The Medieval Review 11.07.29

Monica L. Wright. Weaving Narrative: Clothing in Twelfth-Century French Romance. Penn State Romance Studies. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 192. $60. 9780271035659. $35. 9780271035666.

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi De Filippis

That clothes and clothing acts have played starkly political, and therefore narrative, roles has been well known at least since the Homeric description of Penelope's cunning use of weaving to keep at bay a horde of ravenous suitors. Through innumerable examples, before and after the twelfth century C.E., it is apparent that the metaphor of weaving threads into a fabric has been used to structure tales, describe characters, solve difficulties, link or distinguish situations, cause events. A late example--the uncanny contrast between the solemn portraits of Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour and the hasty sketch by J.L. David of a shabby, skinny veuve Capet on her way to the guillotine-- well exemplifies the force clothes possess in the representation of status, in the display of power and, most importantly, in the telling of stories. The trajectory of the Autrichienne's unfortunate course in the esteem of the French people is famously punctuated by the scandal caused by the appearance at the Salon of 1783 of a portrait by Madame Vigée Lebrun entitled La Reine en gaulle. So bitter were the attacks on what was deemed as the depiction of the Queen wearing little more than an undergarment, a chemise, that the portrait had to be hastily removed and substituted by a more conventional one. But the lightness and seeming transparency of the fabric were not the only features at stake. Her enemies were quick to capitalize on a much more concrete issue: the damage that this fashion trend was causing to the French economy, famous for its heavy brocaded silks, in favor of foreign, imported fabrics. The preference for gaulle was not the ultimate cause of the French Revolution, of course, but the tension it unveiled between social status, the valuation of fabrics and the mercantile economy (between, in other words, aristocracy and bourgeoisie) can be traced back to much earlier tales such as the ones Monica L. Wright focuses on in her reading of twelfth century French romance.

This is, in fact, what struck me most in Wright's Weaving Narrative: Clothing in Twelfth Century French Romance, a work in which, to use the author's own words, "an exploration of the relationship between material culture and literary expression will help to elucidate how societal changes influenced and were influenced by the literary use of clothing" (1). Her wider critical intent includes the application to twelfth-century romance clothing acts of twentieth-century linguistics, such as the notion of the ultimately flexible, arbitrary 'sign' derived by Saussure and Kristeva (9) in contrast to the non-arbitrary 'symbol'. However, the section of Wright's work I found most convincing is that in which she postulates that the literary descriptions of lavish dress in twelfth-century romance result from the necessity of a declining and ever-more impoverished nobility to maintain the pre-eminence of the aristocratic status quo in contrast to the aggressive rise of the new mercantile class. Through distinctive vestimentary acts represented, among other things, by the lavish use of luxurious, exotic fabrics described as a mark of nobility, Wright suggests that "nobles, threatened by changes in the material world, looked to the writers of romance to entertain them and regale them with stories that glorified all that they treasured and believed themselves to embody" (40). The means which allowed such purposeful handling of rather standard narratives is the notion of "conjointure", that is, the medieval habit through which "the author of romance would use various source material and his or her skills as a writer to weave together a cohesive and beautiful text from divergent material forming a new, original version" (11). Writers of romance produced not only beautiful, dreamy histories, but also concretely contributed to the attempt at maintaining the societal hierarchy on whose highest echelons they generally relied for protection and material sustenance. They accomplished this by melanging the aura of a magical, otherworldly golden age in which romances are usually set with an 'economic' intent and by having semi-mythical characters such as Arthur and his knights behave according to the vestimentary code that in real life marked the allure of aristocracy.

Among the narrative strategies at work in this intent, Wright postulates, however, the existence of a "dynamic signifying system" (41) by which romance writers managed to insert in their stories the destabilizing social elements that the nobles "so feared." The results are, thus, works in which the well known predilection of romance for enigmatic, ambiguous, uncanny situations comes full circle to indicate the impending crisis of a social system in which roles reverse, non-arbitrary symbols become highly arbitrary signs, and events, far from having an absolute meaning, must be read in context. The literary version of such a multifarious society cannot but mirror its characteristics by calling into question readers' responses and interpretations. Wright's emphasis on the writers' implication of readers (/auditors?) in the deciphering and unfolding of the textual cloth--a necessary passage, given the highly ephemeral value of 'signs'--constitutes one of the most original traits exposed in Chapter One ("Romance and the Fabric of Feudal Society: Conjointure and Change") of Weaving Narrative.

