The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War

The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War

The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War

The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War

Synopsis

Medieval courtiers defined themselves in ceremonies and rituals. Tournaments, Maying, interludes, charivaris, and masking invited the English and French nobility to assert their identities in gesture and costume as well as in speech. These events presumed that performance makes a self, in contrast to the modern belief that identity precedes social performance and, indeed, that performance falsifies the true, inner self. Susan Crane resists the longstanding convictions that medieval rituals were trivial affairs, and that personal identity remained unarticulated until a later period.

Focusing on England and France during the Hundred Years War, Crane draws on wardrobe accounts, manuscript illuminations, chronicles, archaeological evidence, and literature to recover the material as well as the verbal constructions of identity. She seeks intersections between theories of practice and performance that explain how appearances and language connect when courtiers dress as wild men to interrupt a wedding feast, when knights choose crests and badges to supplement their coats of arms, and when Joan of Arc cross-dresses for the court of inquisition after her capture.

Excerpt

My target is a medieval courtier who is behaving strangely. What can she mean by dressing in leaves and flowers on the first of May? Why does he disguise himself as a wild man to interrupt a wedding feast? At such moments, self-conception intersects with self-presentation, and behavior conveys something of how courtiers inhabited their social identities. What these courtiers say about themselves could be seen as extraneous to their behavior, but I take their words as a functional part of their behavior, a component of their performances that should not be isolated from the material register. Conjoining these registers brings out complexities in medieval self-conception that may seem alien now, complexities that tend to be ignored in histories of self-consciousness. Yet scholars, except perhaps for the most traditional Cartesians, are in agreement that self-conception is profoundly shaped by cultural and material conditions. We should expect people to understand and perform themselves differently from place to place and time to time. By attending to place, time, and performance together, I mean to apprehend secular identities in their specifically courtly and medieval aspects.

My premise that identity is both material and conceptual dictates a range of sources from lyric poetry to household accounts to chronicles and beyond. It might be objected that my evidence recovers not vanished performances but merely their textual vestiges. a chronicle’s account of a courtier’s disguising offers only mediated access to a historical moment, but its very mediations—its explanations of the behavior, its economy of representation, its judgments—constitute a generically shaped discourse of identity. Similarly, a lyric poem about May cannot record whether historical women accepted the poetic trope that they were daisies, but it can demonstrate the trope’s place in a complex of ideas about courtly identity that Maying was said to enact. Wardrobe accounts provide another kind of information about the purposes of Maying, as they detail which emblems are embroidered on May garments and who wears a lord’s livery for the festival. All these texts are at some remove from historical performance . . .

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