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Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture (review)
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166 Reviews Parergon 21.1 (2004) Burns, E. Jane, Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture (Middle Ages Series), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002; cloth; pp. 326; RRP US$49.95; ISBN 0812236718. In her stimulating new book, E. Jane Burns re-reads a range of classic works of twelfth- and thirteenth-century French courtly literature using the strategy of ‘reading through clothes’. This involves paying close attention to the often highly detailed and elaborate descriptions of clothing which have been so often overlooked by scholars of medieval courtly literature, and reassessing the messages conveyed by the works in the light of the meanings associated with the clothing. Such attention to the attire and clothed bodies of courtly protagonists turns out to be far from an exercise in antiquarianism, but rather challenges readers to rethink the fundamental themes of the genre long associated with the phenomenon of ‘courtly love’. ‘Our perceptions of courtly desire, of the range of gendered subject positions in love, of the negotiability of class status through the practice of love and even the symbolic location of the western court itself, begin to shift substantially when we consider them through the lens of the luxury goods and other bodily adornments that so often define courtliness’ (p. 1). In turning from the body to the clothed body, Burns joins a growing group of mainly North American literary scholars who have begun to reinvent medieval cultural histories of clothing, recognising that clothes and bodies are best understood not separately but together as ‘social’ or ‘sartorial bodies’. When the sartorial bodies of romance protagonists are subjected to close analysis, blunt concepts of ‘sex’, ‘sexuality’, ‘status’, or ‘east and west’ begin to melt or blur, and courtly literature is revealed as a forum for the expression of socially challenging ideas. The book is brimming with ideas and its range is too wide to encapsulate here, but I found Burns’s theories on sartorial bodies and the gender continuum in her central chapters especially vital and exciting. Through close readings of Floris et Lyriope, the Prose Lancelot, and other texts, she explores the complex relationship between romance’s apparent celebration of heterosexuality and its blurring of the boundaries of gender and desire. Reading through robes, armour and luscious skin reveals sartorial bodies ‘not in terms of immutable sex differences but as spacings on a sartorial continuum’ (p. 122). What does it mean, she asks, when romance knights and ladies look so alike as at times to be almost indistinguishable, when noble men’s and women’s clothing was alike in cut and shape (although romances eulogise the shape, colour and texture of the woman Reviews 167 Parergon 21.1 (2004) beneath the clothes), when knights are gendered by their armour and without it they possess vulnerable, soft and fair bodies like those of women, when the domna occupies an elusive gendered space between desired lady and commanding lord, when Gauvain wishes he could be the most beautiful damsel in the world in order to win and keep the love of Lancelot, and Floris can only successfully woo Lyriope when he is dressed in his sister’s clothes? ‘The range of possibilities for sexual difference no longer stops at two’ (p. 143), and courtly desire can no longer be described simply as ‘heterosexuality’. The brilliance and importance of these central insights lead me to neglect the book’s other main themes somewhat, but these include novel interpretations of feminine agency and subjectivity deployed through clothes and sewing (chapters two and three), and consideration of the exotic eastern origins of the luxury fabrics, which challenges readers to attend to the fundamental ‘easternness ’ of courtly sartorial bodies and thus of courtly love itself (chapters six and seven). In general, despite the intellectual distinction shown in the perception and inventiveness of her arguments, Burns perhaps plays a little safe in sticking mainly to close reading of the texts. There is some awareness of the world beyond the literary works, but there is potential for far more attention here. If there was such an appetite for fictive explorations of female agency, cross-gender identities and the orientalisation of desire, what groups constituted the...