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Collecting the Desert in the Carolingian West

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The Egyptian desert summoned for its early medieval progeny memories of a past age of superhuman askêsis that posed a challenge to Carolingian attempts at Benedictine hegemony. In response, the architects of ninth-century monastic reform labored to present their votaries with a carefully controlled memory of the Egyptian past, and they did so through a propagandistic aesthetic of literary, visual, and ritual "bricolage." Jaś Elsner defines this aesthetic of bricolage as an artistic form based on symbolic ownership of the past through the display of ancient spolia on contemporary monuments (e.g., the sculptured reliefs collected from past, imperial regimes and exhibited as spolia on the Arch of Constantine) or the layering of present-day texts with past literary forms (e.g., Christian typological exegesis of Hebrew Scripture). Similarly, for the Carolingians, who also ventured into the artistic realm of bricolage, collecting, embodying, and displaying were methods of exerting control over the past.


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