A Previously Unknown Early Netherlandish Genre Panel Painting—Pieter Bruegel the Elder?

Close-up of Peasants Painting
Figure 1: Panel Painting, Peasants At Day’s End (private collection).
Peasants painting in frame
Figure 2: Panel Painting, Peasants At Day’s End, frame and cradle.

A small previously unknown panel painting, Peasants At Day’s End, named for the sunset motif that forms part of its setting, is typical of 16th and 17th c. Early Netherlandish Genre Painting influenced by the pictorial language and style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Active in the 1550s and 60s, Bruegel worked in several media, but he is acclaimed for being among the first to paint scenes of everyday life, notably landscapes and the peasant class in a secular context. The popularity of Bruegel in his own lifetime was great, but the fervor for collecting his works after his untimely death in 1569 precipitated an art market in Antwerp and the Southern Netherlands at the end of the 16th and in the first third of the 17th c. in which copies, pastiches, and even forgeries circulated; many bore the name, Bruegel, though more often as a way of honoring the master than as a deliberate deception.[1] It might be tempting to relegate Peasants At Day’s End to the efforts of an ardent follower or forger, but a signature recently found in an unusual location, together with its comparison to a landscape by Bruegel The Elder, have prompted the question of whether the painting may be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself. [2]

The pocketsize picture, in many ways reminiscent of a late medieval miniature, measures a scant 5.5 x 7.75 inches. It appears to be oil on oak panel and is darkened due to grime and old varnish. Gilding is visible in places beneath flaking varnish on the frame. Both the cradling of the wooden support—a popular 19th c. conservation practice—and the once-gold frame suggest the painting held value for past owners, although owing to its lack of provenance and believed lack of a signature, it was assumed to have little more than aesthetic value.

Close-up of name
Figure 3:  Detail of walker’s hat with signature visible on brim, lightened and annotated, Peasants At Day’s End.
Close-up of name
Figure 4: Detail of signature, further lightened and annotated, Peasants At Day’s End.

Examined for the first time using high-resolution photography, the painting was discovered to have a signature that is, for all practical purposes, much too small to have been of use to a 16th or 17th c. forger. In addition to creating a signature large enough to easily see, such a forger would surely have (1) placed it in an expected location and (2) borrowed a more complete form of Bruegel’s signature. The extant signature appears somewhat abbreviated, which is the case with a handful of Bruegel the Elder’s known signatures. That it is found on the hat brim of the walking figure is unusual and yet intentional to the whole artistic plan as we will see further below. Barely detectable by zooming in on the highest resolution photo (Figure 3 and Figure 4) the signature appears to read, B, followed by an unclear letter or mark, then VE (in ligature, unusually with V above E), G, and perhaps another E: “B(?)VEGE”. Bruegel is known to have signed works, BRVEGEL, sometimes with the VE in ligature, albeit side-by-side in the usual manner, but his signature is also known to vary significantly. In early drawings he signed in lower case letters, sometimes, brueghel, sometimes with a circumflex above “u”. Later he dropped the “h” and, on both drawings and paintings, began to use roman capitals. On The Temptation of St. Anthony (1556), he unusually signed, Brueggel. On Head of a Peasant Woman (1568), only “Pb” was uncovered in 2018 on the top right corner. [3] On The Drunkard Pushed Into The Pigsty (1557), a microscopic signature was found on the pigsty, BRVEG, with the VE in ligature and EL missing. [4] On Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (1565), x-radiography revealed an abbreviated signature beneath a later more complete signature; the hidden, first signature, reads only, BVG. [5] On The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes (1564), Bruegel mistakenly inverted the order of two roman numerals in the date. [6] On Peasants At Day’s End, what appears to be an unusual form of ligature with placed above E might be explained by similar absentmindedness (forgetting the V in the first instance), or by the need to conserve space by further abbreviating his signature as he did elsewhere. Bruegel often dated his works variously using either arabic or roman numerals. So far, no date has been found on Peasants At Day’s End.

