Book Review: The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders (Dockray-Miller)—Review by Stephanie Grace Petinos

Book review: Mary Dockray-Miller. The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders. Surrey, England & Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2015. ix + 146 pp; color plates. $104.95. ISBN: 978-1-4094-6835-6.

In her monograph The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders, Mary Dockray-Miller takes a fresh approach to this traditional biography by constructing a “patronage biography”—a “semi-narrative version of Judith’s life told largely through analysis of the works of art she commissioned and the historical documents describing those works” (2). Through these works of art, with particular emphasis on Judith’s four personal Gospel books, Dockray-Miller does more than simply trace the historical movements of her titular subject; her analysis “ultimately shows that Judith consciously and successfully deployed artistic patronage as a cultural strategy in her political and marital maneuvers in the eleventh-century European political theater” (2).

Dockray-Miller employs the groundbreaking essay by Mary Frances Smith, Robin Fleming, and Patricia Halpini[1] as a springboard to situate Judith (c. 1032-1094) within a tradition of secular support for the church by the late Anglo-Saxon aristocracy through gifts rather than land, challenging the oft-held notion that piety would not be expressed through gifts to the church. She postulates that Judith is rather typical in her expressions of piety, arguing that “the narrative of her life thus informs our understanding of the ways that female middle-tier aristocrats could work to raise their own status and that of their husbands and children” (2).

The book is divided into five chapters that proceed chronologically, tracing Judith’s life and movements from the time before her first marriage, through her death, and even into the afterlife through her continued celebrity at Weingarten Abbey. The final chapter is followed by an epilogue and three appendices in which the author translates the most pertinent historical records related to Judith’s patronage activities into modern English: Chapters 6 and 7 of the Vita Oswini; “Grants and Stipulations of Welf and Judith to Weingarten Abbey,” which includes portions of two different texts that were added into the Fulda Gospel book in the twelfth century (111-112); and “Texts Related to the Weingarten Relic of the Holy Blood,” including De Inventione Sanguinis Christi, De Translatione Sanguinis Christi, and Ea Tempestate (115-118).[2] It also includes several color plates that show the surviving covers and several illustrated details of Judith’s Gospel books.[3]

The introduction is divided into two parts. The first section addresses the scant scholarship concerning Judith with respect to both primary and secondary sources. Dockray-Miller’s study relies primarily on four extant manuscripts as well as a variety of historical and hagiographical materials from England, Scandinavia, Normandy and Germany. Though Judith’s presence is often marginal, she is, nevertheless, present or directly affected by the events described. The second section gives an account of Judith’s life before her first marriage; the events at this point in Judith’s life are largely speculative, but the author presents a detailed historical backdrop of the familial, political, social and cultural milieu in which Judith was born and raised. The author also provides a useful genealogical tree to demonstrate how Judith was directly related to the most powerful rulers of her day, both in England and on the continent.

The first chapter focuses on Judith’s life in England (1055-1065) during her first marriage to Tostig, a member of the powerful Godwinson family. Her tenure as Lady of Northumbria marks the beginning of Judith’s patronage activities: her first major documented donation is to Durham Cathedral, which sets the stage for her subsequent patronage activity. Judith’s donation is remembered as ostentatious, especially by Symeon of Durham in his work Libellus de Exordio, but it established her relationship with a major power base connected to an important local saint, implying that Judith understood “the transactional relationship between devotion and donation” (15). Dockray-Miller compares this initial donation with the objects commissioned upon Judith and Tostig’s homecoming from their 1061 pilgrimage to Rome; she determines that Judith returned home with an updated sense of devotional fashions in church and reliquary ornamentation based on those she had encountered during her voyage (23).

Rather than moving forward chronologically, the second chapter is dedicated entirely to Judith’s most famous commission, the four Gospel books. These books are notable because “we have no other “set” of personally commissioned books from the period, whether for a man or a woman,” and, moreover, “Judith’s books now stand alone as the stellar examples of secular female patronage in late Anglo-Saxon England” (29). Dockray-Miller grounds this chapter in Jane Rosenthal and Patrick McGurcks’s in-depth study of the Gospel books,[4] adding significant information through a comparative approach. She provides a useful table that compares all four books with respect to scribal involvement, the specific contents and the artists, concluding that the main scribe who worked on all four books knew Judith well. After the general survey of the books, the chapter is divided into three sections. First, she explores the dating and place of production, determining that these books were most likely all produced in the 1060s in Peterborough. Next, she analyzes the illustrations of the Evangelists and their symbols, concentrating on the three books completed in England. She suggests that the artists either worked together on these books or were at least aware of the others’ productions. The final section looks at the Zoo-Anthropomorphs, particularly in the Monte Cassino manuscript—probably her private devotional manual—which Dockray-Miller claims are directly influenced by contemporary Gospels and religious objects that Judith would have seen on her pilgrimage; specifically, the early eleventh-century Trinity Gospels and the figures on the Brussels Cross. These books announce Judith’s wealth, prestige and piety. Additionally, they are emulations of royal commissions and, as such, “aspirational, indicative of Judith’s desires to move into the highest level of aristocratic culture and society” (42).

