Courtly Love Undressed: Reading through Clothes in Medieval French Culture

Courtly Love Undressed: Reading through Clothes in Medieval French Culture

Courtly Love Undressed: Reading through Clothes in Medieval French Culture

Courtly Love Undressed: Reading through Clothes in Medieval French Culture

Synopsis

Clothing was used in the Middle Ages to mark religious, military, and chivalric orders, lepers, and prostitutes. The ostentatious display of luxury dress more specifically served as a means of self-definition for members of the ruling elite and the courtly lovers among them. In Courtly Love Undressed, E. Jane Burns unfolds the rich display of costly garments worn by amorous partners in literary texts and other cultural documents in the French High Middle Ages.

Burns "reads through clothes" in lyric, romance, and didactic literary works, vernacular sermons, and sumptuary laws to show how courtly attire is used to negotiate desire, sexuality, and symbolic space as well as social class. Reading through clothes reveals that the expression of female desire, so often effaced in courtly lyric and romance, can be registered in the poetic deployment of fabric and adornment, and that gender is often configured along a sartorial continuum, rather than in terms of naturally derived categories of woman and man. The symbolic identification of the court itself as a hybrid crossing place between Europe and the East also emerges through Burns's reading of literary allusions to the trade, travel, and pilgrimage that brought luxury cloth to France.

Excerpt

This book offers a reassessment of courtly love through the lens of the elaborate garments that typify court life in literary accounts of the French High Middle Ages. It argues, in brief, that many of our most basic assumptions about courtly love are called into question when we consider them in relation to the varied functions of sumptuous clothes that provide social definition for key players in love scenarios. Indeed, our perceptions of courtly desire, of the range of gendered subject positions in love, of the negotiability of class status through the practice of love and even the symbolic location of the western court itself, begin to shift substantially when we consider them through the lens of the luxury goods and other bodily adornments that so often define courtliness. We will examine in particular the lavish silks used to fashion elite garments, which are decorated in turn with gold and silk embroidery or with silver, gold, and jeweled ornament, and the equally ornate silks used to make bed coverlets, bed curtains, banners, and tents that festoon the courtly milieu. We will look at the standard unisex outfit of chemise, tunic, and mantle displayed on men and women alike, along with the more highly gendered male armor and female skin, as garments of another sort. Elite costumes wrought from natural elements such as garlands of flowers and leaves, whether used materially or metaphorically to mark partners in love, will also come under consideration as key icons of courtly dress.

What follows, then, is a study of material culture as it is represented in select lyric and romance texts, didactic literature, vernacular sermons, and sumptuary laws that imagine and construct various functions for luxury clothes and elite attire in the French Middle Ages. What historical individuals actually wore in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France, how those material objects were produced, consumed, traded, and displayed, is . . .

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