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Susan Pallister | Medieval Selfies
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Medieval Selfies

12 Apr Medieval Selfies

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘selfie’ as something quite basic and simplistic, namely a ‘photographic self-portrait’. However, in many senses selfies are nothing new; if we remove the photographic aspect of a selfie and include self-portraits made with pen and ink then we can safely say that ‘selfies’ have existed in Britain for over 1000 years.  Alison Hudson, a British Library curator, points out that, “one of the earliest known manuscript self-portraits to survive from England was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), in the 10th century. He depicted himself kneeling before Christ in a manuscript now known as ‘St Dunstan’s Classbook’ (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct F.4.32).” Fast forward to the 16th century Germany and we can see something very similar highlighted in Elizabeth Goodwin’s article The Selfie, Medieval Style. She explains how Katerina Lemmel, a nun in 16th-century Germany, installed stained-glass windows into her religious house with the long-term goal of creating a memorial for the future. She was practising ‘self-memorialisation’ – the curation of one’s own life and image for posterity.  For people in the 16th century, self-memorialisation was central to their relationship with the world around them, as well as the heavenly salvation they hoped would follow. Self-memorialisation was considered absolutely crucial to both their present and their afterlives. Modern day selfies come in for so much criticism because of their apparent focus on empty and meaningless self-glorification. Goodwin even refers to the way in which they create a barrier to meaningful human interaction. Yet for Lemmel, her 16th-century Bridgettine sisters and for countless other pre-modern people able to commemorate their own lives in visual ways, self-memorialisation was a tool for communicating and living beyond their current lives as well as trying to find ways to achieve everlasting life.

And now it is time for me be totally honest and to admit that I do not share the antipathy towards modern day selfies prevalent in so many historical commentators; for me, selfies simply provide a window into the past; I enjoy my Google notifications reminding me of what I was up to two years ago. After all is said and done, these are my photographic memories which are only ever uploaded onto my super secret Instagram account!!  PS I don’t even think this actually counts as a ‘bona fide selfie’ does it? I believe this is technically referred to as an ‘animal selfie’: me and my boy Harry taken during the first week of my lovely, long Easter holiday. (April 2017)



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