Before They Were Funnies: Pictures and Stories in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

In comics studies, two possible origins are suggested and discussed controversially. On the one hand, Rodolphe Töpffer’s charming pictorial narratives, published in the early 19th century, are suggested as the point of departure for the so-called ‘ninth art’; on the other hand the first publication of strips in the Sunday supplements of American newspapers and in particular Richard Felton Outcault’s introduction of speech bubbles in “Hogan’s Alley”, a.k.a. The Yellow Kid, is hailed as the birth of comics. What the European and American fathers of comics share is that their stories are highly entertaining; we find a mixture of humour and romance in Töpffer, but authors like Wilhelm Busch (Max and Moritz) or Charles H. Ross (Ally Sloper) also addressed human folly and juvenile mischief in their imaginative and often absurd tales, and these features were taken up again in the funnies across the Atlantic.

The history of picture stories before the 19th century is usually summed up rather briefly with focus on some highlights, chiefly the cave paintings of Lascaux, Egyptian and Maya frescoes, the Trajan pillar, the Tapestry of Bayeux, and William Hogarth’s prints, all of which are presented as highly respectable ancestors of the modern comic. But this is only a fraction of the whole story, and in a world in which only a tiny percentage of the population could read and write, pictorial narratives were for a long time almost ubiquitous as one of the most important ways for the transmission of knowledge and information. And even after the introduction of the printing press, when over the following four centuries literacy slowly increased to around 50% of the population, pictures remained a dominant medium, and serious information was frequently distributed and stored in a mixture of text and images.

To recognize the immense importance of such pictorial narratives, it is first necessary to reconstruct the medieval and early modern world view. Knowledge was not yet produced scientifically, i.e. empirically and by induction, but relied on facts and concepts that were authorized by ancient philosophy or scripture. For example, history was always understood within the larger framework of sacred world history as told in the Bible, and this history showed correspondences between the different eras. Characters and events from the Old Testament prefigured those of the Gospels and also foreshadowed historical developments that would take place until the coming of the end of the world as predicted in the Revelations of St. John the Divine. Of particular significance for the population were the churches and sacred spaces with their frescoes, stained glass windows, triptychs, and wood carvings, which offered visual tales and served as mnemonic aids for the attending believers, most of which would not have been able to understand the mass in Latin. The biblical stories narrated in pictures on the walls, altars and windows of medieval churches were considered to be valid historical knowledge: they anticipated more recent events like the crusades which would play a momentous role in the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies and the return of Christ.

Similarly, block books like the Pauper’s Bible presented scripture in pictures – sometimes in black and white but also in colored versions. Contrary to their name, these books were not aimed at an impoverished and uneducated audience – they were far too expensive for such a clientele. Instead, they were produced for those who are ‘poor in spirit’, i.e. the clergy or pious and prosperous lay people. They flourished over centuries and were so successful, that the blocks from which they were printed were transported from city to city and new blocks were constantly cut to replace damaged ones.

Some of these block books already show some distinct characteristics and features of modern comics, e.g. early versions of speech bubbles, sometimes called ‘scrolls’ or ‘phylacteries’. The Canticum canticorum retells the biblical Song of Songs, which consists of beautiful and sometimes explicitly erotic old-oriental love poetry, on sixteen tables with two woodcuts each – it may thus be regarded as one of the first adaptations of a literary work into a graphic novel. It follows the usual medieval reading, and the dialogues and monologues of the lovers are re-interpreted as an allegory of the love of Christ for his church. The biblical text is radically shortened and re-organized into dialogues between the bridegroom (Christ) and the bride (Church), and occasionally some ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ are also included. One panel is particularly interesting.

Canticum canticorum, 6b.

Usually, the pictures contain only two scrolls, but here the dialogue is extensive. Moreover, the panel is divided into sub-panels by the wall of a room. On the left side, the bride reposes in bed, grieving the imminent departure of her lover and conversing with the daughters of Jerusalem, on the right side we see her again below the bridegroom Christ on his throne who is carried to heaven by four angels. The image is almost overloaded with details – the gestures, the lamps, the roses on the bed, the two soldiers etc. – indicating that such pictures were aimed at an educated readership that would not only be able to read the Latin text but also to decode the complex visual information.

In images like these it is not quite clear whether there are two panels or one in which figures appear more than once. In his extensive collection, History of the Comic Strip, vol 1, The Early Comic Strip. Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450–1825 (1973), David Kunzle distinguishes between sequences of images and ‘single-setting narratives,’ in which several panels seem to be compressed into one image. As various kinds of pictorial elements – walls, pillars, trees etc – could be used to separate the segments of a narrative, it is not always easy to decide whether there is one panel or a sequence. In Hermann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), for example, the story of Abraham and Isaac is presented in two parts that have to be read from right to left – Abraham and Isaac walk to the hill, and then the sacrifice is prevented by divine intervention. We can read this either as a single setting narrative or as a sequence in which two panels are separated by the upward path in the middle of the image.