Due to its very small format, Peasants At Day’s End should perhaps not be expected to offer the same scope for detail and brushwork as Bruegel’s larger works. Cleaning may uncover more distinctive features, and yet some incredible attention to detail, such as fingernails painted on the tiny hands of the figures, are already discernable. [7] We are also reminded that not all of his paintings were painted to the same standard. The Drunkard Pushed Into The Pigsty (1557, private collection), a small wooden plate attributed in 2000, was at first disputed even after a signature was found. It is now considered one of his two earliest paintings, though not as expertly painted as later masterpieces. It measures a comparable 20 cm (7.8”) in diameter. Early Netherlandish art historian and curator, Manfred Sellink, says the pigsty roundel “betrays his lack of experience as a painter,” and art historians, Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, tell us “it is likely that Bruegel produced paintings from the very beginning of his career, even if the earliest surviving works do not date from before 1557,” pointing to the likelihood that there once existed other less masterful paintings. [8] This leaves us with the possibility that there are more to be uncovered. Bruegel had early training as a miniaturist. [9] Several small-format works by him survive and others, now lost, are noted in historical inventories; some are neither described nor named. [10]

Sellink mentions Bruegel’s use and reuse of compositional types, schemes and motifs as well as his reuse of individual figures throughout his career and in different media. Also considered a small panel, Bruegel’s Landscape With The Flight Into Egypt (1563) is nearly three times the dimensions of Peasants at Day’s End, yet the repeated arrangement of the two compositions is unmistakable. Sellink used The Flight Into Egypt as a case in point to illustrate Bruegel’s repetition of compositional schemes, comparing some of its features to his pen and ink drawing, Mountain Landscape with River and Travellers (1553, The British Museum) [11], but Peasants At Day’s End offers points of comparison that are even more closely related (Figure 5).

Paintings compared
Figure 5: Peasants At Day’s End, approximately 13.5 x 19.5 cm (left, annotated); Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, 37.1 x 55.6 cm, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525-1569, The Courtauld Gallery, 207067 (right, annotated).

The mass of darker rocks in The Flight Into Egypt can be compared to the mass of dark buildings in Peasants At Day’s End. The lines pointing us to the Virgin in The Flight Into Egypt, point instead to the sitting figure; each wear red and anchor their respective compositions. Each are also similarly framed above-left and below by smaller dark shapes. There is a line of lighter rocks (bottom left quadrant) that runs roughly parallel to the more central diagonal line, and in each painting, both the tree on the right (in each the foliage begins just above the horizon, a similarly shaped swath of horizontal blue beneath) and the darker triangle across the bottom right corner, serve to keep the eye in the picture: Bruegel’s use of the tree in repoussoir is traditional. [12] The chimney and smoke in Day’s End appears to have the same compositional function as the prominent mountain peak with the vertical cloud formation directly above it; it is surprisingly chimney-like as well, and is found in the upper left quadrant of Flight into Egypt; it is a visual extension of a darker chimney-shaped rock further below it. The warm glow on the patch of rocks (middle far left) in Flight Into Egypt can be compared to the warm glow on the upper facade of the house in Day’s End, which approaches a trapezoidal shape.  Though they are faded or obstructed by the dirty condition of the panel, what appear to be clouds in the background of Peasants at Day’s End (grayer and to the right) are separated from a bluer sky (left) by the line of the cloud formation which trails back and forth in a wide zigzag, similar to the lines of the distant landscape in Landscape With The Flight Into Egypt. The zigzag of the middle distance in each also leads the eye to the anchor figure in red. In addition to these, one of the most compelling comparisons is the walking figure. Instead of Joseph, whose turned back leads us toward a dark grotto, our walker in Day’s End leads us toward the dark house. Each is partially framed within a darker triangle, the right side of which echoes the angle of the back and helps to accentuate the leaning, active posture. It adds to the illusion of psychological and physical fatigue carried “on the back” of each tired figure in their respective narratives, and at the same time provides a visual push forward. The left side of the triangle is the line at which the front edge of the hat and knee line up. The contextual similarity of the two walking figures is extraordinary, and is characteristic of Bruegel.  An example of his use of the triangular or lean-to effect can also be seen in The Conversion of Saul (1567), where a much larger scale figure is similarly framed by a darker partial triangle formed by the rock behind and above; the line of the rock echoes the line of the back and leg and similarly helps to push the figure along visually (Figure 6 left). The same effect can be seen in Parable of the Blind (1568), where the last two figures in a line of stumbling blind men are visually pushed by the angle of the triangles above and behind them (Figure 6 right).  In their case the triangles push forward, but also backward again (the darker plane of each), adding to the illusion of motion, but also of hesitation—to the topsy-turvy, precarious balance of the two who are doomed to fall like those leading them.

