The Medieval Review 13.03.21

Trigg, Stephanie. Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 352. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4391-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Valerie Allen
John Jay College, CUNY

Since at least Congenial Souls (2002), Stephanie Trigg has demonstrated a serious interest in the reception of the medieval across the centuries in both academic and popular culture, an interest that in this work addresses the Order of the Garter, which, she claims, can "reshape our understanding of both the Middle Ages and modernity" (29). Eschewing the view from nowhere, Trigg situates herself among Garter historians as a medievalist interested in medievalism, of which the Order's history is an outstanding and unique example. Her historiographical method is "vulgar," in that her coverage is "neither continuous nor comprehensive" (15) and in its fascination with how the Order, with its fantastic plumage and base origins, "threatens to seem laughable" (7). Those humble beginnings lie in the putative story of the dropped garter, the confusion of the undone lady (possibly the Countess of Salisbury), the titters of courtiers, and King Edward III's shaming of the shamers with the now- famous declaration: "honi soit qui mal y pense" (shame on whoever thinks badly of it). Unprovable and probably apocryphal though the incident is, the story of shame transformed into honor gathers mythic force even as its authenticity is disputed.

Along with its introduction and brief conclusion, the book divides into three parts: "Ritual Histories" (Chapters 1-3), loosely chronological in tracking the order's timeline from 1348 to the present; "Ritual Practices" (Chapters 4-6), largely thematic in exploring the issues of shame, tradition, and clothing; finally "Ritual Modernities" (Chapter 7) combines temporality with thematics in considering the medievalism of the modern and the modernity of the medieval.

In Chapter 1 Trigg consciously disavows observing the usual conventions of Garter histories, which tend to indulge in the pleasures of enumeration by counting and recounting its genealogy of members and to represent the Order as a continuous tradition of repeated rituals. Her disclaimer, one would think, need only be made once, yet it is reiterated and reaffirmed often enough to suggest her awareness of possible incompatibilities between the two main populations this book attracts: academic medievalists and Garter enthusiasts. Precisely because the etiological story of the dropped garter is irrecoverable, it exceeds the category of the factual to become archetypal, thus neutralizing vexed distinctions between cause and consequence, event and interpretation. As for the baseness of those origins, Trigg mines this rich seam throughout the book. This august company, now nearer seven centuries old than six, and having only recently tipped its membership into four figures, is scarcely a major player in the public rites that fashion citizenly subjects and build nations, yet in enacting its own trivial origins in underwear, the Order performs the work of ritual as a sovereign transforms an ordinary object into a political sign.

Chapter 2 tackles the documentary problem of origins, which is where most "straight histories" of the Order begin. The earliest copy of the Order's statutes dates from 1415, leaving a large gap in the records for the fourteenth century. One wonders, however, even if the lack were remedied with some juicy source, whether it or anything else can offer definitive access to "how it really was," to quote Leopold von Ranke. Trigg does not fully confront the question, yet in speaking of the "undecidability" of the Order's origins she hints at the suspicion that positive evidence will never definitively provide that "final click of certainty" (50, 60). Whatever Edward's particular reasons for founding the Order of the Garter, the contemporaneous founding of the Order of the Round Table shows him well able to put political spin on romance and myth, exercising his own brand of medieval medievalism. The dropped garter is only the most well known of a number of alternative theories for its adoption, which range in plausibility from the garter bestowed on the king as a sexual favor to the Virgin's vagina as inspiration. Emboldened by this last one, I shall hazard another. The Golden Legend narrates that after the Virgin had ascended bodily into heaven, she lets her girdle fall on top of Doubting Thomas who had queried the veracity of her assumption. The details change in some versions (for example, the Assumption account in the Auchinleck Manuscript), but always at their center stands the Virgin's dropped girdle, so--given that the Order was dedicated to her as well as St. George and that it had "strong religious affiliations" (53)--I wonder, admittedly as an ignota about Garter origins, why this story is nowhere considered as a contender, if only to be discounted.

