The Medieval Review 10.03.18

Netherton, Robin and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, eds. . Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Vol. 5 . Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 220. $60.00 9781843834519 . .

Reviewed by:

Linda Welters
University of Rhode Island

This is the fifth volume in an annual series that publishes research on medieval and early modern dress and textiles. Each volume functions like a journal, except that it is hardbound. All seven research papers were previously presented at DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion), a group which meets during two annual conferences on medieval studies: the International Medieval Congress at Leeds, England, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan. In addition to the essays, the book contains a preface by the co-editors, twelve short book reviews, a list of the contents of previous volumes, and an index.

The chronological range represented in this volume is from the Viking Age to the late sixteenth century. The articles are presented more or less in chronological sequence, and both textile and costume topics are included. Geographically, the articles cover Iceland, France, Florence, and Venice. I will briefly introduce each article, and then treat the essays as a whole.

In the first article, Kate D'Ettore explores the role of clothing and conflict in family sagas, a genre of Old Icelandic literature. Inspired by a reference in a 1969 article about menacing figures in blue or black cloaks, she investigated the ways dress and accessories foreshadow impending crises. She provides two detailed examples from the Njáls saga and Laxdaela saga.

Sarah-Grace Heller examines the vocabulary used for extraordinary textile work in old French literature. She dissects usage of the word ovrer or ouvrer, meaning "to work," which poses problems for translators because it is unclear whether "worked textile" means woven, embroidered, or otherwise decorated. Applicable to a wider readership is her discussion of embroideries attributed to fairies, a trope that assigns their origin to faraway people or places outside of European court circles, such as the land of the Saracens, Constantinople, or India.

Thomas Izbicki's chapter explores church edicts on dress in late medieval Italy. Ecclesiastical enactments targeted extravagance in women's dress habits, particularly garments that opened in the front and sleeves that trailed on the ground. Equally suspect was ostentatious display of jewelry, use of false hair, and unveiling in public. Izbicki includes texts of three edicts dating from 1279, 1310, and 1327. The desire to dress according to one's station in life superseded any commitment to piety; thus, such edicts were largely unsuccessful. Clergy, who themselves dressed in finery, regularly provided absolutions to offenders.

Paula Mae Carns' subject is the costumes depicted on French Gothic ivories. She describes them and places them in "the context of contemporary fashion trends, courtly iconography, workshop practices, and the marketing of ivories" (56). She characterizes her study as intersecting the worlds of art and fashion. Cairns divides the costumes depicted in the ivories as either pre-1340 or post-1340 because previous researchers have pinpointed that year as a benchmark in the emergence of "fashion." [1] She found that the clothes depicted on the ivories after 1340 were more fashion conscious, and thus more desirable to consumers.

Sarah Randles provides a thorough analysis of two quilts from fifteenth-century Florence. One is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London while the other is at the Museo del Bargello in Florence. Each of these artifacts, which once belonged to the Guicciardini family of Florence, includes panels from the story of Tristan and Isolde. They are the earliest known examples of decorative quilting. The two quilts had been previously studied, but earlier scholars do not agree on whether they are a pair, or fragments from the same quilt. Randles concludes that they once comprised a single large quilt. She presents her argument carefully, explaining the earlier scholarship, telling the story of Tristan and Isolde, and illustrating where the story panels could have appeared on a single quilt. She argues that the tremendous size of the quilt would have fit one of the great beds that decorated Florentine palaces at that time.

The subject of Melanie Schuessler's article is the French hood, a woman's headdress consisting of several parts. Using portraits, brasses, and inventories, Schuessler traces the origin and development of this fashionable headpiece from France, which spread to other European courts and enjoyed nearly a century of use. The reader may be familiar with the French hood because Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, wore one in her portrait, as did his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Catherine de Medici wore one too. Careful drawings by the author illustrate how to reconstruct a French hood.

The final essay is Tawny Sherrill's study of Cesare Vecellio's Habiti Antichi, a well-known book of costumes published in 1598. This book is widely recognized as the best of the many costume books published in Germany, France, and Italy in the sixteenth century. Sherrill provides a short biography of Vecellio's life, describes the costume book, and explains where he likely got the sources for the 500 plates. She credits some of the success of Habiti Antichi, which included historic and contemporary images of Venetians, to the city of Venice. The city was at the height of its power in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and both its noblewomen and courtesans contributed to the city's fame.