Bruegel Paintings
Figure 6: Detail (left) from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Conversion of Saul (1567), www.insidebruegel.net, KHM-Museumsverband, GG3690; Detail (right) from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Parable of the Blind (1568) Naples: Mus. di Capodimonte (artwork in the public domain).

The schemes of the two compositions being compared, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, and Peasants At Day’s End are so closely related that it is difficult to imagine one being produced without direct knowledge of or access to the other, and there is no evidence that Bruegel had a large workshop or apprentices—he worked alone. [13] We know that Pieter Brueghel the Younger carefully copied some of his father’s works after his death; he did not have direct access to most of them, and likely based several of his reproductions on a store of drawings and cartoons preserved by the family along with explicit instructions for close replication. [14] In our case, the two compositional schemes are astoundingly similar, but the theme and subject matter of each is very different; if one informed the other it didn’t preclude the free creative process of an artist whose intent was not simply to copy a painting. The comparison speaks to the practice of an artist who is known to have borrowed from an arsenal of his own compositional schemes, motifs, and figure types in creation of uniquely different works—Bruegel the Elder. Because Peasants At Days End has not yet been dated, we should not assume which of the two came first.

Peasants At Day’s End engages the classical, end-of-day motif that represents the waning of a full life lived—the reason for its title. The older men grouped at the focal center of the composition in the sunset of their years are literally highlighted by the setting sun, which also casts long shadows and glows warmly on the facades of the rural architecture behind them. In this way, nature and the cycle of life become an important part of the compositional setting married to the narrative. The fact that it is day’s end is further emphasized by the plodding figure returning home. The composition is built on a series of triangular planes (echoes of the rooflines) that zigzag across the entire picture. We are drawn in by the sitting figure in red. The eye then follows his raised hand that sends us directly to the face of the middle figure, which stares straight out of the picture, fully engaging the viewer by making eye contact. From the group of three, a pathway of light leads the eye to the walking figure, to the reflection of light on his back, and to a brighter spot of light on his collar that serves as a proverbial “x marks the spot,” because it underscores where we find the signature on the more subtly lighted hat brim. How the eye ends up at this location depends on the viewer’s full investment in the picture narrative and willingness to be led by the artist. We understand that if the walking figure looks up or changes direction, the signature will disappear. We see it only in a peek-a-boo moment as the walker, with his bobbing hat, is focused on the ground ahead, and we smile when we realize the artist is having some fun with us; finding the cleverly placed signature is our reward for playing along.

The signature is so small it is fated to go undetected unless we follow the clues—follow the light, as it were—and even then, we are able to read it only with the help of magnification. The viewer is fully engaged and thoroughly entertained by the discovery. In addition to the extremely small size of the signature, its unusual location, and abbreviated form, a forger would also be less likely to employ as much creative freedom and compositional intentionality in the placement of the signature as would Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself. Scholars repeatedly speak of Bruegel’s humor and sharp wit. We know he based many of his works on proverbial sayings as well as biblical and classical mythology. A well-known classical metaphor for old age—the end of the day—is part of the setting of Peasants At Days End. How the little painting rather astoundingly mirrors the scheme of one of Bruegel’s landscapes and other points of comparison that speak to the painterly practice, but also the spirit of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, warrant further investigation. Continued research of the previously unknown genre painting is pending further imaging and technical analysis.

