- Sartorial Strategies: Outfitting Aristocrats and Fashioning Conduct in Late Medieval Literature by Nicole D. Smith
In this collection of essays, Nicole D. Smith analyzes four works of medieval literature within a context of costume history, with a specific focus on highlighting a lively cultural dialogue from the authors of lais and romances in response to commentaries on dress by their ecclesiastical contemporaries. There has been much study of the tension between the values and aims of the medieval church versus those of the aristocracy and its court artists but Smith breaks new ground with her erudite application of the lens of academic inquiry to the area of clothing as it is addressed in a wide-ranging conversation between diverse sources. The creative writers, unsurprisingly, express some spirited disagreement with the sartorial opinions voiced by their more straitlaced ecclesiastical counterparts, weaving into their stories dissenting and sometimes downright subversive stances against the social controls sought by the churchmen via pronouncements on dress and deportment. It’s a form of literary rhetoric and dialectic writ large across the pages of great works of the Middle Ages, and Smith does a deft job of decoding it.
The first essay considers Guigemar, one of the Breton lais of Marie de France, which incorporates into its plot the fashionable development that brought formerly billowy clothing closer to the body through the use of tight lacing. Clerical treatises of the day bemoan the risk of inflaming lust by so revealing the contours of the human shape but Marie challenges this notion by using knotting as a metaphor for continence and faithfulness in romantic love. Guigemar features a knight who is immune to the charms of Eros until he is cursed to pursue love through suffering. He finds a beautiful woman through a series of magical adventures and the two fall in love but circumstances demand that he must leave. As a sign of their commitment, each knots an article of the other’s clothing in a Gordian fashion that only they can undo. They indeed suffer in their separation, and when they meet again they’ve been parted so long they don’t at first recognize each other but they do recall the knots and are able to reunite by untying the tangled obstacles to their affections. Marie thus positions herself against the sin of vice through the promotion of the virtues of constant love, expressed through the same knotting and lacing that the church abhorred.
The next text covered is the Roman de Silence, credited to a narrator named Heldris de Cornäulle. Silence’s eponymous protagonist is a young woman who lives as a man as a matter of filial piety. Girls were unable to inherit property, but her father wished to circumvent that and so raised her as a boy and she [End Page 339] continues with that deception out of loyalty to him, becoming a great knight and gifted minstrel. Part and parcel of her camouflage is the assumption of male attire, in a society where cross-dressing was condemned based on prohibitions in Deuteronomy. Smith posits that the author of Silence addresses the deadly sin of avarice, specifically the greed and stinginess that have deprived noble retinues of courtly entertainments and jongleurs and storytellers of income, thus violating a social contract of noblesse oblige that requires the aristocracy to provide some economic support to its subjects. Further behind the tightfistedness of the nobles can be found the influence of the priests, attempting to direct discretionary funds to their own coffers at the expense of the creative class. That aspect of Silence can be read as the timeless complaint of an artist against the wet blankets of phony moralism and withheld funding. Likewise, Silence would be deprived of her birthright to gain property by the hypocrisy of the king who made the inheritance decree and thus she must live a lie, if only to secure her living. She is shown as the victim of an unfair social order, a rather shockingly revolutionary...