- Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800–1200 by Maureen C. Miller
This wonderfully researched and amply illustrated work plots the emergence of a distinct clerical garb between the ninth and the twelfth century. Weaving together historical descriptions, councils, and ritual admonition with the testimony of material culture, Miller successfully “explores clothing as an expressive language” (p. 9). The ideology behind the clothes provides important insight into the clergy’s aspirational identity.
Drawing upon conciliar legislation, papal decrees, and liturgy, chapter 1 traces the emergence of an apparel that both differentiates the clergy from the laity and articulates clerical hierarchy. It also anticipates an important change in emphasis: ninth-century legislators did little more than require clean and appropriate liturgical garb; their twelfth-century counterparts legislated against opulent street-wear, leading to the emergence of the cleric’s familiar cappa clausa. [End Page 908]
Chapter 2 examines the increasingly Christological symbolism of the fabrics, colors, and articles of clerical dress in liturgical commentaries. Such symbolism, intended to foster clerical spirituality, was particularly elaborated in periods of reform. Its spiritual implications are apparent in the evolving ordination rites and vesting prayers.
The third chapter turns to visual representations and material remains, demonstrating how early ambivalence to clerical ostentation gave way to increasingly sumptuous garments. In the late Carolingian period, this resulted in what Miller terms “the ornate style” (p. 3). Originating in Anglo-Saxon England, this style’s hallmark is the extensive use of embroidery and golden interwoven patterns on sumptuous fabrics. It corresponds to the enhanced governmental role of bishops, asserting equivalency with the rulers with whom they collaborated.
Chapter 4 highlights the women responsible for clerical clothing. Miller’s scrupulous examination of surviving garments demonstrates how women’s work with textiles afforded them the opportunity to handle and reset garments that had allegedly belonged to saints: “Such projects would have provided very rare moments of direct access to relics for women who were not even allowed to enter the sanctuary or approach the altar” (pp. 166–67). Tacit knowledge of these garments created an intimacy between these women and the priests for whom these garments were retrofitted, as did messages embroidered in hidden places.
The eleventh-century reform would recast the ornate style into an instrument of reform and assertion of ecclesiastical power (chapter 5). Female patronage was, once again, central to achieving these goals. Miller posits that the increased emphasis on vesting prayers would, through a process that cognitive scientists term “enclothed cognition,” enhance the cleric’s consciousness of his sacerdotal function (p. 188). The ornate style also served to differentiate between the various clerical hierarchies. The final chapter articulates how the clergy would use their new ascendancy to promote a concept of good lordship. This effort was, however, undercut by the reinvented ornate style, which brought down a maelstrom of criticism concerning clerical decadence.
This is an important book. No other work provides so painstaking and comprehensive an analysis of the evolution of clerical garb and its incumbent ideology. One might quibble with Miller’s tendency to put the most positive constructions on questions of agency and power, however. Although one strength of the book is the inclusion of women, at times the advantages they were described as accruing as purveyors of clerical finery seem exaggerated. Does an embroidered inscription endorsing a given prelate really point to “an important role for women, particularly women of means, in fostering reform” or suggest that “through their gifts of textiles, and other resources, women could decide what kinds of clerical piety and inspiration should be furthered”? (p. 171). The book also (perhaps understandably) tends to present the “power” expressed in clerical ostentation as intrinsic to the exercise of “virtue.” Yet, while it is probable that vesting prayers fostered clerical [End Page 909] piety, this could have been achieved with coarser fabrics more reflective of an apostolic lifestyle. In short, the apparent “shock and awe” of clerical garb could...