The scholarship in these articles is very thorough; each has copious footnotes. The articles are illustrated in black and white where appropriate, and the quality of the illustrations is high. Lack of color is not a detriment for this particular volume. The essays are well selected and well edited.

The past decade has seen increasing interest in dress and textiles among arts and humanities disciplines. This volume's authors include a historian of Anglo-Saxon culture, professors of modern languages, a medievalist, a librarian, a costume historian, and a theatrical costume designer. The authors are affiliated with American, Canadian, British, and Australian universities. They employ an array of primary sources including literary texts, artifacts, works of art, and costume books. The volume is truly interdisciplinary.

Working across disciplines has its pitfalls, however, and this volume attests to that fact. It is nearly impossible to know research protocols in a discipline not one's own. For example, Randles examined both quilt fragments in person, but failed to conduct fiber identification on them. The identification of the fibers is ambiguously stated: "Both quilts are constructed in the same way, from two outer layers of undyed fabric, probably linen, between which is what appears to be cotton wool padding" (98). There are several problems with this description, beginning with the words "probably" and "appears" and concluding with "cotton wool." A footnote mentions that the Victoria and Albert Museum identifies the outer fabric as cotton, which conflicts with the author's guess that the fabric is linen (e.g., fiber content for linen would then be flax). This information also refutes the author's argument that both fragments come from the same quilt. Fiber content should be tested. A simple fiber identification test would end the uncertainty. Removing a small amount of yarn (or fiber in the case of the wadding) and examining the fibers under a microscope does not damage the quilt, although a researcher should always ask for permission. If a microscope is not available on site, the yarn may be placed on a piece of tape, on a sticky note, or in a small envelope, and studied at a later date. Professional services are available to assist with identification, and in this case may have been useful indeed as current research is showing frequent blending of cotton and linen in a range of fabrics. [2] Also, what is "cotton wool?" A footnote indicates that the author thinks the wadding is "cotton" based on visual observation. The preferred terminology, then, would be "cotton."

The topics for many of the articles are quite narrow, but the authors make the effort to justify their work in order to make it applicable to a larger audience. Because the essays are collected and presented in book form, the authors should take care to write for a broader audience than their scholarly peers. This reader was not familiar with the Icelandic saga tradition, and was curious about the author's closing comments that awareness of conventions connecting clothing and conflict presents "the opportunity to explore the reading practices and expectations of medieval audiences" (italics are mine; p. 14). I would have expected the sagas to have been transmitted orally. I made an inquiry to an Icelandic colleague who informed me that the Njáls saga was written in the thirteenth century about events that purportedly took place in the late tenth century. Even after first being penned onto vellum and preserved in a chieftain's stronghold or monastery, they still were read out loud to audiences. Further, the clothing described probably reflects that of the thirteenth century rather than historical reality. [3] Neither of these important points is discussed.

The notion of "fashion" is evident in several of the articles. "Fashion" and its origin in Western Europe during the late middle ages is undergoing reconsideration. It is generally understood to mean "changing styles of dress and appearance that are adopted by a group of people at any given time and place." [4] The article on French ivories takes 1340 as the date that fashion started; yet the essay on church edicts implies that fashion existed already in the 1200s since the new styles desired by Italian women generated ecclesiastical regulation. One of the contributors to the volume, Sarah-Grace Heller, has weighed in on this issue with her publication entitled Fashion in Medieval France (Boydell, 2007). Members of DISTAFF are well poised to contribute to the debate on the origin of fashion, and I look forward to future volumes of Medieval Clothing and Textiles to resolve that debate.



1. See Stella Mary Newton's Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell & Brewer, 1980).

2. Margaret Ordoñez has identified cotton-flax blends in a wide range of fabrics including Italian lace, French toiles, and blue-and-white resists. Fiber identification services are available at the University of Rhode Island's textile conservation laboratory.

3. Karl Aspelund, Emails to author, January 18, 2010.

4. Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun (eds.), The Fashion Reader (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2007), p. xix.