http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Ralph Hanna (ed.), The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland (Boydell and Brewer, 2014)

Ralph Hanna (ed.), The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland  (Woodbridge and Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2014). ISBN: 9781897976395, 226 pp., $70.00.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith

[1] The Buke of the Howlat is a 1,003 line poem written in early Scots in the fifteenth century by Richard Holland. Holland, who was priest and canon of Kirkwell in 1457, can be found in catalogues of the great dead poets of Scotland, and Hanna has observed that ‘the finest Middle Scots poets engaged with The Howlat’ (p. 15). This includes poets such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and even Lekpreuik’s 1571 edition of Barbour’s Bruce.

[2] The oldest extant alliterative poem in Scots, The Buke of the Howlat is written in thirteen-line stanzas that are a distinctive feature of Scots tradition, known as ‘rouncefallis’ by King James VI (p. 45). The poem is evocative of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules in presenting a hierarchy of birds within a governmental metaphor. Within the poem, which is a comic allegory, an owl who feels deformed with ugliness appeals to the Pope (a peacock) to help improve his appearance. The Pope calls a council made up of bishops and ecclesiastical dignitaries, the Emperor (an eagle) and other representatives. After a banquet is held with a series of entertainers, including a musical mavis and merle; a juggling jay; a rook reciting a rhapsody on the genealogy of Irish Kings in mock Gaelic; and two mocking fools (a tuchet and a golk), the owl’s request is finally granted. The owl’s new plumage is made up of feathers from each of the present birds, but when the owl becomes arrogant, the birds pray that he is changed back by Nature. Consequently, the owl reflects sorrowfully on his pride and vanity. Despite this central focus on the owl, Hanna is careful to note that this bird is not the ‘unique target of the poem’s satire’ continuing that the other birds are ‘just as silly’ as the owl in their intention to amend Nature’s creation (p. 32). He argues that the moral ‘is not concerned with social climbing and its ill effects’ but instead that ‘human pride rests on precisely colores, engagement with the merely decorative’ (p. 33). Human beings are just like the owl, in pursuing impermanent objects rather than eternal truths, and ‘thus are not spiritually proper’ (p. 33).

[3] The poem also includes an interlude, which tells of the career of Sir James Douglas. Hanna has noted that ‘Holland plays upon the Douglases’ connection to generative nature’ (p. 30), thus linking this eminent family to the theme of nature which appears throughout the text (embodied by the allegorical character Nature). Hanna describes this as being the ‘heart’ of the entire poem, since it concerns James’ service, carrying the heart of Robert Bruce to Palestine, an action through which ‘he expresses his own heart, faithful to the death’ (p. 35).

[4] This new edition of the poem by Ralph Hanna is based upon three early witnesses to the text: Cambridge University Library, Sel. l. 19 (ll. 537-99); National Library of Scotland, MS 16500, fols 213r-28v; and National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates’ l. l. 6, fols 302r-10v. In his introduction to the poem, Hanna provides information on: the three sources of the text; the author and date; Holland’s language; literary sources and Holland’s poem; Holland’s verse; and editing the text. Unusually, an exact provenance can be assigned to the text, for, as Hanna points out, in the concluding stanza the poet ‘wittily insures the transmission of his name by including it in the rhyming position’ (p. 10). As this stanza associates Richard Holland with the household of the Earl of Moray, Archibald Douglas and his wife, Elizabeth Dunbar, Hanna’s edition includes a family tree of the ‘Black’ Douglases. This is not the only historical insight the text provides, for many studies have read the poem through the ‘lens of contemporary Scottish politics’ notes Hanna, which has afforded the text a ‘narrower chronological placement’ (pp. 12-13). These historical details refer to the heraldic devices of the humanised birds, such as the description of the papal arms (ll. 339-51), which are ‘associable with the antipope Felix V’ (p. 13).

[5] On Holland’s language, the editor provides an account of some the linguistic features of the text, explained with transcriptions from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Whilst Hanna points out that the reader might expect Holland’s language to correspond with well known features of late medieval Scots, his rhyme scheme actually relies upon some pronunciations identified with ‘scribes located in fringe areas of western and southwestern Yorkshire’ (p. 17). He thus makes further discussion of what he refers to as Holland’s marginal yet persistent ‘Anglicisms’ (p. 17) later in his introduction. Similarly, in his section on Holland’s verse, Hanna goes into lengthy detail about the rhyme scheme, and how this works linguistically.

