Tabula Picta: Painting and Writing in Medieval Law (Material Texts)

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9780812241860: Tabula Picta: Painting and Writing in Medieval Law (Material Texts)

To whom does a painted tablet—a tabula picta—belong? To the owner of the physical piece of wood on which an image is painted? Or to the person who made the painting on that piece of wood? By extension, one might ask, who is the owner of a text? Is it the person who has written the words, or the individual who possesses the piece of parchment or slab of stone on which those words are inscribed?

In Tabula Picta Marta Madero turns to the extensive glosses and commentaries that medieval jurists dedicated to the above questions when articulating a notion of intellectual and artistic property radically different from our own. The most important goal for these legal thinkers, Madero argues, was to situate things—whatever they might be—within a logical framework that would allow for their description, categorization, and placement within a proper hierarchical order. Only juridical reasoning, they claimed, was capable of sorting out the individual elements that nature or human art had brought together in a single unit; by establishing sets of distinctions and taxonomies worthy of Borges, legal discourse sought to demonstrate that behind the deceptive immediacy of things, lie the concepts and arguments of what one might call the artifices of the concrete.

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About the Author:

Marta Madero is Professor of Medieval History at Universidad Nacional de Gerneral Sarmiento in Argentina.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword, by Roger Chartier (translated by Jerome E. Singerman)
The Things and the Words

Subtle and erudite, Marta Madero's book is a contribution both to the history of the property rights to artistic works and to the history of ideas about material things. The corpus that she so meticulously analyzes is that of the glosses and commentaries that medieval jurists consecrated to the question of tabula picta, a notion inherited from Roman law and the terms of which are seemingly simple: To whom does a painted tablet belong? To the owner of the physical piece of wood on which an image is painted? Or to the person who made the painting on that piece of wood? By extension, the same question could be formulated in regard to writing and the parchment or any other surface on which words had been inscribed.

It is thus possible to read Madero's book in the first instance by placing it in the genealogical longue durée of the definition of intellectual property and its corollary, the construction of the figure or—to use Foucault's formulation—function of the author. Such a reading finds, in the writings of the medieval jurists, the first formulations of a distinction made in the eighteenth century and articulated with particular clarity by Kant between the book as "opus mechanicum," as an object belonging to whoever has acquired it, and the book as discourse addressed to the public and remaining the inalienable property of the author who has written it. In their way, the medieval glossators also address the possible conceptual separation between works, considered in their immaterial and continuing identity, and the multiple forms, whether simultaneous or serial, of their inscription and transmission. Such an understanding of the book will see in the medieval distinction between substantial essence and accidental forms the opposition, dear to practitioners of physical bibliography, between "substantives" and "accidentals" and will recognize, as well, in the primacy given to the painted work over the materiality of the surface on which it is painted something like the concept of the "immaterial thing" framed in the eighteenth century to designate the transcendence of aesthetic or intellectual creations over their material existence. Such a reading of Madero's book is entirely legitimate but may, nevertheless, be misleading.

For in fact, Madero's book introduces us to an intellectual world that is neither ours nor that of the eighteenth century, when the aesthetic and legal concepts that have defined our modern discourse first came together. The danger would be to subsume wrongly and unconsciously the reasoning of the medieval jurists into the categories we have come to accept. For the medievals, the purpose above all was to situate things—whatever they might be—within a logical framework that allowed them to be described, categorized, and placed in a proper hierarchical order. Physical evidence, shared experience, the direct perception of natural or artificial realities are inadequate to this task because they are incapable of deconstructing and placing in proper order the individual elements that nature or human art has brought together into a single unit. Only juridical reasoning, which proceeds by way of establishing distinctions, taxonomies, and hierarchies, is capable of transforming the things before our eyes into manipulable categories that enable us to determine their real identities, properties, and ownership.

Important consequences emerge from this, which oblige us to abandon our habitual way of thinking about things if we are to understand how the authors whom Madero studies actually thought. For them, the painted tablets or sheets of parchment covered with writing are objects that can be comprehended only when one places them in the context of natural phenomena or material productions that pose the same questions about the relation between the parts and the whole, about the modes of uniting elements, or about the hierarchy of the matrix to that which appears upon it. I will leave to the reader the pleasure of discovering both the many subtle distinctions between things factae and infactae, between accessio and specificatio or ferruminatio and adplombatio, as well as the multiplicity of opinions concerning the definition of these categories and the way they are handled in legal arguments. Madero's analytic virtuosity here is astounding, as she guides her reader through a universe of classificatory systems worthy of Borges. In truth, these address a hugely difficult task: that of articulating the essential reality to be decoded beneath visible appearances.

