03.01.34, Burrow, Gestures and Looks

Main Article Content

William Ian Miller

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.034


Burrow, J. A.. Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature vol. 48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 200. ISBN: 0-521-81564-9.

Reviewed by:
William Ian Miller
Univ. of Michigan

This book is quite simply a delight. John Burrow is a good reader of literature, a talent which seems to be ever rarer, wrongly condemned because it got confused with a certain style of genteelness. Burrow never makes you feel he is overreading or specially pleading or that he has given up a refined capacity for judgment and taste in the interests of some presentist agenda. He exudes bountiful good sense and the reader rightly and refreshingly trusts him. Burrow deals with much familiar matter in this book but in a way that makes you enjoy revisiting texts you have not read for years in a way that makes you long to read them again, because thanks to Mr. Burrow your pleasure and depth of understanding will be enhanced.

The literature on non-verbal communication is a large one and the specific topic of gesture, which among medievalists, usually means a focus on the gestures of big ritual has become something of a cottage industry. Burrow devotes some attention to the big rituals as in matters of homage and oath-taking but he warms up as the rituals get less grand and a function of everyday interaction, as in gestures of bowing, kneeling, and various forms of leave-taking and greeting. Burrow begins by noting the Augustinian distinction between natural signs that are unmeant, as the case of smoke indicating fire, or a telephone ring indicating a possibility of a telemarketer, with given signals, which the signer means to give. This gives him his warrant to limit his subject to the latter.

Burrow is astutely alert to the various levels of insolence, impudence, contempt, and other nasty meanings available to the actor in consciously overperforming and underperforming big and small rituals. But by his rules of relevance, he excludes from discussion the rich meanings derived from our simple ineptness in performing routine rituals. To borrow from Goffman we "give off" unintentionally a great deal more information than we mean to give. Think of how Chaucer's Prioresse and Absolon of the Miller's Tale are clueless about the small leakages, in her case, and the large ones in his, of their vulgarity, about their mismanagement of their self-presentation. Since it is nearly impossible for an actor to manage the impression he means to send forth without it revealing more than he thinks it is revealing, Burrow cannot quite keep out references to the unintended signals because they are so closely bound up with the ones we mean. I wish in fact he had not been so assiduous in excluding them but that would have been a different and much longer book given that most of the satiro-moral literature on human vanity is about failures in being seen as we would wish to be seen.

This a book in which the virtues are in its myriad small observations which brighten your day for having been told them. Yes, at some level I suppose I knew that "to reverence" in Middle English often means "to bow," but I needed to be reminded if I did, and I surely never made the obviously right connection of noting the same gestural movement of courtesy becoming curtsy (20). Or think of "plighting one's troth" in which the troth is gaged, or handed over as a hostage, that is, it is actually put in a plight, put at risk. The book is filled with epiphanies of the "chaque mot son histoire" sort, in which dead metaphors come to life and mere words are stripped of their mereness and become the subject of a good story no more than a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two, in length. Thus the negativity of looking askance is also captured in Latin invidere, and thus at the root of envy is a gesture of the eye. That prinks, winks, and twinkles, besides their near homophonies are not just linked in sense but meant quite a bit more then; they were not light gestures of foible and non-threatening collusion. As an aside, blinks do not appear except as the twitches in Ryle's discussion of them, but no doubt because the blink is a fairly late addition to the euphonies of winken, blinken, and nod. Burrow in fact is at his best on nods, which is at times what a wink might in fact be in certain Middle English settings; though Burrow does not go this far with his winks he does note that the beck of beckon can often be a nod (58).

Burrow laments the state of the evidence which he notes is in a poor way not just because the medieval sources are not as rich as the novel on gesture or because Middle English had an impoverished vocabulary dedicated to facial expressions, but that writing can never, without defeating itself, attempt a full description of gesture with all its micro movements changing over spans of milliseconds. Darwin already had the photographs to assist him in distinguishing among facial expressions and included them as plates in his book on the emotions. The sources thus make it very hard to tell exactly the differences between handclasps, takings by the hand, handshakes; headshakes, nods up and nods down. Despite the limitations Burrow does wondrously well, even managing to make the very limitations of the evidence into good stories.

