A German scholar has listed as many as 385 Medieval books which carry 'mirror' titles: The Mirour of Alkemy, Miroir de l'Ame, Spieghel Historiael, Speculum Ecclesiae, and so on. If titles such as these have since gone out of fashion, it is perhaps because readers no longer expect books simply to 'reflect' reality. Another reason may be that mirrors themselves are no longer convex, as they usually were until the 17th century, so that the word has ceased to carry the attractive promise of a larger reality compressed into a small and manageable compass. One of the most widely read of all Medieval 'mirrors' was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis or 'Mirror of Man's Salvation', which offered its readers nothing less than the whole history of the redemption in little. Its method is to treat each main episode in the life of Christ along with three other episodes, most of them from the Old Testament, which 'prefigure' it. All four episodes, in each case, are illustrated by a picture. Thus the picture of Lamech being beaten by his two wives illustrates one of three Old Testament prefigurations of the flagellation of Christ. The original Latin Speculum was translated into several vernaculars, including English; and it is the English version, made about the year 1400, that is edited in the handsome book under review here. Unfortunately, the sole surviving manuscript of the Middle English version has no illustrations, so the editor has had to look elsewhere for these. She accordingly reproduces woodcuts (168 of them) from a 15th-century print of the German version, each so far as possible opposite the relevant section of the English text. The result, as Dr Henry confesses, is a bibliographical bastard: but it is hard to see what else she could have done. For the Speculum, like its equally popular predecessor the Biblia Pauperum or 'Poor Men's Bible', is essentially a picture-book, albeit with an extensive text, and it is as such that it is presented here.
LRB 21 May 1987 | PDF Download