Criminal Ornament: Aesthetic Misbehavior in the Fifteenth Century


Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars




For residence at the Huntington Library during academic year 2018-2019


“Criminal Ornament” claims a new importance for the aesthetic category of medieval ornament in Western intellectual history. The project demonstrates the emergence of ornament as a provocative interdisciplinary technique in late medieval verbal, visual, and decorative arts that also played a crucial if antithetical role in the articulation of modernist aesthetics in the early twentieth century. Poetic ornament––the use of ornate, self-consciously artificial forms of poetic expression such as polysyllabic Latinate words, alliterative patterning, and aural accumulation and resonance––dominated English courtly verse in the fifteenth century. It took part in a larger cultural fascination with ornament more broadly in this period, and often simulated decorative gestures in the applied and decorative arts. As important as it was to its own literary-historical moment, however, medieval ornament also played a critical role in modernist ideas emerging in the first decades of the twentieth century.