Book Series Studies and Texts, vol. 225

The Birth of the Author

Pictorial Prefaces in Glossed Books of the Twelfth Century

Jeffrey F. Hamburger

  • Pages: xxv + 301 p.
  • Size:205 x 255 mm
  • Illustrations:150 col.
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2021

  • ISBN: 978-0-88844-225-3
  • Hardback
  • Available


“This is a brilliant study of illuminated manuscripts of authoritative writers which moves beyond specific author-portraits to explore a wider interpretive context, including representations of the writers of commentaries on auctores and indeed imagery which leaves the human form behind. Monastic illuminators constructed perspectives both narrative and allegorical, which did not merely exemplify or parallel, but did much to shape, ideas of authorship then becoming current in literature. Those artists were prominently present at ‘the birth of the author.’

Jeffrey Hamburger establishes the significance of their genre of the ‘pictorial preface’ and explores the ways in which it shaped readers’ perception of texts, and of those to whom their authorship was attributed, with sensitivity and brio. His methodology throughout is intellectually convincing and aesthetically appealing, and his command of the primary images and texts, along with secondary literature in several European languages, impeccable. Elegantly and enthusiastically written, The Birth of the Author is the very model of what interdisciplinary research should be. It demonstrates superbly well that images which functioned as avatars of authorship and authority could, in their own right, serve as vessels of truth and vehicles of complex, self-conscious argumentation.” — Alastair J. Minnis, Yale University

« Superbe ouvrage (…) » (Pascale Bourgain, in Francia-Recensio, 1, 2023)

“In sum, The Birth of the Author is a well-informed, thought-provoking analysis of an interesting field, that balances close reading of particular images and texts with a nuanced assessment of the broader cultural changes to which they bear witness.” (Richard Gameson, in The Medieval Review, 02/09/2023)




Jeffrey F. Hamburger is the Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.


This book argues that the images devised to accompany medieval commentaries, whether on the Bible or on classical texts, made claims to authority, even inspiration, that at times were even more forceful than those made by the texts themselves. Paradoxically, it was in the context of commentaries that modern concep­tions of independent authorship first were forged. 

Looking beyond author portraits and the genre known as the accessus ad auctores, usually seen as the sites of such claims, this study examines pic­torial programmes in copies of Horace’s poetic works, the Glossa ordinaria, the dominant biblical commentary of the first half of the twelfth century, anti-heretical polemics, and Rupert of Deutz’s commentary on the Song of Songs. The inventive images fashioned to accompany these works do not merely illustrate or exemplify pre-existing understandings of authorship; rather, they help to shape them at the very moment at which a particular historically situated set of ideas about authorship was itself coming into being.

Pictorial prefaces of the twelfth century represent commentaries of their own that work both in concert with the commentaries to which they are attached but also, at times, in ways that go beyond anything that the commentator himself authored or authorized. In this way, they participate in a broader trend in the High Middle Ages to cham­pion the ability of images to articulate and elabo­rate in the manner of rhetorical persuasion com­plex arguments regarding critical matters of faith.