Nuremberg Chronicle, page XXII verso

In the late Middle Ages, religious content dominated the visual narratives, but information about medical knowledge or political events was occasionally also transmitted and stored in form of sequential images.

With the invention of the printing press, things changed considerably. It is often regarded as a turning point that marks the transition from pictures to writing, but, as already pointed out, literacy increased only slowly over the next centuries, and for the majority of the population, images or a mixture of pictures and text remained, next to oral transmission, the most important source of information. Printing also allowed for the mass production of publications that employed images, and broadsheets in particular flooded the markets and delivered the news. Like today’s tabloids they presented a mixture of politics, moral lessons, reports of spectacular events like the appearance of comets or meteors, catastrophes like fires, earthquakes or floods, and, of course, lurid tales of crime and punishment. The quality varied from crude images that could be recycled, to illustrate, for example, the accounts of different executions, to highly artistic works that were carefully preserved and sometimes framed and displayed by their owners.

Usually, broadsheets presented a rather extensive title that summed up the story which followed, one or more images, and then a lengthy account, occasionally as a ballad in verse so that it could be sung to popular tunes. In fact, they were often performed publicly by so called news or bench singers, who were paid like today’s street artists and taught text and tune to their audiences who then passed them on and thus spread the news among the population. Over centuries, this remained one of the most important sources of information about current events for illiterate or semi-literate people.

Bench Singer. Adapted from an etching by J. W. Meil (1765). Repr. in Otto Holzapfel: Liedverzeichnis. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag 2006.

Of course, compared to our times the process was slow and journalistic standards were unknown, but, as the taste of the audience seems to have been no better than today, murder ballads were already a favorite genre. A particularly good example of a sensational and shocking story is a broadsheet printed by Lucas Mayer:

News of a peasant living near Cologne who transformed himself into a wolf by magic. Woodcut by Lucas Mayer (1589)

It depicts the famous case of Peter Stump who was accused of having committed many murders as a werewolf. It was, of course, a huge spectacle and ‘media event’, and it is depicted on many prints and broadsheets – Lucas Mayer’s woodcut is one of several slightly different variants. The text under the picture is written in rhyming couplets. It tells the fantastic story how the werewolf attacked a neighbor who chopped off one of his paws. He returned home and became very sick. When the neighbor visited him, he admitted that he was in league with the devil but begged to keep the secret. The neighbor, however, told his wife and she spread the news. The werewolf was apprehended, and under torture he confessed that he had killed thirteen children, among them his own son, as well as three older people. Moreover, he had cohabited with a female devil and committed incest with his daughter. He was then tortured on a wheel, decapitated, and his body burned together with his common law wife and daughter.

This ‘single setting narrative’ has to be ‘read’ in a curve. On the upper left side, we see the werewolf attacking his neighbor, on the bottom from left to right the torture and beheading is shown. Moving up the head is displayed on the raised wheel and the body dragged to the pyre. Finally, on the upper right side it is burnt at stake with the two women. Of course, the story is hardly convincing for us, but we have to keep in mind that it was believed by the population and the judges to the extent that Peter Stump was indeed convicted and executed for murder and sorcery, and that the case was of such immense interest that it was publicized on broadsheets not only in Germany but also in the Netherlands, Denmark and England. German broadsheets like this often included Newe Zeitung in their title, which at the time was simply the equivalent of ‘new tiding’. In the course of the 18th century it changed its meaning, and Zeitung became the generic term for newspaper.

Visual narratives were, of course, predominantly concerned with sensational information, but occasionally significant political events included shocking details and also offered themselves for religious propaganda. A good example is the assassination of Henri III of France on August 1, 1589, by the Dominican monk Jacques Clément – the king died on the following day. I want to present two pictorial accounts of this murder. The first one is a famous etching by Frans Hogenberg, the second a broadsheet with a woodcut by Bartholme Käppeler, and both are interesting for the organization of the story. Two more visual accounts of the event are discussed in my article here. They were all produced in the year of the assassination.

Frans Hogenberg’s etching consists of four panels, but each of them shows more than one moment of the unfolding event. The persons are marked by their names:

Frans Hogenberg, The assassination of Henri III. Etching. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

If we follow the chronology given in the text under the images, the sequence has to be ‘read’ in a circle from top left to right and then bottom right to left. In the first panel we see Clément three times: he is taking mass, confesses, and then leaves to commit the assassination, indicating that the murder was condoned by his Catholic superiors. The second panel merges the actual assault and the swift retribution when Clément is killed by the guard. The body is then drawn and quartered in the centre and burnt on the left bottom of the panel below. The final image shows how the king names Henri de Navarre as his successor while some unspecified business takes place in the background of the picture. It is easy to recognize that the first and last and the second and third panel show graphic analogies. On the left side we see the plan and the consequences, and the two rooms and events are constructed to look similar, while the violent action is shown on the right side where the halberds of the two guards form a similar angle to that of the horses below.

My next example is a broadsheet by Bartholme Käppeler.