The third chapter focuses on the frontispiece portraits of the fourth Gospel book, called the Fulda Book, which were completed while she and Tostig, having been deposed from England in 1065, took refuge in Flanders at her half-brother’s (Baldwin V, c. 1012-1067) court. The illustrations and portraits, completed by a Flemish artist, confirm the move from England to Flanders. The decorative elements place this object within Judith’s new environment, denoting her awareness of contemporary fashion, fabric and manuscript trends while revealing her political aspirations. Dockray-Miller asserts that the choice to complete this expensive book is a calculated one, forming part of Judith’s strategy to maintain her position as a pious and cultured woman in her new community, despite past political events. The exact date of completion is unknown; if it is completed after Tostig’s death, it also declares Judith’s intention to continue her activity in the secular world rather than enter a religious house as a widow. Judith appears alone with Christ on the frontispiece portrait, highlighting the individualistic nature of this book, declaring her personal property and wealth. Dockray-Miller suggests that completing this luxurious book presents Judith as an attractive marriage partner and speaks to her ambitions to improve her status in aristocratic society.

Chapter four moves from Flanders to Germany, exploring Judith’s patronage activities during her second marriage to Welf IV of Bavaria (d. 1101) from 1070 to her death in 1094. In this setting Judith becomes a duchess, but is commonly referred to as “Lady of Ravensburg,” the power base that her husband retained even after losing his ducal title. While Judith is largely absent from the historical records during the 1070s—due to the danger of traveling during this time of political instability in Germany, in addition to her pregnancies in the early years of this decade—Dockray-Miller convincingly argues that Judith was present at the meeting between the Holy Roman Emperor and the German dukes in 1072, where Henry IV’s mother, Agnes, mediated a peace treaty. She posits that at this meeting Judith gave Agnes her personal devotional manual, which Agnes eventually donated to Monte Cassino. Dockray-Miller notes the significance of this gift: “A striking act of cultural transmission between aristocratic women, Judith’s gift underscored the women’s connections through religious faith, luxury, display, aesthetic preference, and political affinity; it publicly affirmed a political and spiritual bond between the Welfs and the Empress” (77). The latter part of this chapter examines Judith’s and her husband’s patronage of Weingarten and Rottenbuch Abbey, whose founding is attributed to them. The historical texts from these abbeys record the various land and treasure gifts bestowed by Judith and Welf, which “proclaimed their stability, piety, and wealth in a period when the Welfs’ status was actually unclear, as Welf worked to increase his power and status with shifting alliances in the Saxon Wars and the Investiture Controversy.” (85). It is to Weingarten Abbey that Judith bequeathed her treasures, brought from England, to Flanders, to Germany, punctuating her life with a final act of generous patronage to confirm her wealth, piety and prestige in the world.

The final chapter discusses the most famous relic that Judith allegedly bequeathed to Weingarten Abbey: the relic of the Holy Blood. The author analyzes the validity of the sources to determine that the monks most likely fabricated the events to promote their house and the cult of the Holy Blood, which did not gain popularity until a century after Judith’s death. The fact that the texts ascribe this highly coveted relic to Judith while trying to force it into a masculine genealogy is evidence of Judith’s impressive and vast patronage gifts; her reputation for piety and generosity lent a necessary layer of verisimilitude to the fabricated genealogy of the relic. Dockray-Miller concludes that, forged or not, the texts position Judith as a leading secular patron of the church and confirm her success in establishing her reputation through these patronage activities.

The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders is an important contribution to Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It includes a wealth of sources, both primary and secondary. Each page is replete with informative footnotes, while the bibliography is exhaustive; an impressive feat considering the scant evidence about the central figure. It will be of particular interest to medievalists and art historians, though students of all historical periods will appreciate the subject matter. The interdisciplinary approach successfully crosses traditional borders to present a unique kind of biography that informs about a specific woman, while inviting new ways of thinking about secular women’s activity in late Anglo-Saxon England and on the continent.

Stephanie Grace Petinos

Stephanie Grace Petinos is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French with a certificate in Medieval Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation focuses on a selection of secular texts from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries in order to uncover notions of holiness that challenge or transform the Church teaching and norms. She argues that these texts construct alternative paths to holiness that permit lay persons access into the spiritual realm without betraying temporal values.

[1] Mary Frances Smith, Robin Fleming, and Patricia Halpin, “Court and Piety in Late Anglo-Saxon England,” The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001): 569-602.

[2]The first two of these texts, ‘The Finding of the Blood of Christ’ and ‘The Transfer of the Blood of Christ’ discuss the Relic of the Holy Blood. The third, ‘At that time’, whose title derives from the first few words of the text, discusses Welf, Judith and their family as reputable figures and generous patrons.

[3] The two Gospel books housed at the Pierpont Morgan library (MS M. 708 and MS M. 709) can be viewed online through the library’s website:

[4] Patrick McGurk and Jane Rosenthal, “The Anglo-Saxon Gospel Books of Judith, Countess of Flanders: Their Text, Make-Up and Function,” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1994): 251-308.


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