Take for instance the paltry evidence surrounding the handshake. Just how was this now common gesture done, if done at all? (35-38) Burrow finds only one indisputable handshake, but it is one worth writing home about from the Anonimalle Chronicle, St. Mary's Abbey, York (fourteenth-century) in which Wat Tyler summoned by King Richard approaches the king on his horse: "when he had dismounted, he half bent his knee and took the king by the hand, shaking his arm forcefully and roughly, saying to him, 'Brother, be of good comfort and joyful.'" One could go on for pages on this meeting. How studied, for instance, is Wat's hearty vulgarity? Does he ham it up? Play the clown? Or is he all sincerity in seeing himself as one of the poorest he's that hath a life to live as the greatest he in England? Burrow speculates that the handshake which had only really seriously begun to dislodge the bow and curtsy among the better mannered in the nineteenth century was perhaps a ready sign of greeting in the lower orders already in the fourteenth.

A chapter on "looks" -- not what you look like as how you manage your eyes -- follows the long chapter on gestures. There is much here, including a useful discussion on how Middle English laughs, indeed Old French ones too, may often be smiles. Here he deals with facial expressions that are meant to communicate, and the language of the eyes, for which one laments the failure of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries to have left records in film. Apt examples and masterful presentation of the material help again make up for the failures in better evidence. There are informative discussions of countenance, chiere, and semblant which leads to an attempt to unravel the inner psychological state of Griselda whose look is always "cheerful."

I offer two quibbles so that my praises will not be chalked up to an insufficiently critical posture. Burrow rightly takes the frown as intended to convey varieties of anger or disapproval. But one example adduced later in the exposition shows that a frown may also indicate, as it does now, nothing more than intense concentration, and though as such it is often involuntary, that does not prevent it from being faked voluntarily. Thus I would read as he does not the frown of the Green Knight at line 2306 of lyppe and browe to indicate just such a false concentration. This is the third and last strike he is about to make and he thus assumes the image of focus and concentration to make sure he can make Gawain believe he is not about to miss (153).

In the discussion of Griselda he notes that "patience was held to require much more than control of external behaviours. It involved complete control over the will, a radical redirection of one's innermost feelings and wishes. So it seems that readers are invited to believe that Griselda really does, inwardly as well as outwardly, go along with all that her husband demands of her. Her 'visage' does not belie her 'herte'" (88). But if this is true what then happens to patience as suffering? If her looks match her inner state then she feels no sorrow at Walter's sadistic commands. And if so she is not suffering but by a marvelous trick of self-command has become not just numb, but exactly as glad as the "chiere" which she never fails to give to her husband. But where is the virtue in that? At least a virtue that denotes suffering? I suppose this is a standard paradox at the core of most exercises of mortification, in which the mortifier comes to take pleasure in her pain.

The wider discussion of looks and gesture in English and French medieval literature gives way to a close consideration of gesture in the Troilus and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Burrow is superb here, enriching passage after passage, which a reader may have barely attended to before. Take one instance, which I quote at length:

And with that word he gan caste up the browe, Ascaunces, 'Loo! Is this naught wisely spoken?' (ll. 204-5) "Troilus shoots his eyebrows up and tosses his head. These actions contrast with those downward movements of the eyes or head which more frequently, elsewhere in the poem, signify modesty or humility...Casting up the brow occurs quite commonly in Middle English as an expression of pride or scorn; but Chaucer offers a verbal equivalent to make the meaning more precise. The rather obscure word 'ascaunces,' here to be glossed 'as if to say,'...evidently struck some Chaucerian imitators as a neat way of supplementing a non-verbal sign with the greater precision of words. Certainly, 'Loo! Is this naught wisely spoken?' are words which catch exactly the quality of Troilus' pride in his own wisdom; and the very fact that he does not utter them himself adds to the effect of complacency. It is enough for him to cast up the brow." (126-27)

Such nice observations abound. And finally too someone who lets us know what is normal and accepted usage and what is pushing a bit at the margins with all those kisses in Gawain and the Green Knight. It makes the behavior of the remarkably intelligent actors of that poem -- Bertilak and his lady, especially, but Gawain too -- even more intelligent and playful. And then too: there is absolutely no canting in the lucid and elegant exposition. What a pleasure.

Article Details

Author Biography

William Ian Miller

Univ. of Michigan