Bartholme Käppeler, Woodcut. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The text offers a more detailed account of the assassination with some elements that are probably fictitious. It explains that Clément had a vision in a dream in which an angel told him to kill the king. He asked an elder brother of his convent for advice and was told that killing was forbidden by God. However, he rejected the advice, claiming that he acted on God’s command. The attack and retribution are described in detail, including Clément’s last words that he did not expect to die so easily – this last element is included in many accounts. In contrast to all other versions, Clément’s body is not burnt, but after the dismemberment the parts are publicly displayed on lances. Then there is an account of the king’s death and of the subsequent troubles: While the king named Henri de Navarre as his successor, the Catholic League rejected him as he was a Protestant and instead proclaimed the Cardinal of Bourbon as the new king, who was, however, imprisoned by Henri at the time. A final paragraph titled ‘Nota’ validates the information with reference to a correspondence between Sous, where the king was assassinated, and the city of Langres; a first letter from August 1 informed about the attack but maintained that the king had survived, while a second message from August 20 confirmed the death and told about the conflicting proclamations of the two contenders for the throne. It ends with the fatalistic line that only God knows what will happen next. The broadsheet thus combines a detailed report about a gruesome event with some solid, if ultimately inconclusive political information.

This account differs from many other narratives of the assassination and refrains from anti-Catholic sentiments, claiming that the murder was not condoned or even supported by Clément’s superiors but rather the action of a single assassin who felt that he was on a mission from God. In consideration that Augsburg, where the print was produced, was a Protestant city, this reticence could be seen as surprising, but a close look at the iconography of the picture may suggest that Käppeler did not share the religious convictions of his environment and actually presented a dissenting perspective. The single setting narrative consists of four distinct moments. It shows the murder on the left side, and then Clément is killed on the lower right side. Then the narrative splits up – the wounded king is treated at the bottom of the left side while the dead Clément is inspected on the upper right side. This is the only version in which Clément is killed from the front: the image shows him in cruciform at the moment of his death, and the wound he receives resembles Christ’s at the crucifixion. Moreover, his dead body shows some similarity with the corpse of Christ in paintings, and, in comparison to the wounded king, he is shown in an elevated position. The organization of the image into two killings and two victims forms a X, the Greek Chi, which is, of course, the first letter of the name Christ. All these visual elements may well constitute a subtle, or not so subtle, piece of religious propaganda. Quite obviously, the audience for this complex information must have been well-educated and visually literate.

Broadsheets and bench singers remained one of the most important sources for news and information far into the 19th century. At the end of the 18th century, however, a shift and new trend had become noticeable, and in many publications images and visual narratives had changed their mode and style – they had turned to caricature, humor, and entertainment. Caricatures had been around since the early woodcuts, but now they became a dominant form. The reason can possibly be found in the rise of journals and newspapers aimed at a strictly literate audience. Images were no longer needed and used to transmit stories and serious information, they became an addition to the written word and, in the form of caricature, commented on the news and political or cultural events. This does not indicate a loss of importance; political satire and humor is a very serious matter, and the 19th century was the age of brilliant caricatures. Punch, probably the most famous satirical journal, was cofounded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew, who was not only a journalist and playwright but also an important social researcher and reformer – Richard Mayhew in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996) is named after him. But the images in such publications were chiefly cartoons – the word was coined 1843 in Punch – and picture stories turned to humorous tales of romance, folly and mischief until they finally flourished on the pages of the Sunday supplements. This can be regarded as an achievement, and comics played an important role in the sales of the newspapers, but it also marks the complete division between the serious information in the journalistic texts and the often ridiculous and absurd visual narratives on the funnies pages.

Over the following decades comics were dominated by purely entertaining formats, and while the funnies and, later, comic books were also read by adults – in WWII American soldiers were among the most important target groups – they were increasingly regarded as a juvenile medium. In the aftermath of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate hearings (both 1954), the newly created Comics Code Authority ruled that everything unsuitable for children had to be banned from comics. In François Truffaut’s movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), a dystopian novel in which all books and writings are banned, the complete deterioration of culture is indicated when people read comics instead of the forbidden newspapers.

From: Fahrenheit 451, dir. Francois Truffaut (1966). Re-produced under fair use.

But while the film was produced, a new change was already underway. With the rise of Underground Comix, which did not rely on the usual forms of commercial distribution and ignored the rigid rules of the CCA, mature audiences were once more addressed in graphic narratives that discussed politics, sexuality, social affairs and mind-expanding drugs, and they paved the way for independent and alternative comics, graphic novels, autographics, and comics journalism. We can see this as a new development, but also as a return to origins. And as our culture has become increasingly visual, pictorial narratives can once more contribute to political, social, and historical discourses with their specific aesthetics and strategies of representation.

[1] A more comprehensive scholarly version of this article was published under the title “Graphic Narratives as Non-Fiction in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era” by ImageTexT (http://imagetext.english.ufl.edu/archives/v11_1/vanderbeke/).