Heather A. Reid, PhD


[1] Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon: Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elderand Pieter Brueghel the Younger with Special Focus on Technique and Copying Practice, Vol. I (Brussels: Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012) 29, and on artistic works by others that bear the name Breugel, 45-46; on which also see Larry Silver, “The Importance of Being Bruegel: The Posthumous Survival of the Art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” in Pieter Bruegel the Elder Drawings and Prints, ed. Nadine M. Orenstein (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001) 67.  According to both of these sources, Jacob Savery is the only known deliberate forger of Bruegel the Elder’s works.

[2] I am very grateful for the insight and suggestions of medieval art specialist, Dr. Maidie Hilmo, Victoria, Canada, who read early versions of this essay.

[3] Elke Oberthaler, Sabine Pénot, Manfred Sellink, and Ron Spronk, Bruegel: The Master (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018) 272, item 82.

[4] Roger van Schoute and Hélène Verougstraete, “A Painted Wooden Roundel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,”
The Burlington Magazine 142:1164 (March 2000): 140-46, esp. 140-41, and Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 73.

[5] Currie and Allart, 184.

[6] Currie and Allart, 74. On Bruegel the Elder’s signature, including inconsistencies, 73-79, and van Schoute and Verougstraete, 144-45.

[7] Other details are observable to varying degrees prior to the cleaning of the panel, but their discussion in the present article is prohibitive for reasons of space.  In addition to fingernail details, of note are the other figure types (comparable to types Bruegel the Elder reused), architectural features such as the paned glass, thatched roofing and chimney, what appears to be the tail end of a ribbon-like banner flying from the upper story of the house (visible only over the sky portion beyond the roofline so far), what appears to be a nearly microscopic dog and copper pan on the extreme left margin, doorway hinges and entry hardware, as well as an axe leaning near the entry, and three hoes the walking figure is carrying.

[8] Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 73. Currie and Allart, 38.  Sellink also tells us, Bruegel “trained, and started his career, as a painter” before turning his attention to working as a draughtsman and designer of compositions to be engraved.  See his, “Leading the Eye and Staging the Composition: Some Remarks on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Compositional Techniques,” in Oberthaler, Pénot, Sellink, and Spronk, 295-313, esp. 302-303.  Sellink’s essay is only found in the electronic edition accessed by using a code provided in the print edition. Although it is not known if his father, who worked alone, initiated such a practice, we know that Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop catered to a mixed clientele, including those content with less premium productions (Currie and Allart, 62).

[9] Currie and Allart, “Another figure who would have had an influence on his early training was Pieter Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, herself a well-known miniaturist” (39). Pieter Coecke van Aelst (d. 1550) was Bruegel’s master and Bruegel later married their daughter.  On his training as a miniaturist, likely by Verhulst, also see Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 303.

[10] Dominique Allart, “Did Pieter Brueghel the Younger See his Father’s Paintings? Some Methodological and Critical Reflections,” in Brueghel Enterprises, ed. Peter van den Brink (Maastricht: Bonnefantenmuseum; Brussels: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; Amsterdam: Ludion Ghent, 2001) 47-57.

[11] Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 299.

[12] Sellink, “Leading the Eye,” 301.

[13] Currie and Allart, 64.

[14] Allart, 2001, 55-56.

An Axe among the Scepters: Who’s Who in Canterbury’s West Window?

