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  • Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter by Stephanie Trigg
  • T. S. Miller
Stephanie Trigg, Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2012) viii + 322 pp.

A colleague of mine, skeptical of the colonization of medieval studies by critical theory developed to analyze more recent cultural phenomena, once asked me what a medieval cultural studies would even look like; I now have the perfect book for such skeptics in Stephanie Trigg’s Shame and Honor. Trigg’s history is far from the first attempt at such a project, but it confidently builds on previous work in this area and strategically incorporates a great deal of ritual and myth criticism, also embracing what is rapidly becoming a key feature of medieval cultural history: not to stop our investigations somewhere in the fifteenth century, but to explore the many reverberations of medieval culture at various points between their original incarnations and the present. Indeed, the book seems as interested in serving as a proof-of-concept for a new way of writing about medievalism as it is about the history of the Order of the Garter in particular, and, while Trigg never directly suggests that her work on the Garter should be understood as revelatory of larger trends and truths, she often hints that aspects of its “symptomatic” history resonate with the parallel courses of other medieval texts and cultural artifacts through time (10): “Not only can the Order of the Garter not agree about its own medieval origins: it cannot agree, either, about the significance of the import of having medieval origins. In this it is surprisingly representative of modernity’s relationship with the medieval past” (275). A few decades ago professional medievalists still had to wonder if they were permitted to produce scholarship about the reception and reconstruction of the Middle Ages now known as “medievalism,” but in this book Trigg advances the argument that, not only can we do so, but it has become part of our responsibility as medievalists to confront the problem and promise of medievalism. This is not to say that Trigg delights in the sundry forms that contemporary medievalism takes, only that she finds them worthy of analysis; for instance, she admits that, “Perversely, the more that people appeal [End Page 350] to and draw on the Middle Ages as the source of fiction, drama, cinema, clothes, and music, the more the Middle Ages are dehistoricized” (264). Trigg in fact traces this same kind of double movement throughout the book, in the way that the ritual history of the Garter—and perhaps also modernity itself --claims origins in Middle Ages, and at other times works to erase any relationship with its medieval past.

In methodological terms, Trigg’s book operates rather differently from previous, official histories of the Garter; in her subtitle, Trigg claims to be writing a “vulgar history” rather than a social or cultural history proper, and even the typographical idiosyncrasy on the cover—an asterisk before the subtitle—announces that this will be history told a bit slant. Trigg more precisely describes the genre of the book as a “symptomatic long history” in the same vein as her groundbreaking book on Chaucer’s reception, Congenial Souls (14), but, by “vulgar,” she means that her history does not pretend to be “continuous nor comprehensive, but moves between historical and thematic approaches,” and maintains a strong interest in the “vulgar” origins of the Garter in a rumored breach of female sexual decorum (15). To be sure, in this “cultural history of [a] medieval institution and its survival into contemporary culture, long after the social and political forces that framed its formation have disappeared” (5), Trigg admittedly says less than we might expect about those social and political forces: this is not some revisionary account of Edward III’s reign. Shame and Honor will also disappoint readers expecting new, meticulously researched historical arguments about, for example, the identity of the noble lady supposed to have dropped that fateful garter, or indeed the veracity of the entire origin myth of the Order. But Trigg’s goal is precisely to...


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pp. 350-353
Launched on MUSE
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