- Weaving Narrative: Clothing in Twelfth-Century French Romance by Monica L. Wright
Monica Wright presents an analysis of the uses of textiles and clothing in twelfth-century courtly literature, suggesting they provide a fundamental role in the construction of the texts: they are used to develop and elaborate character; to advance or stall the plot; and to provide an overall structure. Wright pursues this task while taking into consideration the changes that were occurring within twelfth-century society as a new mercantile class, underpinned by money acquired through textile production and commerce, impressed itself upon the nobility. Cloth was pivotal to social positioning to two different classes within twelfth-century society. It provided wealth for the development of a mercantile middle class that could challenge the nobility who used clothing and fashion to demonstrate their status. Investment in luxurious cloth filled the purses of the mercantile classes, who were most likely to disrupt the social status quo through their upward mobility that was made possible by their increased wealth. The importance of cloth, both within the literature of the nobility of the period and as the means for social advancement for those who threatened the status quo, provides a fascinating lens through which to reassess the twelfth-century verse romance. Wright draws upon the work of Eugene Vinaver who had noted that the process of composing verse romances had much in common with tapestry weaving as they share the organizing principles of creating meaning through patterns.
The first chapter thus opens by presenting the patterns that are to be found in twelfth-century verse pertaining to cloth, noting the transition from chansons de geste in which clothing bears little meaning to more courtly literature in which cloth can be seen as a sign. The difference between a symbol that is stable and sign that varies with context is a fundamental aspect of Wright's argument. The more practical aspects of clothing (manufacture, materials, and types of garments) for the period are discussed in Chapter 2, providing key vocabulary for understanding the analysis of the texts.
The following chapters are tied more to the texts. Chapter 3 looks at the role of clothing in character elucidation while Chapter 4 proposes that ambiguity, ambivalence, or arbitrariness can be inscribed into texts through these same items. The final chapter is an analysis of the role played by clothing to structure the narrative thread of various texts, in particular Guillaume d'Angleterre (author unknown) and Guigemar by Marie de France. Through these texts, Wright demonstrates that clothing acts (dressing, undressing, gift [End Page 341] exchanges etc.) provide insight into character development, plot, and the thematic narrative development.
Although this book is heavily dependent on the literary analysis of texts, it contextualizes the material into the changing social role of cloth production and the development of fashion, as well as looking at the role cloth played in the changing relationship between two social classes of the twelfth century. This provides a fascinating lens through which to look at twelfth-century literary creation. [End Page 342]