Madero thus takes the distinctions and categories of medieval law no less seriously than Yan Thomas did Roman law or Alain de Libera and Alain Boureau did Scholasticism; and her approach enables us to avoid two pitfalls. The first would be to connect too closely the thought about the things and legal procedural practice. The subjects of juridical argument are fully concrete, to be sure, as they concern financial transactions, the transfer of goods, and property disputes. But the construction of the categories that enabled the jurists to think about things is built upon a foundation of ancient and scholastic philosophy. It is governed neither by the urgency of the judgments nor by contractual relations between patrons and painters or copyists. The contractual matters that engage them take up none of the logic encountered in discussions of the tabula picta and focus, rather, on deadlines to be observed, payments to be made, and the details of the commission, such as the materials to be used, the iconography of the image, the typology of the writing. By focusing on the conceptual architecture of the glosses and commentaries rather than on the legal proceedings and decisions, Madero's approach runs counter to that by which historians, no doubt bored by the formalism of legal studies, have privileged actual judicial proceedings, legal practice, and the adjudication of disputes. She by no means intends to deny the importance of such studies, based as they are on the archival records of law courts. But her purpose here, as in her other published work in French and Spanish, is to recall that in every period—and quite spectacularly so in the Middle Ages—law consists first of all in the conceptual description of acts, things, and people and that it is only upon this abstract description that legal judgments can be based.

A second error would be to think that painting and writing were being considered by medieval jurists in aesthetic or intellectual terms. In the discussions concerning tabula picta, writing is always to be construed in its most material sense. It is inscription, ductus, and copy. It is never understood in the sense of literary composition even if the words écrire and écrivain have been used in French to describe authors as well as scribes since the fourteenth century. If the painting of wooden tablets has a different status, and one that implies the recognition of an original production, it is nevertheless not taken for a work of art. Its value is acknowledged according to the degree to which a rough material is transformed into a new object. The tabula picta as well as the written parchment belongs to the world of material objects, and not to that of aesthetic creation or symbolic representation.

The responses of the glossators to the question of the ownership of painted tablets or written objects varied from one school, period, or opinion to another, and Madero knowledgeably reconstructs the typology and chronology of these differences. She shows that however diverse they were, these responses were necessarily situated within a limited range of theoretical possibilities, defined by the logic of accesio and significatio. The first determines which of two materialities joined in a single object appertains to or incorporates the other, thus establishing the proprietary right. For some jurists, faithful to the Institutiones of Justinian, painting incorporates the wooden tablet, thus granting proprietary rights to the painter, while writing for its part is always subordinate to its matrix, whatever that may be, thus granting proprietary rights to the litterae to the owner of the charta on which they are traced or inscribed. The second logic ties proprietary rights to the creation of a new species, and grants them to whoever has, through a series of connected operations, created something new out of a raw material. Painted tablets could thus be considered by the logic of specificatio, at least when that which was painted on them met the criteria used to define a new species. Writing, on the other hand, was not thought of in these terms until it was assimilated into painting and its value enhanced; at that point, certain glossators came to reconsider writing too as a creative transformation of its matrix. Here again, Madero's finely honed analysis, attentive to the multiple figures who produced the overlapping or the hierarchical ordering of these two logics, offers a fine introduction to the ways of thought of medieval jurists, so alien to the reader of today.

That which has set them at such a distance from us, over and above their own intellectual methods, is doubtless the invention of modes for the mechanical reproduction of texts and images. For the medievals, each tablet or manuscript brought together, in a singular and unique manner, a matrix—of wood or parchment—and a painted image or a written text. This fundamental unity, which is altered with each new painting or each new manuscript copy, grounds the particularities of the arguments they used to define the character—accessory or essential, secondary or primary—of one or the other of the two materials indissolubly and specifically bound together in a single object. Mechanical reproduction shifts the terms of the argument, because it allows for the dissemination of the "same" text or the "same" image through the multiple physical objects—printed copies or engraved plates—that serve as their medium. The question of ownership thus shifts from the primacy of one element over another in a single object to the criteria by which one can recognize, in the multiplicity of the material forms of its inscription, a single "work," and thus a single creative inspiration—which now stands as the basis for proprietary rights.

It is because Marta Madero so lucidly and forcefully delineates this profound discontinuity that her book is much more than a scholarly and original study of one of the questions that pitted medieval jurists against one another by means of citations of authority, erudite glosses, and conceptual distinctions. Tabula Picta demonstrates, in effect, that the category of the materiality of the text—the unifying concern of the series in which her book now appears—is subject to historical variations that depend not only on the availability of particular techniques or materials. Perhaps even more, it is subject to the variable and plural categories that enable us, in different registers of experience and practice, to provide names, order, and attributions to things.

* * * * *

Introduction

Who is the owner of a painting? He who painted the figures or he who owns the wood tablet on which the painter applied colors? Who is the owner of a written object? He who owns the parchment or he who wrote the text? From the twelfth century and until the end of the Middle Ages, jurists have debated these issues which seem very odd to us. Over the centuries, they have accumulated arguments and garnered references to support one position or the other. And, after them, legal historians have focused on this issue, traditionally known as that of the tabula picta.