The other chapters--"Material Matters: Clothing in Changing Contexts", "Dressing Up the Character: The Elucidation of Characters Through Clothing", "Clothing Acts and the Movement from Code to Signifying System", and "Clothing as a Structuring, Thematic and, Narrative Device: The Art of Weaving Romance"--are meant to analyze the many instances in which twelfth-century French romance employs vestimentary acts and cloth in general. Wright's careful classification of the various types of cloth-related themes detectable in romances is burdened however by an excessive reliance on listing as, for instance, on p. 68 ("[...] there is a less blatant but still discernible manipulation of the a [sic] code, at three distinct levels of manipulation: duplication of the code but with new conventions, contextual or community changes that result in the necessity to interpret rather than simply read signifiers, and the absence of a code"), on p. 86 ("Three categories of nonlargess gifts deserve brief mention here: restorative gifts, identificatory gifts, and love gifts"), or on p. 95 ("Context may include any or all of the following overlapping levels: character elucidation, theme, plot, and narrative"). All of the listings are followed by examples taken from the texts and, at times, by further sub-divisions or additions ("the vestimentary paradigm where gifts are concerned does not exclude some striking code manipulation" p. 89). While this must be the result of a terrific command of her sources, and though the examples she produces are always coherent and relevant, I must report that the 'listing' style she adopts ends up being frankly rather tedious and, most importantly, makes it hard to follow what one senses to be an interesting--but overly classificatory--application to a great number of romances of the suggestive theoretical principles she delineated in Chapter One.

A consequence of this stylistic procedure is that, at times, Wright's analysis of the texts appears excessively porous and swift. This is not always the case. Her reading of Perceval's "evolution as a knight" (143-146), for example, is a well-rounded cameo showing the knight's synaesthetic quest from youth into adulthood as underscored by clothing acts. But there are other instances when the necessity of providing multiple readings of the same romance from different perspectives according to the various categories she alternatively discusses ends up producing inevitably partial readings of romances whose complexity is one of the features being pointed out. A brief example, I hope, will help clarify this paradox. Having already discussed Jaufre as an example of "gifts of clothing" (81-84), of "clothing acts [...] that advance the theme of a romance" (96-97), of "dressing another person or oneself as an honoring act" (102-105), of "gender ambivalence through clothing" (110-112), and of "violence, aggression and nudity as a consequence of the destruction of garments" (118), on pp. 135-137 Wright examines this romance as an example of "plot structuring through analogy." One of the scenes she focuses on describes Arthur's knights "tear[ing] and rend[ing] their clothing as they express their fear and worry for their king" who had been captured by a "large horned beast." This "scene of intense grieving," she continues, "is a central structuring element of the romance, and many other textual moments reflect it by incorporating scenes of lamentation, often accompanied by the ripping and tearing of clothes." She then proceeds to list all of the instances in which lamentations are described in the romance, including one instance of "ripping out" the hair, and concludes with a baffling remark: "All of these instances serve to reflect the larger, central lamenting act and therefore are a structuring device of the romance in general through both formal and thematic analogy" (137).

The fact that (romance) writers employ(ed) analogy as a structuring device is no surprise starting with Aristotle (On Rhetoric, 10.7), whereas the tearing of clothes and ripping out of hair--just as the exposure of breasts mentioned on page 118--would be potentially exciting elements to linger on since they clearly echo the ancient funeral practices widespread in the Mediterranean area, as beautifully recounted by Ernesto de Martino in Morte e pianto rituale. Dal lamento funebre antico al pianto di Maria. Vestiges of them are still visible in medieval artworks through the topic of the "complaint on the body of the dead Christ," though here they are treated in an enigmatic, weirdly comic way since the bursts of lamentations are apparently unmotivated, or in any case exaggerated, and happen suddenly, when least expected. The fact that valuable status symbols are ripped to pieces, that uncanny, magical characters seemingly 'mock' the traditional planctus Mariae, is certainly striking and would fit perfectly in the theoretical frame Wright delineates at the outset of her study as an example of the "dynamic signifying system" she postulates is at play in the romances. But, inexplicably, she remains on the surface and simply states that these are examples of analogy.

The value of a certainly well-researched monograph as Weaving Narrative cannot be diminished by this reviewer's wish to have a cohesive, complete, unitary reading of each romance, given that the author has clearly preferred a different, thematic approach. And since some of the material has already been published as journal articles, it could be that Wright felt the necessity of linking the categories she has been collecting over the course of several years in a book which would offer the results of her studies in a classificatory, orderly way. I feel, though, that this choice slightly limits the force of the theoretical argument Wright 'weaves' in her opening chapter, and ends up eroding the poignancy of her readings of the romances. A venial sin, after all, because the overall plan of the study is clear nonetheless and her definition of romances as "dynamic signifying systems" definitely stimulating.