[6] In his section on the literary sources for Holland’s poem, Hanna argues that the poem is not merely a fable, for it ‘engages in a standard example of a specific type of amplificatio’ (p. 23). Whilst he acknowledges that the source of the poem is ‘a commonplace fable for schoolboys’ he notes that this type of text was ‘regularly imported into adult contexts as a preacher’s exemplum’ (p. 24). Hanna goes on to suggest that the text ‘involves recourse to literary works more august than the fable tradition’ (p. 25). This interpretation of the complexity of the style and function of the poem is made convincing by Hanna’s insightful explanation and understanding of the central moral of the text, on human spiritual impairment in pursuing material objects above eternal truths, as described above.

[7] On the layout of this edition of The Buke of the Howlat, the line numbers of the poem are referenced alongside the text in five-line increments and Hanna also helpfully includes a reference to the corresponding folio number and side. Whilst an insightful textual commentary and a glossary are included, it is a shame that these do not also appear alongside the text instead of in separate sections towards the end of the book.

[8] Overall, The Buke of the Howlat is an enjoyable Scots poem with a compelling introduction by Ralph Hanna.

University of Edinburgh, April 2015

Penny Howell Jolly, Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner Saint (Ashgate, 2014)

Penny Howell Jolly, Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550: Addressing and Undressing the Sinner-Saint (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-4724-1495-3, 290 pp. £58.50.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith


[1] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly examines a fascinating aspect of the portrayal of Mary Magdalene during late-medieval and early modern visual culture: the metaphor of her spiritual pregnancy. The idea for the book was conceived in response to her students’ curiosity about the lady of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait, in which (to their modern eyes) she appears to be pregnant. Having noticed similarities between the Arnolfini lady and depictions of Mary Magdalene, it is in the endeavour to explore this trait of Mary’s presentation that Jolly considers the changing cultural significations of pregnancy, the female body and representations of the body of Mary Magdalene, in over one hundred years of art history.

[2] As a sinner-saint Mary Magdalene is a complex, ambiguous, and multivalent figure to explore. Yet, whilst the cult of Mary Magdalene has already been widely examined throughout the humanities, the visual metaphors of the saint’s spiritual pregnancy is an angle of inquiry that has been ignored by the academic community. The depiction of Mary Magdalene in northern art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also represents another area that is worthy of greater scholarly attention than it has received to date. It is in this respect that Jolly’s book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of women and gender in art history, as well as late-medieval and early modern cultural devotion to Mary Magdalene.

[3] In Chapter One, Jolly begins her journey of enquiry with Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. This image, which was commissioned in 1435, features what is believed to be the earliest example of Mary Magdalene with maternity laces on her clothing. It was the most widely copied image of the saint in its time. The artistic tradition of portraying Mary Magdalene as spiritually pregnant begins with this painting. Throughout the chapter, the author considers the complex significations of van der Weyden’s Descent, placing her analysis in the context of previous research. In this image, the pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is considered to symbolise her rebirth and renewal in terms of her moral and spiritual transformation. Mary’s ‘pregnant’ body is concurrently a symbol of her redemption and the carnality of her sin. Jolly supports these interpretations with a range of medieval sources, including the twelfth century Vita Beatae Mariae Magdalenae et Soraris ejus Sanctae Martha and the late-medieval Digby play of Mary Magdalene, both of which use the metaphor of fertility in the narrative of the saint’s spiritual transformation.

[4] The focus of the second chapter is van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (ca. 1452). As Jolly continues to investigate the duality and contradiction in the significations of Mary’s body, she argues that the representation of the saint in this triptych is as a Wise and Foolish Virgin simultaneously. The Wise and Foolish Virgins feature in the Parable of the Ten Virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. Within the parable, ten virgins await the appearance of the bridegroom at a wedding, but only the five Wise Virgins have brought enough oil for their lamps. As the five Foolish Virgins have to depart to acquire more oil, the bridegroom arrives. Consequently, the Foolish Virgins are too late to join the celebrations. The lesson of the parable is to be prepared for the Day of Judgement. As a Wise Virgin, Mary Magdalene is spiritually pregnant in her identity as a Bride of Christ, an interpretation that Jolly takes from the opening laces of Mary’s clothing. The author also explores visual similarities between this image of Mary Magdalene and depictions of the Wise Virgins elsewhere in visual culture, such as a tympanum (ca. 1285-1300) from Freiburg Cathedral. This image of Mary Magdalene depicts her holding a jar of ointment, in a posture that echoes the Wise Virgins holding their oil lamps and Ecclesia (a female personification of the Church) holding a chalice. Significantly, the oil lamps and chalice are in direct alignment with Mary’s jar within the tympanum. Since the lamps of the Wise Virgins burn with caritas, Jolly uses literary evidence of Mary’s connections with charity to support her argument. For instance, in the Digby Mary Magdalene, which dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Mary displays her charity by washing the feet of Christ. Conversely, Jolly argues that Mary Magdalene can be interpreted as a Foolish Virgin in van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych because her lavish clothing provides a visual suggestion of her vanitas and sinful past. The suggestion of Mary’s sinfulness is therefore an indication of the fact that Mary, like the Foolish Virgins, is not prepared for the Day of Judgement.