In the West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, ranged below the arms of Richard II and assorted depictions of saints and prophets, is an apparently incomplete series of portraits of English kings whose identities have become confused or forgotten over the centuries. Current attempts to identify these kings rely in part upon the eighteenth-century testimony of English historian William Gostling, who could apparently see in the window more than is visible today:

In the uppermost range of the large compartments are seven large figures of our kings, standing under gothic niches very highly wrought. They are bearded, have open crowns on their heads and swords or sceptres in their right hands. They have suffered, and been patched up again, and each had his name under him in the old black letter: of which there are very little remains. These seven are Canute, under whom remains Can. Edward the Confessor holding a book, under him remains Ed. Then Harold. William I holding his sceptre in his right hand, and resting it transversely on his left shoulder, under him remains …mus Conquestor Rex. Then William II. Henry I. Stephen. The tops of the canopies are all that are left of the fourteen niches of which the two next stages consist: if these were filled in the same manner, the series of kings would finish with Richard III.[1]

Tracery Lights and Upper Range of the West Window in Canterbury Cathedral. I have labeled the position of the kings A-G for ease of reference. All images of the West Window courtesy of Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK.
“Edward” in the West Window

Gostling’s descriptions have proved difficult to match up with the window as we now have it. Any lettering visible in the eighteenth century has disappeared, and at least some portraits are not in the order they once were. According to Gostling’s account, the fourth king (D) should be holding a scepter in his right hand and resting it on his left shoulder: he does not. Nor can the king in position B today be imagined as “holding a book.” So William I (once D) and Edward the Confessor, at least, must have moved between Gostling’s time and now.

B holds a sword in his right hand, which he rests on his left shoulder–this may be Gostling’s William I. If D made a simple swap with B, it would follow, as some scholars have assumed, that today’s D is Edward the Confessor. But the king who now stands in that position holds an emblem not elsewhere associated with Edward: a prominent axe.[2] Instead, Edward might be more usually imagined as here in the famous Wilton Diptych, where he stands alongside Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist in support of Richard II, who commissioned the West Window. Interestingly, scholars have noted similarities between the styling of Edward in the diptych and the king in position A on the West Window, accepted since Gostling’s time as Cnut the Great, the Scandinavian king of Anglo-Saxon England. Despite detailing the similarities between the two, including their forked beards and long sleeves,[3] no one has suggested that this might be Edward himself rather than an Edward-inspired Cnut.

Edward the Confessor in the Wilton Diptych. National Gallery [Public Domain]
“Cnut” in the West Window

But why not? The king of the “Cnut” window (position A) might seem from afar to be holding a book-like object in his left hand (upon closer inspection it is part of his clothing). This may, nevertheless, be the otherwise-unidentified “book” to which Gostling refers in his description of Edward. Besides the marked similarities between the Edward of the Wilton Diptych and the “Cnut” of the Canterbury window is the problem of the inexplicable axe or halberd found in “Edward’s” hand. In fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman art, likely under the influence of contemporary depictions on altar frontals, glass, and panel screens of fellow Scandinavian king St. Olaf of Norway, Cnut was the only king of England imagined as carrying an impressive axe!

Cnut in British Library Royal 14 B VI, membrane 4. Image courtesy of the British Library.

In a recent Alumni Spotlight on the Medieval Institute website, Notre Dame alumna Rachel Koopmans estimates that one in three of the glass narratives of the miracles of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral are misattributed. I wonder if here we have another case of mistaken identity in the Cathedral’s glass, this time of kings! If we are ready to accept that at least some of the portraits of English kings have shifted places since Gostling’s time, why should we be bound to accept that Cnut has not moved from position A since the late eighteenth century? The iconographic evidence surely supports a different conclusion.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] It is unclear how Gostling identifies Harold, William II, Henry I, and Stephen. Are they labeled with the “old black letter”? Or do they simply fill the pattern in the series of fourteen kings from Cnut to Richard III that Gostling envisions? William Gostling, A Walk in and about the City of Canterbury, New ed. with considerable additions (Canterbury: William Blackley, 1825), 343–44.

[2] “The position of his left hand, slanting in front of him, is such that it may have appeared mistakenly to Gostling as ‘holding a book’; his halberd however remains unexplained if he is to be identified as the Confessor.” Bernard Rackham, The ancient glass of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Lund, Humphries, 1949), 129.

