I don't normally like religious art, and having received training in modern intellectual history, I find the Middle Ages to be quite boring. However, Marc Epstein's book really drew me in to the world of medieval Jewry and its depiction in certain Haggadot. Not only does he critically expound upon some really extraordinary Haggadot, he makes them (and their patrons or creators) come alive. His relatively jargon-free prose and family anecdotes make this book fun to read and potentially accessible to a wider audience than the scholastic community. I think the book has enormous power towards that end. Many of Epstein's points and insights may be patently obvious to medievalists and to academics, but not to your average Jew. For example, we learn that far from being an ideal pious patriarchal learned community, my medieval ancestors were separated by class and profession; had an often confusing two-way relationship with larger society; quibbled amongst themselves; stabbed each other in their proverbial backs; kvetched and grumbled; engaged in power games; and liked to employ Gentile motifs and traditions, not the least of which was using the "forbidden" visual imagery. Epstein's analysis posits that medieval Jews, or at least the ones depicted in and appealed to in these haggadot, were far from the innocent male martyrs (as they have often been portrayed) and instead were flawed and complex human beings who strongly valued female contributions and leadership.
Of course, the book isn't perfect. The text was a bit hard to follow when trying to match it with the appropriate plates/figures. And I have to point out one issue that I don't think Epstein underscored nearly enough. The problem with illuminated manuscripts (and with history in general) is that those who've left records of the past, especially when it comes to art, tend to have been the elites of society. These haggadot were done for patrons, who may not have been representative of the Jewish community. They may have been outliers (the wealthiest? the most assimilated?) or an exclusive small, circumscribed group of people. The average medieval Jew may have had little contact with such Jews and such haggadot may not have resonated with them, not to mention seemed heretical. As a recent analogy, how representative was Schoenberg's atonal "biblical" music of the average 20th century Jewish mindset or how much did your average American Jew appreciate it? Nonetheless, these haggadot were commissioned by a particular class at a particular point in time, and it's valuable in itself to see what attitudes of theirs may have been conveyed through these texts.
Thanks to Epstein, I know now that Art Spiegelman and Steven Spielberg's portrayals of Jews as mice have nothing on the Birds' Head Haggadah. Totally need to bring in the ornithologists and comic book artists next time, Marc, to do a thorough analysis of the trippy imagery.