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Courtly Aesthetics and Courtly Ethics in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 31, 2009
pp. 231-265 | 10.1353/sac.0.0052

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Late medieval chivalric and courtly culture was characterized by display—or, to use Thorstein Veblen’s term, “conspicuous consumption.”1 Splendid clothing, armor, jewels, lavish food and table settings, ritual and spectacle of all kinds (tournaments, theatrical entertainments, pageants, processions, royal entries)—all these things were means by which the courtly class defined itself and presented itself to the world. Malcolm Vale has spoken of “the increasing sacralization of the secular” in the courts of the period: “A more formal, ritualized element gradually invaded the domestic life of princely courts, receiving its most marked—and often extravagant—expression at court feasts in which vows were taken, elaborate interludes and entremets introduced, and a more dramatic and theatrical dimension brought to the holding of ‘full’ or ‘solemn’ courts.”2 The court of Richard II was notorious for this kind of extravagant display.3 Nigel Saul calls him “an extravagant, luxury-loving prince. His tastes were expensive and he took a delight in beautiful objects. He owned a large and valuable collection of goldsmiths’ work and plate. He was lavish in his spending on clothing, jewelry, tapestry and objets d’art generally: according to the Evesham chronicler, on one occasion he spent no less than £20,000 on a robe [decorated] with precious stones.”4 Already in the early years of his reign, there were complaints about the costs of Richard’s household, although at this period, according to Chris Given-Wilson, they were not, comparatively speaking, excessive. There were cutbacks in the 1380s, but from 1393 onward domestic expenditure climbed dramatically, reaching more than £35,000 in each of the last three years of his reign.5

Royal extravagance attracted criticism and controversy from some quarters. The alliterative poem known as Richard the Redeless (written around the time of Richard’s deposition)6 contains an indignant account of the extravagant attire favored by courtiers. Citing the text from Matthew’s gospel (11:8), “They that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings,” the author complains that the courtiers care for nothing other than “quentise of clothinge” (elegance of clothing) (III.176; cf. 120, 122). Their cloaks are wide and their sleeves are so long that they “slide on the erthe” (III.131, 152). They wear gold chains and ornament their belts and drinking-horns with silver (III.140). They run themselves into debt in order to buy expensive furs (III.148–51). Their garments are ornamented with “dagging,” the edges cut into elaborate shapes, which costs ten times more for the stitching than for the cloth itself (III.162–69). These complaints are, as Patricia Eberle has put it, an indication that “the tradition of dress as a form of investment had become at the court of Richard II what we would now call investment dressing.”7 Toward the end of Richard the Redeless, the personified figure of Wisdom appears at court, clad in “the olde schappe,” “in an holsum gyse” (III.212–13); predictably, he is rudely ejected by the well-dressed courtiers.

So much for the prosecution, but there was also a contemporary case for the defense. In the same article, Patricia Eberle also drew attention to the justification of courtly luxury found in a Latin treatise written by Roger Dymmok, a Dominican friar, in response to the twelve Lollard propositions contained in a document (purportedly) fixed to the door of Westminster Hall during the session of Parliament in 1395.8 His treatise is dedicated to Richard II, and the manuscript now at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (MS 17) was evidently a presentation copy. Most of the Lollard propositions criticized the failings of the established Church, but the twelfth concerned secular life: it claimed that “þe multitude of craftis nout nedful” (such as goldsmiths and armorers) should be abolished, because they encourage “wast, curiosite and disgysing” (that is, elaborate display and fancy clothing).9 In answer to this, Dymmok distinguished between two types of “necessity”: first, there are those things needed simply to sustain life, but second, there are those things necessary to live decently (“conuenienter”). Drawing on Aristotle’s discussion of “magnificence,” or “the art of spending money lavishly,” in the Nicomachaean Ethics (IV.ii...



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