The relationship of the academic disciplines of history and art history has long been one of polite antagonism, founded (and I write as one who trained initially as an historian before turning to art history, and who is thus culpable on both fronts) on the eminently unreasonable assumption that history is in some way concerned with the real, and art history with the merely epiphenomenal, that is the marginal or subsidiary. I think few historians would seriously subscribe to this view now, though it should be said that the positivistic (essentially untheoretical) leanings of most art historians until the last decade or so, coupled with their inclination to practise connoisseurship, has undoubtedly opened them to the charge of lacking a genuinely historical method. On the face of it the rise of interdisciplinarity might be said to have subverted this hierarchy of subjects within the academy (and this is where an essay on hierarchies should perhaps begin). But here art historians cannot overplay their hand. In the field of medieval imagery it can fairly be said that our work has scarcely begun. The ideological structuring of medieval art has only become an object of serious enquiry very recently, though such studies as have appeared have very rightly gone to the heart of the matter in challenging glib assumptions about the nexus of social ‘reality’ and representation, and the notion that art – and medieval art especially – is transparently illustrative of prior or given social conditions..
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