rusq: Vol. 52 Issue 2: p. 168
Sources: Icons of the Middle Ages: Rulers, Writers, Rebels, and Saints
Steven R. Edscorn

Library Director, Memphis Theological Seminary, Memphis, Tennessee

This is not a work about iconography. The title can give that impression and the subtitle does not exactly clarify the contents. The word “icon” in the title functions the way it does in contemporary popular culture, in the sense that it might be used to refer to Elvis Presley or Michael Jordan.

In this sense, the word “icon” is entirely appropriate, as the work goes beyond biography to include the long cultural reception history for each of the work’s medieval subjects, including their contemporary “iconic” status. For example, the entry about William Wallace begins with the scant evidence about his life, through Blind Hary’s fifteenth century Wallace, all the way up to cultural responses to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). Indeed, the work contains a few essays about legendary characters whose historical identity and even existence are in question, such as King Arthur and Robin Hood. At the other extreme are subjects such as Joan of Arc, about whom there is a relative wealth of historical evidence.

This difference in scope sets the work apart from works such as Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000). In that encyclopedia, the essay about Joan of Arc covers approximately one two-column page, focusing primarily on the historical Joan of Arc, while Margaret Joan Maddox’s essay about Joan of Arc in Icons of the Middle Ages spans 32 pages, which includes 25 pages of biographical information and 5 pages of cultural reception, ending in a discussion of her continuing cultural influence in characters such as Xena Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Joan of Arcadia.

The depth and length of the essays remains consistent throughout, and in this way, Icons of the Middle Ages seems less like a reference work and more like a coherent, edited work of interesting nonfiction essays. It would not be difficult to imagine a history or popular culture enthusiast reading these two volumes cover to cover, nor would it be difficult to imagine a library patron wanting to take a volume home to examine a single chapter of interest. Indeed, the work would be more at home in a circulating collection or a selective browsing collection than in ready reference. On the other hand, it is accessible enough to function in a reference collection, as a deeper-but-narrower supplement to works such as Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000).

The two, attractive, hard-cover volumes are the size of a standard classroom textbook, and would be easy to carry. They feature a small number of grayscale images from medieval art, usually one per chapter, and there is an extensive index. The covers feature images of King Richard III and Sir Thomas More, which does hint that the work is not, in fact, about iconography.

Icons of the Middle Ages is a worthy acquisition for academic, public, and secondary school libraries. One might want to give some thought as to whether it should be added to the circulating collection or the reference collection.

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