[3] Richard II, who ordered the window, had a great devotion to Edward and is supported by English kings Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in the famous Wilton Diptych.

Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Middle Ages

A few years ago, the Medieval Institute launched a new scholarly initiative. Designed to highlight the wealth of scholarly information here at Notre Dame while increasing scholarly community and cross-communication across disciplines and ranks, the Medieval Institute Working Groups were established as a means of creating such an academic crossroad.

One of these groups, Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean, sought to push against the popular image of the Middle Ages as a uniquely Western European Catholic phenomenon. The organizers, Dr. Thomas Burman (Director, MedievaI Institute), Dr. Gabriel Reynolds (Professor, Theology) and Andrea Castonguay (Ph.D. Candidate, History), believed that by shifting the geographical parameters from Northwest Europe to the Mediterranean basin and opening up the confessional borders of scholarly investigation that had previously segregated the Middle Ages into self-contained Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim spheres, the Working Group would bring new perspectives to the idea of the Middle Ages and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to the period.  If a topic was somehow tied to the peoples, cultures, and civilizations active in the Mediterranean at some point during the Middle Ages, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group judged the topic fair game for discussion, inquiry, and exploration.

The Catalan Map, c. 1525.  British Library Add. MS 31318 B

While this rubric for a field of critical inquiry might be seen by some as generous to a fault, its breadth is actually the Working Group’s greatest strength. By casting a wide net, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group attracted a diverse group of members and speakers, most of whom would not necessarily interact with one another in an academic setting outside of a social hour.

During our first year in 2017-2018, we hosted 8 sessions where the topics of discussion and the presenters themselves reflected the group’s diverse make-up. The inaugural session was led by Dr. Jeremy Pearson (Bryant University), then a postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute, who presented an article on William of Tyre (d. 1186), an archbishop and Dominican friar of European origin born in the Crusader kingdoms and privy to a unique perspective on the interplay between European Christians, Levantine Christians, and their respective relationship to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Although not by design but by happenstance, the Working Group continued to focus on Christians in the the Middle East and how they responded to Islam during Fall 2017 by reading Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (UPenn, 2015) and hosting Dr. Jack Tannous (Princeton University) for a lecture and discussion on Syriac Christian sources and their importance for understanding the early centuries of Islam, the establishment of the Umayyad (661-749/750) and Abbasid caliphates (749/750-1258).

William of Tyre discovers Baldwin IV’s leprosy, from Histoire d’Outremer, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 12, f. 152v, mid 13th century. Image Source: Wikimedia .

During our Spring 2018 sessions, our attention turned to other parts and peoples of the Mediterranean and other types of scholarship. Whereas our Fall 2017 sessions focused on using religious texts to understand historical events, our Spring sessions turned to the ways in which different types of physical evidence, from archeological records, material culture, personal journals, could tell us about the medieval past. Dr. Sarah Davis-Secord (University of New Mexico) joined us for a discussion of her book, Where Three Worlds Meet: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Cornell UP, 2017) and spoke about the pros and cons of reconstructing centuries of history from physical objects in the absence of written records. Eve Wolynes (Ph.D. Candidate, History) presented a chapter from her dissertation on Venetian and Pisian merchant families and the various differences between Italian merchant families and commercial practices during the Late Middle Ages that her source material revealed over the course of her investigation.

Last but not least, the three co-organizers of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group, Tom Burman, Gabriel Reynolds, and Andrea Castonguay, all took turns presenting various works-in-progress to the group.  Gabriel Reynolds presented book chapters on sinners and sin in Islam from his forthcoming book, Allah: A Portrait of God in the Qur’an, while Andrea Castonguay presented a dissertation chapter on Muslim dynasties and competing Islamic sects in early medieval Morocco.  Tom Burman closed the 2017-2018 year by presenting with Dr. Nuria Martínez de Castilla (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) and Dr. Pearson the fruits of their collaborative project on the purported correspondence between Byzantine Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 ) and the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717-720) and its dissemination in Latin, Armenian, Arabic and Aljamiado (medieval & early modern Spanish languages written in Arabic script) literature during the Middle Ages.

