Medieval Matters

A book review published originally in The Journal of Dress History, 4:2 (summer 2020), pp.218-220.

Monica L. Wright, Robin Netherton, and Gale R. Owen–Crocker, Editors, Medieval Clothing and Textiles 15, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, 2019, Illustrations, Tables, Contributors, Preface, Recent Books of Interest, Contents of Previous Volumes, 4 Colour Illustrations, 34 Black–and–White Illustrations, 215 pages, Hardback, £40.00. 

In 2011, Stephen Greenblatt caused controversy when his book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, revived an idea many academics had long since refuted: that the Middle Ages were dark and illuminated only with the dawning of the Renaissance. This stubbornly persistent orthodoxy is the cause of many muddles about the medieval period. One of the most trenchant is the claim that a discernible fashion system becomes apparent only when the gloom of medievalism recedes in the fourteenth century. Since 2005, the Medieval Clothing and Textiles series has done much to demonstrate that the medieval period, viewed through its clothing, fabrics and dress accessories, is every bit as colourful, creative, individual, shocking, and subversive as periods earlier and later. It is fitting that one of the series’ founding editors, Gale Owen–Crocker, begins this volume (her last as lead editor) with a historiographical survey of how the study of medieval dress has evolved over the past fifteen years (pp. 1–31). She shows how new technologies, typologies, and thematic studies have expanded the scope of this field. Convincingly, she argues that fashions are discernible in Anglo–Saxon women’s dress of the fifth and sixth centuries and cites research showing how “the social importance of clothing” is evident within eleventh century formal wedding gifts (p. 17). 

The importance of clothing in bridging cultures and defining people’s roles runs like a thread throughout the volume. The point is most apparent in Tina Anderlini’s chapter, which examines the prevalence and popularity of medallion silks in western Europe, stemming from their association with an “Other World” of Old Testament figures and anointed terrestrial rulers (pp. 101–136). Hugh Thomas’ study of clothing at the court of King John (pp. 79–100) shows how one of England’s most mercurial monarchs was adept at dressing his body, his bedding—which included a cover lined with otter skins and a quilt embroidered with parrots (p. 83)—and his band of followers, whose horses were chosen “because their colouring set off the vividly dyed cloth” of their saddles (pp. 81–82)—magnificently to make him distinct. 

The legitimation that King John sought through luxury cloths and furs has parallels to the beguines—an ill–defined group within the category of mulieres religiosae (note 10, p. 139)—who form the focus of Alejandra Concha Sahli’s chapter (pp. 137–156). Concha Sali describes how European women who wore versions of monastic habits attracted papal opprobrium because they were thought to be feigning membership of a religious community. However, Concha Sahli suggests many of these women may have genuinely sought acceptance and wore the habit to signal their readiness to “start a new way of life” (p. 138). She explains how the habit was a powerfully symbolic garment. Wearing it was “equivalent to entering a religious order” (p. 138). It could even provide a means of distinguishing oneself from other monks and nuns, for to wear a coarser version was to claim a deeper holiness by implication. Not surprisingly, this sartorial strategy was often decried as hypocritical (p. 142). 

The recognition that medieval clothing and textiles could be simultaneously legitimating and transformative is underscored in Joanne Anderson’s chapter, which analyses the curious visual cues in a series of paintings that decorates the walls of a Dominican church in Bozen, South Tyrol (pp. 157–182). Focusing on the detail of a vertical loom belonging to the Virgin that is being used to make a heraldic fabric, Anderson connects the figurative act of weaving to the “weaving of new family bonds” through marriage (p. 179). The dynastically informed mural was a means by which Margaret von Brandis could harness weaving, “a ‘respectable’ craft for a woman,” and proclaim that “a new identity [was] in the making” through her second marriage (p. 181).

These complex clothing strategies, sometimes subtle, other times overt, negate Greenblatt’s assumptions of medieval darkness. They also challenge a linked and long–held assumption that visual cues were more relied upon at a time of widespread illiteracy than in future years. The second and third chapters of the volume, by Maren Clegg Hyer and Elizabeth Swedo, respectively, demonstrate that authors in Old Norse and Middle High German—and, presumably, their readership and listenership, too—enjoyed the “overlapping, metaphorical relationship between text and textile” (p. 33). In the Nibelungenlied and Völsunga saga, Swedo asserts that the different usages of dress and fabrics can enhance “understanding of medieval perceptions and projections of wealth, class, and social status as well as the construction, performance, and regulation of gender roles” (p. 63). 

The volume’s seven chapters provide eloquent and compelling testimony to the existence of a deeply embedded and vibrant fashion system throughout the Middle Ages. The human concerns raised through these investigations, of status, belonging and memory, can be compared with contemporary preoccupations. If the volume refutes claims of medieval separation through darkness, nonetheless it hints at why this view remains so trenchant. Accessing medieval dress and textiles is difficult. It requires a knowledge of unfamiliar languages, iconography, and the rubric of bureaucracy. It requires, as Gale Owen–Crocker asserts at the end of her chapter, people “with the vision and the will” to practice these skills and to collaborate with others who possess them in different disciplines (p. 31). That this volume exists is evidence of such cooperation, but the simplifying narratives of Greenblatt and others reveal that more remains to be done. Remedies require a cultural shift, which no single academic series can tackle alone, but the breadth and precision of scholarship contained in this volume underscores the importance of the Medieval Clothing and Textiles project to all people working and interested in dress, irrespective of chronology. Here’s to the next 15 years of the series, under its new lead editor, Monica Wright. 

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