Tuesday, 22 June 2021

History Book Review: Bread, Wine and Money: the Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral by Jane Welch Williams

Pros: very detailed analysis, excellent overview of the history required to understand the author’s thesis, lots of images

Cons: some images are of poor quality, some ideas/terms could have used a bit more explanation

It’s become conventional knowledge that the trade windows at Chartres and other cathedrals were donated by members of the trade guilds that are depicted. Williams has done a thorough job in this book, published in 1993, of refuting that claim.

The book is separated into 5 chapters, with an additional introduction and epilogue. There are 4 colour plates and 151 black and white plates. There are extensive notes and a bibliography. Chapter 1 briefly examines the literature that’s been written about Chartres cathedral with regards to its stained glass (dating and program), specifically focusing on interpretations regarding the trade windows. Chapter 2 goes over the historical circumstances in Chartres around the time the cathedral was built. It details the tensions between the chapter, the bishop, the count and the townspeople (including a riot in 1210). Chapters 3-5 are analyses of windows dealing with bread, wine, and money changers in that order. They each go over what other historians have said about the windows, the historical context of those trades (bakers, tavern keepers, and money-changers) then analyzes each window that shows those trades comparing them to others within the cathedral, to those from other cathedrals, and ancient Roman works.

Williams points out very quickly that there are few if any contemporary records supporting the idea the trade windows were guild gifts. Her very thorough examination of the interrelationships of power, and how bread, wine & money (that is the cash economy as well as monetary gifts to the cathedral) were incorporated into liturgical practice within the cathedral as well as the liturgical year (in terms of taxes and ‘gifts’). The book also examined how practices changed over time (for example, how the Eucharist was given less often to regular people and eulogy bread was passed out instead).

There were a lot of black and white images, including several useful maps and floor plans of the cathedral showing where the various windows were located in the building. Some of the window photos were of poor quality so it was hard to see what the author was describing (though this is probably due as much to the state of the windows at the time the book was made).

I did find that a few terms and ideas could have used a bit more explanation. For example, the author seems to assume that the reader knows that bishops were appointed from outside the Chartres chapter rather than voted on by the canons, which likely added to the antagonism between him and the canons.

I learned a lot about church practices and how various groups in society related to each other. It’s a great reminder that people have always been complex and relationships never easy, especially where power and money are involved.

If you’re interested in the middle ages, medieval art, cathedrals or liturgical practices, this is an interesting book and, I think, proves the point the author is making. It’s given me a lot to think about with regards to how I read church windows.

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