Michael Bath. Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture. London and New York: Longman, 1994. xvi+311pp and 25 plates. ISBN 0 582 061 962.
William Barker
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Barker, William. "Review of Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 7.1-11<URL:

  1. Five years have now passed since the appearance of this fine book, and the academic reviewing system is working more slowly than usual. The essay you are now reading appears after the book has disappeared from many booksellers' catalogues. You can still order copies from blackwell.co.uk, but the work is not even listed in barnesandnoble.com. Amazon.com lists the paperback, now out for many years, as "still to be published." This never was an easy book to get hold of. For those who think that emblems and emblem lore are inherently fascinating subjects and must demand a fairly wide audience, the relative non-availability of this book is instructive, and depressing.

  2. Speaking Pictures is a sophisticated and theoretically grounded study of the emblem book by an outstanding authority who has been writing about emblems for many years. Though the emphasis is on England, the author is very careful to look at many European emblem books, rightly arguing that these works, less English literary writings as such, provide meaningful context. It took a long time for something resembling a native English tradition of emblem-writing to emerge, and even in the eighteenth century, when the emblem genre began its decline, most English writers were still looking to the continent for ideas. Bath's argument, returned to throughout, is that an English emblem book must be read against the contemporary works in Latin, French, Italian, and German.

  3. Bath begins with a broad sweep of the subject, with "theories and contexts." He then moves to what was called the mundus significans -- the visual and linguistic signifying matter of hieroglyphics, symbols, adages, fables, similes, so well known in the Renaissance. No educated individual was ignorant of the scheme of relations that ordered this material, which found its place in science as well as literature. Having laid his groundwork, Bath proceeds through discussion of the texts of Geffrey Whitney, Henry Peacham, George Wither, Francis Quarles, and Henry Hawkins, with many side glances to the theorists of the device, biblical exegetes, and emblem books for children. The author-by-author method seems entirely appropriate for England, because unlike the continent, here there is less a "tradition" than a series of individual works which show strong connections with different stages of an emblematic tradition evolving more powerfully elsewhere. Indeed, the earliest full-blown emblem collections -- the manuscript "Two Hundred Poosees" of Thomas Palmer and the Choice of Emblemes by Geffrey Whitney are direct translations and imitations of Alciato and other emblem writers. These early texts in English therefore insist on contextual analysis: "Source studies are not mere philological pedantry in studying emblems, but an inescapable condition for establishing meaning" (78). The works are constantly referential by nature. Yet the English imitations are not subsidiary works, for they often offer fresh interpretations of the emblematic themes, with new context and meaning. Because so much of the interpretation hinges on referential detail, Bath rightly stresses the importance of establishing a method for reading, rather than attempting to give many close readings himself.

  4. Overall, this presentation of method is of very high quality. He shows how the smallest details of transmission can affect an emblem. For instance, one emblem in Palmer illustrates the motto "Youth must take pains for age" and shows an image of a man driving a cart with an old horse in the back, a reference to Alexander's care for his aged horse Bucephalus. Bath shows how Palmer takes the image from Barthélemy Aneau's Picta Poesis, which is in turn based on a passage in Erasmus which is in turn a mistranslation of Plutarch. Erasmus mistakenly wrote in his Parabolae that Alexander had Bucephalus carried by other horses (hence the horse in the cart in Palmer), whereas Plutarch (Moralia 793E) actually claimed that Alexander rode other horses to save his Bucephalus from labour until the time of battle came. The error allows for a strange moralization of the subject.

  5. Such referentiality, often made out of obscure classical references, is basic to a reading of the emblem. The only way the modern reader can approach these texts is with full commentary. Unfortunately, few emblem books in English have this kind of precise commentary, which in the Renaissance naturally appended itself to many of the books (the most extreme example is the swollen text of Alciato published in Padua in 1621). Most modern scholarship has been obsessed with listing emblem books and categorizing the motifs. This useful work provides one kind of context. But more necessary now, if the books are to be read well, is decent commentary by scholars who can account for the many and subtle links with classical texts that are found in many emblem books, even those in English. John Manning's edition of Thomas Palmer is the way to go. Bath is alert to this problem.

  6. Though Bath has necessarily limited space I was interested to see a number of omissions in his discussion. The first, and a rather surprising one, was the absence of any mention of the manuscript of Whitney's Choice of Emblemes. Harvard MS Typ 14 is a beautifully laid-out presentation copy for Leicester, in a lovely blue ink. There are no marginal notes. Clearly there were two audiences for the work, an individual recipient interested in the poems and pictures, and a public interested in Whitney's display of learning in the marginal notes, so some recognition of the manuscript seems to be important for "The Reception of Whitney's Emblemes" (85ff.). Mason Tung's article of 1976 discussing the manuscript and printed text is, however, listed in the bibliography. Certainly Bath mentions many other manuscript sources (including the fascinating work of Thomas Fella at the Folger Library MS V.a.311), and is otherwise attentive to the importance of the manuscript as a form of publication, so the oversight seems curious.

  7. One name I expected to encounter in this discussion of English emblems was Stephen Bateman. His A Christall Glasse of Christian Reformation: Wherein the Godly Maye Beholde the Coloured Abuses Used in this Our Present Tyme (1569) is not an emblem book as such, though one still hears some authorities in literary studies claim this to be the first English emblem book -- a forgivable exaggeration. A significant part of Bateman's book is a series of images with moral interpretations, a relationship between text and image that seems mediated by the emblem method as much as by Protestant biblical commentary. I would have liked to read Bath's opinion of this work.

  8. Another interesting text overlooked is Abraham Fraunce's Amintas Dale (1589), a remarkable symbolic interpretation of tales in Ovid. This work fits nicely with the two others on symbolism, the printed Insignium ... explicatio of 1588 and the manuscript "Symbolicae philosophiae liber quartus" (in a very good edition by John Manning and translated by Estelle Haan), both of which are introduced on pages 142-8. Fraunce, as Bath rightly points out, is a fascinating figure who worked at the intersection of emblematics, rhetoric, and logic. His mythological work in Amintas Dale is part of the same project, for, like many continental writers, his writings are strongly interrelated. The many-layered readings of the ancient myths will be fascinating to anyone interested in the emblematics of Renaissance England.

  9. There are a few typos and other errors here and there. On p. 81, a reference to Erasmus' Adagia, "Chiliad 61, Centuria 8" is an impossibility (references to Codrus appear at I vi 76, II viii 33, IV iii 21 in standard editions) -- the error is Whitney's but it is carried forward by Bath, who might have helped us figure out how this error came to pass. P. 144, 12 up "France" should read "Fraunce." Fraunce's manuscript "Symbolicae philosphiae liber quartus" is curiously listed on page 291 as "Bodleian Library, Sloane 3794"; Sloane mss are in the British Library. The bibliography could have provided information about modern reprints of the old texts -- the material is difficult to come by, and readers, especially those being introduced to the field, need help finding texts and translations.

  10. Speaking Pictures is a tightly presented, well organized, and fascinating account of one of the principal literary genres of the Renaissance. This work more than replaces Rosemary Freeman's English Emblem Books, since 1948 the one book that dominated the discussion. Bath has surveyed the whole field with remarkable competence, and has used contemporary semiotics to good effect. The theory is present and informs the discussion, yet does not overwhelm it. Bath can give good close readings, but mostly he concentrates on contexts and the problem of referentiality.

  11. As an introduction, this really is a superior piece of work. It opens up in a full and considered way a subject about which many readers of Renaissance literature have a passing knowledge and about which many superficial claims are made. This book is now one of the essential background texts for the reading of English Renaissance art and literature.

Works Cited


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© 1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).