E. Jane Burns' Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture combines dexterous command of three extensive and diverse bibliographies. When the corpus of French courtly literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries encounters the history of medieval dress and textile trade, and these are merged with a career-long experience in the theories of women's and gender studies, a new and sophisticated way of reading this literature's peculiar yet ubiquitous passages linking love and clothing results.
Readers familiar with Burns' Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia, 1993) will sense a logical development from that book to this. Like Bodytalk, Courtly Love Undressed looks for evidence of the repressed feminine voice, sorting through the much more loquacious articulations of clerical disapprobration, and the fantasies of male poets and chivalric values. Whereas Bodytalk looked for expressions of feminine emotion and desire in female characters' bodies and gestures, Courtly Love Undressed seeks to read the textile coverings which are such prominent components in medieval French character depictions. Drawing on the feminist notion, especially as formulated by Elizabeth Grosz, of the clothed body as a "social body," a political, social and cultural object refined by culture rather than a raw, passive product of nature, Burns considers courtly clothing as more than ostentatious display of wealth, interrogating the ways in which it expresses the complex politics of gender and status. Moving beyond Bodytalk's concentrated focus on women, Courtly Love Undressed acknowledges that both masculine and feminine literary dress can be eloquent, though the greater share of interest goes to women's apparel and expression.
Most readers of twelfth- and thirteenth-century French narrative texts, as well as historians seeking to comprehend images from the period, will have been at least momentarily puzzled by certain depictions of dress and textile activities. What does it really signify when a lady gives a knight her sleeve, for example? Whose voice is expressed by the chansons de toile, those songs purportedly sung by women doing needlework, yet which often appear as lyric insertions in male-authored romances? What to make of the prevalence of unisex dress in these centuries? And how are we to read the extensive lexicon related to fine silks and brocades named after eastern cities and countries, creating a sort of travelogue figured across any truly fine ensemble? Burns treats these problems multiple times over the course of her chapters, and gives offers many new insights which should be useful to the general reader as well as those more specifically interested in material culture. She shows that so much political, economic and social information is coded any time a poet deploys description of medieval literary clothing that such mentions must be deciphered carefully with any reading, never dismissed as empty decoration.
The voice of moralists and preachers who denounced display comes down to us as a loud and prominent one; likewise, received notions of the limitations on luxury promulgated beginning in the thirteenth century with sumptuary laws are cited frequently in histories of medieval dress. Courtly literature offers the opposite point of view, featuring an enthusiastic embrace and perhaps even promotion of sartorial splendor. Burns points out that in both denunciations and celebrations of splendor, surface merges with substance. Clothing is considered by all parties concerned as something that should be expressive of what it covers. The moralists are troubled when they perceive splendor covering what they deem vanity, or inappropriate use of resources. Burns shows how that kind of anxiety points to a potential site of feminine expression. One of the most compelling examples of this is her re-reading of Oiseuse, Lady Idleness from Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose. (An illumination of her graces the cover, a well-chosen image for the book). Whereas Oiseuse, with her mirror in hand, is easily read as an icon of sinful Luxuria, Burns shows that she can equally plausibly be read as an autonomous, pleasure-seeking woman. The heroine can shape herself in cloth in romances, leaving us with a record of female desire. Similarly, the Dame d'Escalot in La Mort le roi Artu imposes her desire on Lancelot by asking him to wear her sleeve in battle, effectively figuring herself in the sleeve. The female subject in the Occitan poem "Ab greu cossire..." by P. Basc laments her inability to dress herself attractively, now that she has been deprived of ornaments and trimmings. Certain feminine characters in the chansons de toile turn clothwork profitably into "love work," Burns argues, expressing their desire through the objects they fashion. A wide range of examples multiplies throughout the book, drawn both from works most readers will know well and those which are relatively unfamiliar.
Historians have puzzled over a number of images on seals and in manuscripts from this period, unsure whether the figures represented men or women. The "unisex" dress of the thirteenth century indeed seems to have irked some historians, causing them to dismiss it as formless and unfashionable, although some have defended the elegance of its simplicity. (Interestingly, it is a theme in medieval Muslim literature as well, a question still waiting exploration). Burns examines stories involving temporary cross-dressing, such as those of Floris and Lyriope or Floire and Blanchefleur. She demonstrates that the ungendered, unisex "robe" (the ensemble of draping undergowns, overgowns and outer mantel worn with variations by both sexes) is in fact what makes love possible for these couples, allowing them to cross social gender boundaries to be united. Studying Marie de France's "Lanval," in another instance, Burns finds that the clothing of the period allows characters to create subject positions with unique and personalized gender values by dressing themselves and each other in status-conferring robes. Through Lanval's lady's incomparably rich silks, she becomes a feudal lord rivaling Arthur, while he becomes her passive love subject, armed only in luxurious fabrics.
The final chapters discuss the prevalence of depictions of Saracen riches in courtly narratives, even those having little or nothing to do with crusade or otherwise eastern narratives. Burns argues that the listing of fabrics from Constantinople, Alexandria, Damascus, Syria, Phrygia and so on mark a porous cultural border with the east, rather than either exotic "orientalizing" along the lines described by Edward Said, or conversely what scholars like Jean Frappier have argued was a "fully westernized" depiction of ancient or Muslim scenes, completely transforming foreign or historical material into scenes of courtly love. Her point that the western literary (and material) love affair with the high-quality eastern textiles marks a relational rather than an oppositional dynamic is an important one, I think, for anyone studying the western medieval relationship to the "other." The east codes material opulence, as seen by the west, for better or worse. Moralists condemn ostentatious consumption of pagan silks, while the romances make such consumption, Burns argues, an integral component of courtly love. The tensions between east and west, nature and artifice, are well expressed in the opposition in the Roman de la Rose: opposite powerful Richesse (Wealth), dressed in foreign silks, Guillaume de Lorris places the equally but differently powerful Beauty, whose allure is simple and domestic, without artifice. Courtly love happens at the nexus of these virtues and geographies, relying on both to express desire, in all its complexities.