Chapter 3 takes the Garter story to the early modern period, the critical point at which garter historiography gets "critical" in the pejorative sense, and explicitly registers the embarrassment that Trigg tracks. It also yields that distainful epithet "vulgar," which she playfully reclaims in the book's subtitle as she folds into her method the ironic simultaneous distance and proximity characteristic of medievalism. In the Garter's sartorial leap from lady's leg to royal gam, this fraternity never shakes off the "fear of effeminacy" (118). Having noted how "weird" and "curious" its temporalities are, Trigg concludes from its homosocial anxiety that "it is almost impossible to maintain a purely 'straight' reading of the Garter's origins" (111). With embarrassment and clothing now under discussion, she segues smoothly to the book's second part, where shame plays the overture.

Chapter 4 explores many facets of this emotion, most interestingly how the Order manages and documents its shaming rituals, for it is caught between the conflicting desires of expunging the name of a dishonorable knight from the face of record, and of hoarding in the archive its every last ceremonious act. The result is a kind of Heideggerian crossing out of a chivalric identity still legible underneath its bar of opprobrium. This double impulse is not exclusive to the Order's defrocking protocols, for it also shapes penitential confession, where communicants must both own and disown their deeds. Yet inasmuch as shame indexes self-consciousness, it finds a natural home in chivalric pomp and ceremony, which threaten at any point to overstep decorum into excess and expose the Order to the laughter that is only an ostrich feather away.

If Garter enthusiasts are to be offended by any part of the book, Chapter 5 might displease most as Trigg critiques conventional commemorative histories for lacking self-critique and for their celebration of a seemingly unbroken tradition that on closer inspection reveals deep fractures: the abeyance in the 1800s of the annual Garter Service for over a century; Edward VI's purging of popery and naughtiness from the newly Protestantized Order (in particular, What is to be done with St. George?); and the exclusion of women as formal members of the Order from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries--a contradiction the five female monarchs who reigned during that period simply had to live with.

Trigg's last chapter in Part II, on clothing, seems the one most successfully to balance content with analysis, for elsewhere the insubstantiality of the former occasionally struggles to bear the weight of the latter. From its intimate beginnings on a lady's leg, the garter has climbed outwards and upwards as sartorial sign on the honored body. Likewise the sovereign touch has become more distanced, originally from tying back the garter onto the leg (in some accounts the woman's, in others Edward's) to laying it in the Companion's hands. For all the vagaries of women's fashion, the position of the Garter on the female body, now habitually the upper left arm, has remained more stable than its roving progress over the male anatomy, around the leg, around the arm, under the arm, on the lapel, before, behind, between, above, below. Anxiety crackles like electricity around the gartered sovereign body. One fifteenth-century account has the king wear the lady's garter for two weeks before public discomfort at his breach of decorum galvanizes him to promote the ribbon to symbol. Trigg sees in this account the violation of the boundary between the king's two bodies as Kantorowicz describes them, one mortal, the other perpetual (204-206). In Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm's satire figuring a ridiculous noodle of a Garter Knight, the body most properly fitted to bear the honored ribbon emerges as that of the dandy. More apt then to say that the Garter wears the wearer, its touch exquisitely queer, stretching and folding time, supplementing a body made incomplete by the very performance of addition. There are some nuanced readings in this chapter, worth absorption into those more conventional Garter treatments, which should take seriously the twin issues informing Trigg's analysis: the problematics of "straight" history and the profundity of embarrassment.

The single chapter (Chapter 7) that comprises Part III concerns things modern, from Garter kitsch souvenirs and memorabilia to occasions when royalty's "two bodies" get painfully confused--for example, the infamous tampon conversations between Charles and Camilla, and Diana's funeral, when public expression of grief transformed into symbolic statement. Trigg justifies her avoidance of linear chronology from medieval to modern by invoking a modernity that accommodates rather than replaces the medieval. Like any system, the Order of the Garter cumulatively gains in complexity the more it tolerates irregularity, disruption, and contradiction. Insofar as modern means relevant, the relevance of the royal family is as much at issue as is that of the medieval, yet anxiety about irrelevance offers a productive path into the complexity of nostalgia, observance of ritual, desire for roots, self-esteem and self-derision. Trigg's brief conclusion presents the Order as an institution that, having lost its self-evident relevance, stands in need of explanation. It shares this semantic opacity with medievalism. She opened her book positing the Order's potential for enabling us to rethink both the Middle Ages and modernity. It is a large claim, only realizable by making the following inference: medieval studies and the Order of the Garter endure the same threat of seeming, if not laughable, irrelevant. Hence Trigg invites us to adopt and adapt Edward's motto, "Shamed be the one who thinks badly of...the medieval past" (128).