Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

What Was Arthur Wearing? Discrepancies in Dress Descriptions in Twelfth-Century French Romance

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

What Was Arthur Wearing? Discrepancies in Dress Descriptions in Twelfth-Century French Romance

Article excerpt

In the second half of the twelfth century, Old French literature saw the rise of romance, a new genre destined for the court and characterized by its exploration of courtly themes, including love, chivalry, and the exploits of knights in the service of ladies, kings, and ideals. These romances, the majority of which are Arthurian in setting, demonstrate a new interest in and emphasis on clothing that undoubtedly reflect the intense interest in clothing of the society of the day. (1) In most romances of the period, clothing has an important role to play, often in the form of lengthy descriptions. Writers provide such descriptions of dress for most of the main characters of their stories, sometimes including multiple descriptions when changes of clothes occur. In Chretien de Troyes' Erec et Enide, for example, we find perhaps the two most elaborate descriptions of dress in medieval literature, as first Guenevere, then Arthur, provide Erec and Enide magnificent clothing. (2) These descriptions are, respectively, one hundred lines and seventy-five lines in length. What we virtually never see, however, is the clothing of Arthur and Guenevere. The opening scene of Erec et Enide contains a typical reference to Arthur's clothing. Chretien mentions that Arthur dresses in a short cote to go hunting: "d'une corte cote se vest" (72). (3) In the anonymous romance Jaufre, toward its conclusion, we are told that Arthur dons his hauberk and surcote to fight a giant bird (9868-69). (4) In neither of these cases, and very rarely elsewhere, do the writers actually describe the king's garments; at most they allude to them in passing, but more often they make no mention of Arthur's clothing at all. How is it that in the Arthurian literary universe featuring pervasive descriptions of dress, the two ostensibly most important characters' clothing remain unknown to us? The answer, I believe, lies in the particular way in which twelfth-century romance reflects the changes occurring in the society.

These works simultaneously express nostalgia for days long past and reinforce the existence of a new social reality for their primary audience--the nobles. The world of the late twelfth-century French nobles was changing around them, especially insofar as the French monarchy was becoming more centralized and more powerful. When the Capetians came to power in the late tenth century, the king was little more than a feudal lord, holding most of his power from his position as territorial lord. (5) At that time, the country literally belonged to the nobles, who were the wealthiest, most powerful group of people in the land, and the king held dominion over them in only the most restricted of terms. (6) During the course of the twelfth century, however, the balance of power slowly changed, becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the king. By the time of the rise of romance, that is, by the reign of Louis VII in the mid-twelfth century, considerable headway had been made toward a centralized French monarchy. (7) Louis's son Philip Augustus, who ascended to the throne in 1179, truly solidified Capetian monarchical power. During his reign, Philip Augustus made vast changes to the structure of power in France, transforming it from a primitive monarchy into an administrative monarchy. (8) This decline of aristocratic influence was also the case for the nobles and barons associated with the Anglo-Norman-Angevin king Henry II, whose consolidation of power preceded that of the French kings. (9) At the close of the twelfth century, the great barons of France and the Anglo-Norman domain thus found themselves with little power and diminished roles in the reformed government of their king. These kings were strong and held dominion tightly over their considerable domains. As a kingly figure, the literary Arthur has much more in common with these more powerful, autonomous kings than with their weaker predecessors, and we can certainly imagine that his image was crafted from an idealized version of theirs. …

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