Word &amp; Image<br /> A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry<br /> <br /> ISSN: 0266-6286 (Print) 1943-2178 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.



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Word & Image
A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry

ISSN: 0266-6286 (Print) 1943-2178 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.


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A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry

ISSN: 0266-6286 (Print) 1943-2178 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.

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Word & Image<br />
A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry<br />
<br />
ISSN: 0266-6286 (Print) 1943-2178 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.

Word & Image
A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry

ISSN: 0266-6286 (Print) 1943-2178 (Online) Journal homepage:

Reception and interference: reading Jean Molinet's
Adrian Armstrong
To cite this article: Adrian Armstrong (2007) Reception and interference: reading Jean Molinet's
rebus-poems, Word & Image, 23:3, 350-361, DOI: 10.1080/02666286.2007.10435790
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Published online: 01 Jun 2012.

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Reception and interference:
reading Jean Molinet's

Northern French culture in the late Middle Ages is marked not only by a
proliferation of visual images, but also by the knowledge which these images
convey, velY often in the form of figurative discourse. Traditional coded or
symbolic visual fornls include heraldly, where tinctures and charges often
accumulate particular connotations, and typological stained-glass windows,
which establish relationships between episodes from the Old and New
Testaments. In the fourteenth ann fifteenth centuries, further traditions
develop which endow images with second-order meanings: the frequent use
of allegorical tablealLx at court and municipal festivities, the profusion of
illustrated didactic literature in which allegory is a dominant mode of
expression. I The question of how viewers make sense of such images - clearly
a crucial issue for the study not only of visual culture, but also of the
transmission of knowledge, in the period - is particularly complex when the
images are accompanied by texts. This study seeks to illuminate the epistemic
and interpretive challenges posed by the combination of text and symbolic
image, by analysing a small but fascinating corpus: the rebus-poems of the
major Burgundian poet and chronicler Jean Molinet (I435-I507).2
A rebus-poem is typically a short poem whose text has been partly or
wholly replaced by images, which must be converted back into phonemes
for the poem to make sense. David Scott has aptly characterized the
interpretation of the rebus as a combination of linear and spatial reading,
whereby 'the identification and correct pronunciation of the word for the
object that the image designates provides the element needed by the word or
phrase to complete its overall meaning'.3 While the pictorial component of
these texts is their must immediately striking feature, their formal qualities as
poetry must not be disregarded. In many instances --'- including Molinet's
work, as will become clear below - the images which replace words and
phrases are concentrated at the places which most clearly mark the text as
verse: at the rhymes, or in line-initial position. If images cannot be easily
identified, markers of verse become still more important: readers must
consider the compatibility with rhyme and metre of the different possible
solutions. As a result of these formal characteristics, rebus-poems solicit an
audience's knowledge in highly distinctive ways. Through visual as well as
linguistic techniques, they encourage readers actively to select elements from
their existing repertoire of knowledge. Indeed, the very process of selection
makes this repertoire visible, calling to the reader's mind a kind of inner
encyclopedia which normally remains unconscious. The rebus-poem, then,
establishes a particular relationship between knowledge and meaning: it relies on
35 0

I - On late medieval illustrated didactic
literature, see Alison Saunders, thr Sixteenth~
Century French Emblem Book: A Decoraliue and
Ustfol Genre (Geneva: Droz, 1988), pp. 2g-..3.
.Michel Pastoureau has devoted numerous
studies to the COIlllOlativc rule of heraldry,
including L 'Hemline ct Ie sinople: etudes d'IzJraldi~
que mediival. (Paris: Le Leopard d'Or, 1982).
Royal entries and their allegorical elements
are examined in Bernard Guenee and
Fran~oise Lehou:x, Les Entrks r~vales fimlfaises
cle 1328 a1515 (Paris: Editions du CNRS,
1968); more generally, the cultural impor~
tance of sym bolic images is demonstrated by
Johan Huizinga, 77ll Waning of the Middk Ages:
a sludy r!l the jimns of lift, thought and art in Frallce
and tlze Netherlands in the J/' and 15'" centuries, tr.
Frederik Hopman (London: Arnold, 192+).
Madeline H. Caviness, Slai.ned~(;la.Is Windows
(Turnhou!: Brepols, 1996), PP.7g-80, notes
semiotic studies of windows.

