarded crown, and/or the Mosaic tablets. Synagoga also wears a blindfold, just like Lady Justice, but unfortunately her blindfold symbolizes ignorance instead of impartiality. Damn you, traitorous double-sided metaphors. For the record, the pig-riding Synagoga in the second image is probably related to the tradition of the Judensau, and doesn’t show up near as often as the standing figures.

As my initial laundry list of female personifications might have already indicated, there was very little that the medieval Christian mind couldn’t turn into a hawt chick in diaphanous robes. Perhaps there is something to that whole fevered imaginings of repressed monks theory.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this completely un-scatalogical and asexual edition of Mmm… Marginalia. (Sorry–put more job apps in the mail this week.) Next time, we will return to our normal poop-, monkey-, and/or pooping-monkey-flavored fare.

*And, lest we forget, the hot foreign chick in the Song of Solomon that somehow represents the Church.
**OK, so maybe Forced Abstinence isn’t that well-known a personification, but that whole Rudolph thing*** was the best intro I could come up with this week, so deal. Maybe I’ll do a whole series on weird medieval female personifications.****
***And while I’m on the subject, the beginning of the Rudolph song makes no sense, philosophically speaking. If I agree with the initial premise, that I know Dasher and Dancer, etc. and I agree with the second premise, that Rudolph is even more well known than the ones I already have admitted to knowing, then it is demonstrably the case: I must know Rudolph. QED. The question is superfluous.
****As soon as I figure out how to properly acronymize it. All successful web recurring features have an awesome acronym.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris

    In fancy-pants circles they sometimes call those superfluous questions “rhetorical”.

    Nevertheless it can be shown that you can know a whole list of obscure medieval popes yet not know the more famous person singing whatever this week’s chart topper is. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is clearly aimed at providing pop-culture knowledge to weary ivory-tower historians.

  • Anne Gilbert

    Well, I guess we know where the Jews stood in “them days”. And the authors of these various representations went to a lot of trouble to make that clear!
    Anne G

  • Derek

    No need to worry about that particular double-sided metaphor. Centuries later John Rawls would reconcile the two by using ignorance as a tool for generating impartiality:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/#VeiIgn

  • anthromama

    Unrelated to this post but…”medieval” in popular culture alert!

    P. 22 of the March 30 New Yorker: “The wantonness of these acts [recent crimes in New York City], along with the crudeness of the weapons [a woman was shot with an arrow; someone attacked several trees in a park with an axe or machete], suggested that something almost medieval was under way — ‘Braveheart’ in the Bronx.”

    Go to it.

  • anthromama

    Oh, and later in that same article:
    “Joel Kaye, a professor of medieval history at Barnard, said that he had not thought about the week’s news in the context of the Middle Ages, though he did point out that, suddenly, usury is a hot topic again.” And more follows.

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