Joyce Kubiski

title.none: Blockmans and Janse, eds., Showing Status (Kubiski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.016 01.01.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joyce Kubiski, Western Michigan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Blockmans, Wim and Antheun Janse, eds. Showing Status: Representations of Social Positions in the Late Middle Ages. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 1, 491. 65 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50766-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.16

Blockmans, Wim and Antheun Janse, eds. Showing Status: Representations of Social Positions in the Late Middle Ages. Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 1, 491. 65 EUR. ISBN: 2-503-50766-2.

Reviewed by:

Joyce Kubiski
Western Michigan University

This collection of eighteen essays, with an introduction and summary written by Wim Blockmans, gathers together papers delivered at four symposia on the perception of social position in the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages (1400-1600). Organized by the Netherlands Research School for Medieval Studies, most of the contributors are affiliated with research institutions in the Netherlands. All the essays in the volume have been translated into English, allowing the specialist, as well as those more generally interested in medieval popular culture, to access the material. The essays are interdisciplinary in nature, and are written by scholars of social history, literary history, and art history. Topics include analyses of burial customs, clothing, religious and secular badges, artists' salaries, self-portraits, peasant movements, and arrest records for spousal abuse. While the essays vary greatly in the type of material considered, the methods applied, and the quality of writing, all the contributors have focused on--as Blockmans describes it--"the desired, expected, imagined, or perceived perceptions of individuals and groups in relation to others." (16) Even though the topics and research methods of the essays are quite diverse, their common underlying focus on the perception of status unifies them in emphasizing the difficulties faced by the historian in concretely defining medieval social relationships, while at the same time illuminating a more complex and nuanced system of social interactions that resonate with the modern reader.

This focus on perception seems to be a natural response to postmodern theory, which for at least twenty years has emphasized the inherent difficulties of reconstructing the past. Primary sources rarely are explicit about how these sources were interpreted in their own time; and historians can not fully disengage from contemporary attitudes to create an unbiased picture of the past. The contributing literary historians particularly noted this dilemma. Jeanne Verbij- Schillings, in analyzing a Middle Dutch chronicle that described the nouveau nobility in fifteenth-century Holland, comes to the conclusion that, "Narrative texts tend to evoke the typical situation or event rather than describe the reality. In other words, they provide a view rather than a description of a social reality." (141) In their investigation of the popular theme of the henpecked husband, Wim Blockmans and Tess Neijzen stress the "complicated relationship between fiction and reality". (276) After carefully comparing the literary tradition with a variety of non-fictional source materials, they reject previous research that linked the theme of the malicious wife to a cultural phenomenon grounded in socio-economic circumstances. The authors emphasize instead a psychological motivation, suggesting that "the fiction- consuming public is attracted to a world other than that of its own reality". (267)

The research methods of the authors differ as strikingly as their topics. Several contributors used statistical analyses, their findings supported by raw numbers. For example, Robert Stein analyzes three accounts of mourning-cloth recorded by Brabantine treasurers in the early fifteenth century. Stein, himself, acknowledges that the amount and type of cloth distributed for the funeral ceremonies adheres to our current understanding of the hierarchical structure of medieval society. However, his careful examination of the primary sources produces a more complete and nuanced picture of the social structure of court life from its aristocratic apex to the kitchen staff, musicians, painters, and laundry women at the more humble end of the scale. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens' analysis of rich and poor students attending University, Maximiliaan P.J. Martens' examination of the salaries and social mobility of artists in the fifteenth century, and Koen Goudriaan's investigation of grave ownership in Dutch parish churches all likewise rely upon a statistical examination of primary sources. These hard data expand our awareness of the subtlety of medieval social relations beyond the simple paradigm of the three estates. Part of the success of these essays lies in the creativity of the contributors in their identification and use of primary sources. For example, in his examination of the social stratification of the civic militia of St. George in late medieval Hague, Fred J. W. van Kan's uses membership lists, clothing regulations, seating arrangements, and records of placement in civic processions.

While one of the appeals of this collection of essays is in the incredible diversity of material examined, there are times when an author's conclusions are not sufficiently supported by the primary evidence. For example, the first essay by Raymond van Uytven, "Showing off One's Rank in the Middle Ages", is first an appeal to scholars to expand the range of source material they use, and secondly an analysis of how food, drink, and clothing defined social position from 1250 to 1550. Admittedly such an expansive topic can only be treated superficially in a short article, but it would have been helpful if the author had more fully explored a limited time period. His discussion of clothing is much too broad and the conclusions too general to be very useful. He uses three paintings as evidence, yet they are not reproduced for the reader, nor are they sufficiently cited. While the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes may be well known, the two French miniatures he discusses are not. Without a secondary bibliography to support his statements regarding dating and provenance, his conclusions about the fashion represented in the paintings can not be validated. Although van Uytven's conclusions seem inadequately supported by the material evidence, he nevertheless has raised several interesting questions, which deserve further inquiry. Indeed one of the laudable characteristics of all the essays is in the questions they raise, regardless of whether the questions are sufficiently answered at this point in time.

While the conclusions of most of the contributors are not surprising, and confirm rather than challenge our modern understanding of the hierarchical nature of medieval society, the value of this collection is that it pictures the Middle Ages as a more complex system of social signs than we previously realized, much like our own culture in which the color of a bandana, the model of a car, and the inflexion of a handshake are subtly differentiated and interpreted.