2 - Jean Devaux, Jean Afo/i1let, indiciai"
bOll1guZl;IWIl (Paris: Champion, 1996), exam~
ines Moline!'s prolific output. The present
article contributes to a larger research
project, based in the Universities of
Cambridge and Manchester. This project,
'Poetic Knowledge in Late Medieval
France', is supported by the Arts and
Humanities Research Council (AHRC),
which has also funded a period of research
leave to enable me to complete a series of
articles on knowledge in Moline!'s poetry. I
thank colleagues who attended the confer~
ences 'Seeing Things: Vision, Perception,
Interpretation' (Cambridge, 2000) and 'Les
OisealiX de la n'alite it l'imaginaire' (Lyon,
2005) for their comments on versions of this
study presented on those occasions.
3 - David Scott, 'The poetics of the rebus:
word, image and the dyoarnics of reading in
the poster of the 1920S and 193os', ~I'ord &
Image, 13 (1997), 270 .78. While Scott's study
concerns a different medium and cultural
context, it identifies processes of dynamic,
repeated reading broadly similar to those I
outline below.

WORD & U ...1AGE. VOL.

23. N0.3.


+- See Julia Kristeva,


Ell1lf.l(J)TlK: RedlrrdlCl

st;manu{lIj"(' (Paris: Seuil, 1978: fint edition

Iy1l9), pp. ~ 19-:28; ead., R/lIollllioll du langagc puch·quc

(Paris: Seuil, 1985: first edition 197"t), p. 207.

its audience's knowledge, and mobilizes this knowledge selectively to
produce meaning.
This relationship might usefully be considered in the terms originally
formulated by Julia Kristeva to distinguish between two dimensions of a
linguistic text: the phenotext and the genotext. The phcnotext is, in simple
terms, the words on the page: a symbolic structure, which communicates
information through linguistic and cultural codes. For Kristeva, the phenotext
is merely the tip of the iceberg of tf'xtuality: helow thf' waterline is the genotext,
the non-linguistic processes which produce signification. The plurality of
signiliers engendered in the genotext is edited into a coherent fonnulation in
the phenotext; on this basis, Krigteva characterizes the phenotext as surface,
and the genotext as volume.-! Lifted out of its psychoanalytic context and
reapplied to the rebus-poem, the term 'genotext' encapsulates the sum of
knowledge mobilized by the text-image combinations in any given poem.
Readers mobilize some of this knowledge to produce a coherent meaning, a
'phenotext', and ultimately discard the rest.
Hence the rebus-poem raises important questions, germane to any
hermeneutics of the illustrated text. How is genotext converted into
phenotext, knowledge into meaning? How, in particular, do iconographic
codes function in this interpretive process? My aim, therefore, is twofold. On
the one hand, I establish the epistemic principles of the rebus-poem in the
work of Molinet, by examining the ways in which they do not so much
convey new knowledge as appeal to different types of knowledge which
readers already possess. On the other, I demonstrate that the interpretation
of rebus-poems is often problematized: visual codes tend to clash, or to
produce supplementary, competing meanings (genotext) which resist
integration into a coherent reading (phenotext). In the face of such
resistance, the models of reading commonly used in analysing text-image
interaction reveal their limitations.
To exemplifY the issues outlined above, I devote the first part of this study
to considering a particularly elaborate rebus-poem, and the ways in which it
reveals the limitations of standard interpretive models. My example is an
early six.teenth-centUlY manuscript version of Molinet's Ung jJresent foit Ii
l'empereur (figure I), a laudatory address to the Holy Roman Emperor,
Frederick III (1415-93). Like Molinet's other rebus-poems, this was
transmitted alongside his more mainstream political and didactic works in

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Corrigé : Word &amp; Image<br />
A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry<br />
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