Poema de Yuçuf, c. late 14th century. Manuscript B; Author and copyist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

As the Working Group moved into its second year, its members sought to keep up the momentum while upholding the group’s commitment to rethinking the traditional academic boundaries of the Middle Ages. Noticing the lack of sessions devoted to Byzantine scholars and studies during the previous year, the members of the Working Group rectified that by asking the resident Byzantine postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Lee Mordechai and Dr. Demetrios Harper, for their recommendations. As a result, the group read Phil Booth’s Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent At the End of Late Antiquity (UCalifornia, 2017), which explored how monasticism, initially a very vocal way of rejecting centralized power and empire, became an important component of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire during the 6th and 7th centuries. In addition, Dr. Paul Blowers (Milligan College) was invited to speak about the interplay between the pre-Christian Classical world and the Christian Byzantine world in theatrical literature. Issues related to the Byzantine world and its relationship with the former Roman Empire were also discussed during a presentation by Dr. Ralf Bockmann (German Archaeological Institute Rome; Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton) by way of changes to church structures and saint veneration in Christian North Africa during the transition from the Vandal (435-534) to the Byzantine (mid 6th- mid 7th century) period.

In a similar vein, the organizers sought to diversify the Working Group’s membership by reaching out to new members of the wider Notre Dame and St. Mary’s community and asking them to present their research. Dr. Hussein Abdelsater, a new member of both the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies Department and Medieval Institute Faculty Fellows at Notre Dame,  presented a paper on the miracle of the splitting of the Moon and the ways in which it was discussed in Qur’anic exegesis. Dr. Jessalynn Bird (Humanistic Studies, St Mary’s) presented early work on Jacques de Vitry (1180-1240) and and Oliver of Paderborn (fl. 1196-1227) as part of a new book project on Mediterranean geography in the writings of Western Europeans. Dr. Robin Jensen (Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology) gave a presentation on the tension between early Christians, their adherence to the commandment to have no false idols, and the presence of Classical deities and statuary in the Late Antique Mediterranean landscape.

Falnameh: The Book of Omens,  16th Century Persian manuscript; Artist unknown. Image source: Source: US Library of Congress.

Moving outside of the South Bend community, Dr. Mark Swanson (Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago) was invited to speak about the ways in which Copts in Mamluk Egypt read various Arabic works such as the writing of Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and the Pentateuch of Saadia Gaon (c. 882 -942) and incorporated their ideas into Copic liturgy and liturgical writings. This presentation along with Dr. Swanson’s generous show-and-tell of publised Coptic primary sources was especially interesting to several upper year Theology Ph.D. Candidates working on Near Eastern Christian communities, who were pleased to learn more about the various resources available for the High and Late Middle Ages.

From its inception, the goal of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group was to bust down the various walls that silo academics and scholars into a specific discipline while reminding others–ourselves included–that the Middle Ages was a long historical period encompassing many different civilizations, peoples, faiths, and geographies, and that we need that multiplicity of specialists in order to understand this period in history. There is no such thing as a medievalist who can act as the sole representative of the discipline, nor can they bear the discipline’s weight all by themselves. Rather, there are medievalists working in concert with and parallel to one another and the strength of the discipline rests upon their abilities to connect with one another, share information, and challenge their own understanding of the Middle Ages through repeated exposure to the different flavors and facets of the period.

In order to best represent and reflect the multi-faceted nature of the Middle Ages and the diversity of contemporary medievalists, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the period is in order.  The Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean Working Group provides such a space, and it is our intention to keep this momentum going during the 2019-2020 year and beyond.  Stay tuned to MI News and Events for details and future meetings!

A. L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame