Obscenity Out of the Margins: Mysterious Imagery Within the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, MS Hunter 252

Obscenity Out of the Margins: Mysterious Imagery Within the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, MS Hunter 252

By Elise Boneau

eSharp, Vol.6:2 (2006)

Miniature illustrating tale 30 of the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles (Tale of the three friars).

Introduction: The conventions and standards of courtly literature and imagery changed greatly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Throughout the early medieval period, what may be referred to as ‘obscene’ images were common in public sculpture during a time when ‘no danger was seen to exist in explicit representation of bodies’. During the fifteenth century, Michael Camille observes a change from a more ‘open’ portrayal in earlier illuminated manuscripts to new images hiding their nakedness. This idea is contested by Brigitte Buettner, who maintains that within a private sphere, one could find explicit erotic imagery appearing in ‘precise thematic contexts’ stimulated by the ‘proliferation of secular products commissioned by laymen’. Appearing within this context, we find a book of tales which seems more reminiscent of the risqué treatment of sexuality in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – the fifteenth-century Burgundian text of the Cent nouvelles nouvelles. This illuminated manuscript, while consisting of tales that cover many themes, contains several images containing genitalia, which do not seem to fit precisely into either hypothesis put forth by Buettner or Camille. The blatant portrayal of male genitalia is reminiscent of fourteenth-century marginalia, but here is located front and centre. Unlike marginalia, which was either allegorically related or not related at all to the text, these images are a direct portrayal of events recounted in the tales which they accompany. How can we explain where the inspiration for these images came from and how they fit into the ideas and conventions of the context in which they were created?

Traditionally, the motifs for illuminated manuscripts were taken from earlier examples of the same or similar images, though this may have been difficult in the instance of the Cent nouvelles nouvelles. The tales themselves follow earlier genres such as the fabliaux, the Decameron, and the Facetiae. The fabliaux appear in texts without illustrations. The fifteenth-century Facetiae was also not produced in an illustrated manuscript. The Italian versions of the Decameron contain only a few line drawings, and full-scale illustrations do not appear until the French versions translated by Laurent de Premierfait and produced relatively contemporaneous to the Cent nouvelles nouvelles. (The Decameron was entitled the Cent nouvelles in its French translation.) Therefore it would seem that either these French/Flemish illustrators or whoever paid for the commission had to invent an original motif for illustration. Some images may have been extracted from religious sources; however the truly secular content of the tales necessitates new ideas for the imagery.

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