Why revisit this classical issue today, in a book that would like to be more than a study in legal history? There are two reasons. The first relates to the long history of property rights over creative works, the landmarks of which should be kept in mind: in the last centuries of the Middle Ages, the emergence of the "book" in its modern form, which gathers the work (or works) of a single author in a single object, thus breaking away from the model of the miscellany, dominant from the seventh century on, which gathered texts very different in genre and nature into a single codex; at the beginning of the modern era, the assigning of the texts to their authors for purposes of condemnation and prohibition, which Michel Foucault termed the penal appropriation of the discourse; in the eighteenth century, the appearance, within guild rules in England or royal privilege in France, of the concepts of copyright and literary property.

Revisiting the texts of ancient jurists means extending the genealogy upstream, with a focus on the rationales that allowed the transfer of property rights from the ownership of the material (parchment or wood tablet) to the work it supports, a written text or a painted work. Even if, in the Middle Ages, he who writes the text rarely is the author of the work—as the distinction between the work of the copyist and the invention of the author (as we understand it today) is profound—the legal texts nonetheless elaborate a first distinction between the materiality of the object and the intrinsic nature of aesthetic or intellectual productions.

The second reason for our inquiry goes beyond the sole issue of the tabula picta. In effect, the subtle disputes of medieval jurists on this issue open up a universe of strange and surprising thoughts. Their discourse is about concrete, material things and articulates categories and dichotomies built according to a very specific technical logic. Humanist and modern authors have often mocked those rationales, which link premises and consequences at a radical distance from common experience. However, in doing so, they reveal their imperfect knowledge. Indeed, the medieval gloss is in no way arbitrary or incoherent. It aims at formulating the principles necessary to characterize and classify things, and thus to subject them to legal operations. In order to allow sales or purchases, enjoyment of usufruct, transmission to heirs or legatees of rights over land, water, plants, buildings, and all kinds of manufactured objects, those things had to be envisaged in terms of resemblance or difference, wholes or parts, junctions and disjunctions. Evidence of the senses is insufficient to ground rights. Against their deceptive immediacy, legal discourse builds up the concepts and arguments of what one might call the artifice of the concrete. It permits the allocation of enjoyment rights over parts of a thing which, nonetheless, cannot be dismembered, and thus protects someone's property rights over the beam of a house or the arm of another's statue; or separates the purple from the garment, the belly from the body of a pregnant woman, roots from the totality of the tree, pure wheat from mixed grains, and painting from its support. The study of a specific example of the workings of these categories—here, the debate over the ownership of painted or written objects—gives access to the thought processes typical of ...

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Descrizione libro University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2009. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. To whom does a painted tablet-a tabula picta-belong? To the owner of the physical piece of wood on which an image is painted? Or to the person who made the painting on that piece of wood? By extension, one might ask, who is the owner of a text? Is it the person who has written the words, or the individual who possesses the piece of parchment or slab of stone on which those words are inscribed?In Tabula Picta Marta Madero turns to the extensive glosses and commentaries that medieval jurists dedicated to the above questions when articulating a notion of intellectual and artistic property radically different from our own. The most important goal for these legal thinkers, Madero argues, was to situate things-whatever they might be-within a logical framework that would allow for their description, categorization, and placement within a proper hierarchical order. Only juridical reasoning, they claimed, was capable of sorting out the individual elements that nature or human art had brought together in a single unit; by establishing sets of distinctions and taxonomies worthy of Borges, legal discourse sought to demonstrate that behind the deceptive immediacy of things, lie the concepts and arguments of what one might call the artifices of the concrete. Codice libro della libreria AAJ9780812241860

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Descrizione libro University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2009. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. To whom does a painted tablet-a tabula picta-belong? To the owner of the physical piece of wood on which an image is painted? Or to the person who made the painting on that piece of wood? By extension, one might ask, who is the owner of a text? Is it the person who has written the words, or the individual who possesses the piece of parchment or slab of stone on which those words are inscribed? In Tabula Picta Marta Madero turns to the extensive glosses and commentaries that medieval jurists dedicated to the above questions when articulating a notion of intellectual and artistic property radically different from our own. The most important goal for these legal thinkers, Madero argues, was to situate things-whatever they might be-within a logical framework that would allow for their description, categorization, and placement within a proper hierarchical order. Only juridical reasoning, they claimed, was capable of sorting out the individual elements that nature or human art had brought together in a single unit; by establishing sets of distinctions and taxonomies worthy of Borges, legal discourse sought to demonstrate that behind the deceptive immediacy of things, lie the concepts and arguments of what one might call the artifices of the concrete. Codice libro della libreria AAJ9780812241860

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