Catherine Fletcher recently posted a comment on this blog on how book covers sell history. As she pointed out, what you should usually judge by its cover isn’t the book, it’s the publisher’s marketing team. But my publishers let me choose what went on the front of my new book, which I’m pleased to say is out today, so the cover reflects some of the book’s central themes. Because the connections are a bit oblique, and because I wasn’t able to explain the picture’s rationale in the book itself (I decided on the cover only after the text was finished), I thought I’d open our ‘new book’ blog strand by explaining my choice here. You can see part of the cover above (and the full cover here).
The image comes from a manuscript now housed in the French national library in Paris under the shelfmark lat. 9448. Sometimes known as the Prüm Troper (a troper is a book containing tropes, in the sense of musical sequences), it’s a beautiful parchment book that was made shortly before the year 1000 at the monastery of Prüm, in the hilly region of the Ardennes, near where France, Germany and Belgium all meet. You can leaf through the manuscript for yourself, since the Bibliothèque Nationale has marvellously made it publicly available in digital form).
This particular picture from the manuscript depicts an event from the Gospel of John in the New Testament, known as the Wedding of Cana (John 2, 1-11). Jesus and his mother were at a marriage feast, when unexpectedly the hosts ran out of wine. On his mother’s request, Jesus transformed containers full of water into wine: and not just any old plonk, either, as impressed guests noted, but an excellent vintage. The artist portrayed Jesus in the act of blessing the water which a servant is pouring out, while his mother looks on expectantly. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the outcome, everyone is looking quite jolly.
For early medieval Christians, this story (like all the Bible) was rich in significance. According to the influential English scholar Bede, the miracle of turning water into wine symbolised how Jesus changed the worldly law of the Pharisees into spiritual doctrine. It was also invoked in ordeals of boiling water, alongside other instances of divine intervention, as part of prayers that God would ensure an accused man’s hand would not be scalded if he were innocent. As you can see in the original, the artist of the Prüm manuscript associated it with another water ‘miracle’, Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.
For me, though, the image has other resonances. It’s significant partly because it comes from precisely the part of the world that my book is concerned with: lands known at the time as Lotharingia and Champagne, and now divided between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The archives and manuscripts of Prüm, a very important early medieval centre in this region, form a key part of the evidence on which the book is based. The image is also relevant because it comes from the right time: indeed, conveniently enough, the decades before the year 1000 fall approximately in the middle of the book’s period. But what made me choose this specific image as a cover is that it’s a picture of a moment of transformation that involves a whole community.
At the heart of my book is the question of how historians should think about social and political change at the end of the early Middle Ages, when western Europe developed characteristics that for many represent the medieval period proper: the construction of castles, the appearance in our documentation of a class of knights, the fragmentation of jurisdiction often associated with ‘feudalism’. There has been a fierce debate about the nature of this shift, with some historians suggesting that it was radical and sudden – a ‘feudal revolution’, no less – and others countering that change came much more gradually, as Europe blossomed after the year 1000. I suggest that in a sense, both sides of the argument have it wrong, because they both fail to fully integrate the Carolingian age (dominated by the family of Charlemagne) of the eighth and ninth centuries into their interpretations. For me, there was indeed a profound transformation of European society, one that was rooted in the Carolingian period, and that had religious imperatives at its heart. That’s what the book is intended to show, and what the cover image is chosen to evoke.
Most of my readers probably won’t be able to appreciate this evocation, partly because it’s not made explicitly, but chiefly because unless it unexpectedly becomes a best seller, most of them will encounter the book as a hardback in libraries, bereft of its dust jacket. I wrote the book as a piece of research intervening in an academic debate, and as a result, I have to accept that I won’t in all likelihood see it nestling next to Dan Brown’s latest in the airport. But it was still important for me to have a cover that was not only striking and that spoke to the book’s arguments, but that also used contemporary imagery. So much of what makes the early medieval period fascinating is the nature of its sources: sometimes fragmentary, often maddening, but always bewitching. I’d like to convince other medieval historians of the historical case I’m making, of course, and I hope I shall. But I also hope that the richness of the early medieval evidence I rely on to make that case comes across strongly too. If my book gets a few readers interested in sources like the Prüm Troper, then I’ll be absolutely satisfied.
Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. Readers of this blog can enjoy a 20% discount on his book Reframing the Feudal Revolution. Social and political transformation between Marne and Moselle, c.800-1100 (normally £65) by using the discount code 56834 at the Cambridge University Press website within a month of publication.
 Not a great deal has been written about this particular manuscript, but there’s still more than for most medieval manuscripts. As a good starting point, see this (open access) article by Janet Marquardt-Cherry http://www.illinoismedieval.org/ems/EMSpdf/V6/V6Marquardt-Cherry.pdf
Excellent choice, Charles! Best, and certainly most enigmatic, miracle of the New Testament!
Thanks, Julia! Yes, enigmatic: so the exegetes loved it! For instance, the six vessels (as depicted above) represent the six ages of the world before the incarnation (Bede again). Even the fact they were made of stone is meaningful…