[5] Artistic representations of Mary Magdalene do not begin and end with her own body. In her third chapter, Jolly discusses Quentin Massys’ Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar (ca. 1515-1525), in addition to other works of art that imitate Mary Magdalene and symbolically allude to her identity, such as Bernard van Orley’s Margaret of Austria as the Magdalene (ca. 1520), which displays Margaret of Austria opening a jar in imitation of the saint. Over the course of this chapter, Jolly considers the market niches of such works of art, the value they had to their owners, and how images of Mary Magdalene begin to adapt in accordance with contemporaneous expressions of religious devotion and changes within society and culture. Jolly outlines that cultural standards of the ideal female body had changed by the time of the sixteenth century. Instead of rounder or ‘large-bellied’ women, the slender female body dressed in fitted clothing prevailed as the ideal, which meant that the roundness of the womb became a more conclusive symbol of pregnancy in early modern visual culture. The fashions of this period, such as the lacing of overgowns at the back (rather than the front and sides), also affected artistic traditions of pregnancy, as Jolly discusses in relation to the Virgin Mary. These cultural changes, in turn, affected artistic representations of Mary Magdalene. Thus, for instance, in Massys’ depiction of Mary Magdalene Opening Her Jar, Mary’s open jar of ointment takes on the symbolism of her ‘spiritual’ womb.

[6] The fourth chapter is another in which the symbolism of the spiritual pregnancy of Mary Magdalene is examined and discussed beyond the realms of her physical body. Moving into the art of the 1520s and 1530s, Jolly devotes her attention to the numerous paintings of Jan van Hemessen that depict Mary Magdalene performing music, and she considers the responses of Catholic and nascent Protestant audiences to these works of art. In these images, such as Mary Magdalene with a Lute (ca. 1530-1530), Jolly explains how playing the lute could connote sensual love, and that the shape of the instrument could signify the pregnant womb through its roundness as well as its opening. Yet, even the lute could be a complex and multivalent symbol in sixteenth century art, for it could signal desire as well as fertility and pregnancy, therefore continuing to represent Mary’s duality as a sinner-saint.

[7] In the fifth and final chapter of her book, Jolly examines the portrayal of the melancholic Magdalene in the work of Flemish artists, Adriaen Isenbrant and the ‘Half-length Master’, during the sixteenth century. The images produced by these artists continued to innovate the iconography of Mary Magdalene by situating her portrayal within a wider landscape, allowing the viewer to focus on different areas of the painting such as the wilderness narrative in the saint’s hagiography. These landscape images of Mary Magdalene also portray the saint with a melancholic posture, mourning for the absent Christ. The focus on Mary Magdalene’s body changes once again in the work of these artists, with the exposed flesh and breasts of Mary Magdalene’s body on display either openly or through her diaphanous clothing. Jolly speculates that this is perhaps due to a conflation of the hagiographical narratives of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, although she offers alternative interpretations. The eremitical grotto of Mary Magdalene’s wilderness narrative in these images is itself another symbol of her spiritually pregnant womb.

[8] In Picturing the ‘Pregnant’ Magdalene in Northern Art, 1430-1550, Penny Howell Jolly makes a convincing argument that the visual symbolism of Mary Magdalene’s spiritual pregnancy is a consistent and evolving feature of Northern Renaissance art. One of Jolly’s great strengths throughout this work is her ability to comprehend and explain the complexity of signification within art history, and its capacity to subtly change meaning over time, even whilst, simultaneously, specific artists continue to allude to van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in repeating his motifs. Jolly uses a formidable range of resources in the endeavour to support her claims, drawing upon the literature and drama of the Northern Renaissance as well as its art, thereby demonstrating the interconnections between these different mediums in terms of the complex significations of the body of Mary Magdalene. Whilst the idea that images of jars, lutes, and caves, were used as visual substitutes for Mary Magdalene’s ‘spiritual womb’ may seem tenuous, Jolly’s astute observations and carefully-considered evidence leave the reader firmly convinced in the validity of her interpretations.

[9] Illustrated throughout with colour and black and white images of oil paintings, manuscript paintings, triptychs and tympanums, this is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read and an accomplished and valuable contribution to the field.

University of Edinburgh, June, 2014