Before truth puts on its boots – homage and Wikipedia

As readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia. But it’s only as useful, and accurate, as its editors make it (one reason why I’ve experimented with getting students to improve its content).

Here’s a case in point. The cover image for this blog is well known as an illustration of medieval homage. Before I updated the page, the image credit  described it simply as a miniature from the Archives Departementales de Perpignan, depicting the act of homage – no date,  no shelfmark.

That copyright-free  image has now been used on a dozen Wikipedia sites to illustrate medieval homage. And a Google image search pulls up dozens of other websites using it, many of them for ‘the feudal system’, mostly without any further details.

But there’s a complication. What the image actually shows is not a vassal doing homage to his feudal lord, but a royal tenant putting his hands in those of a royal agent, as part of rent collection. So as the Archives informed me (pers. comm.), “il ne s’agit pas d’un hommage vassalique,  bien que la gestuelle soit la meme”.  And the image has a precise context too, created in 1293, which most of its users aren’t aware of.

Far from representing a politically decentralised ‘feudal society’, then, this image in fact shows kings (in this case King James II of Majorca) asserting their power pretty thoroughly.

This perhaps isn’t as serious a case as the image of the ‘Black Death’ that turned out to be of leprosy. But it does illustrate the power of images, and how their decontextualised use can sometimes be a little misleading.

Yet it also illustrates one of the wonderful things about Wikipedia : unlike other encyclopedias, if you spot something that’s wrong or missing, you can change it!

Image credit: Wikimedia, Archives Départementales de Pyrénées-Orientales 1B31.

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