The Tour Guide in the Middle Ages: Guide Culture and the Mediation of Public Art

The Tour Guide in the Middle Ages: Guide Culture and the Mediation of Public Art

By Conrad Rudolph

The Art Bulletin, Vol. 100:1 (2018)

Roundel from the Guthlac Roll, depicting Guthlac building a chapel at Crowland – British Library

Abstract: One of the great premises of medieval popular religion was the localization of the holy, the essential principle of the pilgrimage.  At the same time, there was a widespread equation between excessive art and holiness.  One result of these complementary dynamics was that many pilgrims felt that the localization of the holy was indicated by an elevated artistic environment, an attitude that was used at times by religious institutions at some holy sites to meet the expectations of some great experience on the part of the tens and even hundreds of thousands of visitors who are recorded as having annually visited these places.  At the high point of the pilgrimage (11th-12th centuries), almost all of these pilgrims had no or only very little formal education.  And so the question arises, given the important role of art in the lived experience, how was this often complex form of visual media negotiated in this unique intersection of high culture and the non-elite in actual practice?  In other words, what provided the crucial interface for a largely uneducated public and the often phenomenally expensive art programs that had been created almost entirely for their benefit, practically speaking?  Or, put another way still, was there such a thing as a “tour guide” in the Middle Ages?

This study investigates the medieval “tour guide” or, perhaps better, it investigates guide culture.  Toward this end, I ask such questions as was there a “tour guide” in the Middle Ages, that is, is there evidence for an artistic component within medieval guide culture?  If so, what was the precedent for this?  What was its relation to artistic culture in general and pilgrimage culture in particular?  Is there any evidence of guide support, such as guide training or guide aids?  What can we say about the range of artistic culture addressed by medieval guides and, in this regard, what sort of information did they convey?  Who were these guides and what social groups did they address?  Did they act to maintain–consciously or unconsciously–the traditional social distance between the spiritual elite and the non-elite?  And how does all this affect our conception of medieval artistic culture, broadly speaking?

Medieval guide culture and its mediating dynamic, ephemeral by nature, have been largely overlooked.  But at least something–even if little more than an awareness–of this culture may be recovered.  The evidence suggests that it was an active factor in the transmission of particular categories of knowledge and claims, and strongly affected both the object-viewer dynamic and the social context of medieval public art.  And in this, the guide, variously understood, was often the principal mediator between the ordinary visitor and the sometimes incredibly lavish and complex art programs–between the public and the public work of art–of the Middle Ages.

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