Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Boredom and self-involvement or estrangement in the marginalia artist

In class, I was struck by the question as to whether the artists painting the marginalia of various manuscripts were, as the author of Apes and Ape Lore puts it, motivated by "spontaneous fantasy or controlled intention" in their additions of seemingly incongruous animals to their work. In particular, I'd like to explore whether or not the "bored monk" could be considered an anachronism, and what this affinity of such boredom for the animal means for a conception of interiority.

In her book "Boredom: the literary history of a state of mind," Patricia Meyer Spacks proposes understanding boredom as a fairly recent social construction, dating it from the mid-eighteenth century; she not only reminds us that the word itself did not come into use until the nineteenth century (with “bore” as a verb being used as a psychological term in the mid-eighteenth), but also claims that something about this historical moment demanded a word for the phenomenon of boredom as we know it. The first chapter aims to trace the "social and psychological conditions [that] would require the construction of boredom as a concept" (9). While modern students will likely revolt at the idea that the medieval monks illustrating these manuscripts predated the existence of boredom, Spacks does go on to differentiate the relatively new notion of boredom from the experience of the monk that lends itself readily to the anachronistic label of "boring." Reading John Cassian's description of a dissatisfied (to our thinking, bored) monk, she notes Cassian's contempt for the monk's state: this monk does not, she notes, "endure boredom, he commits acedia: a sin....A combination of what we call boredom and what we call sloth, [acedia] was understood as a dangerous form of spiritual alienation" (11). She goes on to state that this world before boredom was predicated on the individual accountability, personal responsibility that characterized Christianity, stating that "[Boredom] reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power" before continuing with her literary analysis of the modern state (13).

Looking at Spacks' statement of the anachronistic quality of descriptions of bored monks, it appears that personal responsibility is at odds with the focused inwardness of boredom, but is rather susceptible to “spiritual alienation;” the monk is withdrawn from God, but not necessarily drawn into himself. Further, in the description quoted by Spacks, Cassian dismisses the monk’s feeling of being attacked by an outside source; what he would ascribe to sinful behavior on the part of the monk may appear to the sufferer as an assault, one that has the power to result in spiritual alienation. This seems to have more to do with forcing the still-externally-focused painter out of the interconnectedness of nature that would encourage (require?) him to contemplate God in the painting of any individual facet of His creation

I would like to think of the animal presence as a corrective to the inwardness that proper boredom would imply and to the alienation implied by acedia (leaving aside considerations of the expressive quality of these illustrations and the individuality they might imply). First and most obviously, drawing animals would constitute a form of reinserting oneself into that interconnectedness that appears to characterize the medieval relationship to the external world, and thereby raising oneself from an inward-turning individual who, in that inwardness, produces apes, to arriving at religious contemplation by immersing oneself in the animal as a facet of creation. However, the possibility of a bored individual searching within himself and finding apes and ape stories remains alongside the desired result of using the ape to get back to God; in particular, this seems like an inevitable explanation for the snailox, which can’t really be blamed on observational authority or on tradition.

Second, then, the animal presence in these margins is able to correct that inward-turning or isolating impulse by turning to humor, with the social quality of this latter necessarily opposing the internality of boredom and the isolation of acedia. As Janson describes it in Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, humorous illustrations share the relationship to authority that also determines more serious manuscript illustrations. Though I'm unsure as to whether humorous apes imply address of an audience and insertion of the painter back into social norms, or if one could just as easily argue that the humorous apes are meant to entertain the painter in a way that divorces said painter from the social conventions of humor, allowing him to revel in the interiority of boredom. This last problem can be tied to the question of what repetition is contributing here, as it can be linked to both boredom/acedia or to the repetition of traditional forms that would involve inserting oneself into that tradition.

I’m left wondering whether acedia in relationship to visual work could be said to more resemble proper boredom than similar isolation that would occur from copying text alone.

One last note: I did poke around for something interesting on physical sloths, but haven’t found anything that’s not immediately obvious; if the middle ages did have a similar lazy-animal and chose to characterize it differently, does this imply sloth/acedia as something inherently human?

Janson, H. W. Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Warburg Institute, 1952.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Boredom: The literary history of a state of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.


  1. As expected, I do find it difficult to believe people didn't experience the same feeling we label "boredom", even if they had different explanations and responses for it. Is the "bored monk" who draws pretty pictures to break up the monotony of the copying really so different from the monk who does to to reinvest himself in a spiritual project? In both scenarios, the monk is trying to reengage with the project and refocus his energy on the task at hand. Whether the monk perceives this to be spiritually mandated or simply a boon to his productivity and enjoyment, it seems like the process from the feeling of boredom to the act of making art is the same, only the explanation for why this is acceptable is different.

  2. Michael Raposa makes an excellent argument in his Boredom and the Religious Imagination (1999) for the necessity of what we call boredom for the contemplative life. For us, boredom is a sign of lack of interest, unproductive tedium, the sense that something else should be happening that isn't. But for the contemplative, the great enemy is busy-ness, getting too caught up in the things of the world, being overly interested in what is going on around one. Thus the famous story of Bernard of Clairvaux's being so rapt in contemplation that he missed seeing the beauty of the landscape through which he and his companions were riding: the true contemplative is not looking for entertainment. This is the context in which acedia is a sin: acedia is allowing oneself not to be bored by what is going on around one, but rather to be distracted and excited by events or desires. I think, therefore, that Spacks is probably right: in the monastic context, it is not boredom but busy-ness that is the problem. Does this mean that we read the marginalia as efforts to reconnect with contemplation? Possibly. But a bigger problem with the "marginalia were done by bored monks" argument is that most weren't done by monks; the images we looked at in class were all produced in professional workshops by artists paid to put the marginalia in. Yes, we get the occasional marginal notation about how "my hands are cold" or "I'm tired of writing," but the snailox and apes were designs, not doodles. This is why we need to read them for their purpose just like the main illuminations.

    Now that you mention it, I can't think of a medieval example of showing the Seven Deadly Sins as animals, not even in the bestiaries we looked at. Perhaps this is because animals weren't so much associated with sins (something only human beings could do, since sin is a failure of free will and reason) but with instinctual tendencies to which human beings should not allow themselves to succumb.