09.11.25, Burns, Sea of Silk

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Laura F. Hodges

The Medieval Review 09.11.25

Burns, E. Jane. Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women's Work in Medieval French Literature. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 256. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4154-9.

Reviewed by:
Laura F. Hodges

Sea of Silk is the capstone of E. Jane Burns's publications concerning costume and fabrics in Old French literature, following Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature; Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture; and her edited collection Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Cloth Work and Other Cultural Imaginings. Sea of Silk is a rich collage combining often metaphorical explications of Old French literature with historical data documenting the medieval silk trade. It contains an Introduction, six substantive chapters, a short Glossary, Notes to the text, Bibliographies of primary and secondary texts, and an Index. The 18 useful black and white illustrations are amply captioned but need listing.

The Introduction explains the book's title, Sea of Silk, as denoting the geographic and multi-cultural expanse comprising medieval trade in silk goods, captive silk workers and, finally, relics and gold. This "sea" provides a metaphorical context for reading the following chapters, explicating silk as both an "economic currency" and a "social and cultural currency" bridging the gaps between "the Christian west, Byzantium, and the Muslim world." Within these parameters, Burns focuses on females in Old French literature who "work" silk, by weaving or embroidering, and produce sumptuous textiles known as "Saracen work" (2, 4-5). She redefines Saracen--normally a negative term used to describe things pagan, corrupt, and anti-Christian--as a term designating the height of artistic and technical proficiency. Described in medieval literature, the beauty of "Saracen work" inspired widespread copying of all facets of silk work across the Mediterranean world and into France. Explicating the legendary and historical background of silk production, Burns explains how and why both Saracen silk and work are valued within medieval material culture and in Old French literature where "female protagonists [are portrayed] as highly skilled creators and manipulators of the medieval Mediterranean's most lucrative commodity" (12).

In Chapter 1, Burns expands her phrase "sea of silk" to include both literal and metaphorical mapping. In "Women and Silk: Remapping the Silk Routes from China to France," she discusses two stories of foreign women knowledgeable in silk technology and in producing this potential wealth. The seventh-century Chinese legend of the Silk Princess and the twelfth-century Chrtien de Troyes romance Yvain illustrate Burns' point that literary silk work was gendered female (not always the case in historical practice). In China silk work was traditionally women's work, and when women traveled, so did the secrets of silk production. Burns provides competing versions of the Chinese Silk Princess story, in which the princess bride in a political marriage travels to a foreign husband with her maidservants, transporting mulberry tree seeds, silkworm eggs, and technical knowledge. Thus silk production spread outward from China, eventually to Europe. Yvain, too, illustrates the transfer of silk technology, depicting 300 foreign female captives producing the woven wealth of silk for their captors until freed by Yvain. Burns reveals how silk functions in the courtly culture of Old French romances as luxury items, decorative enhancement, and currency. She discusses the commercial necessity for assembling numerous laborers, sometimes slaves, often women displaced during the spread of technology and mercantile activities concerned with the silk goods they produced. She also reveals the medieval silk routes radiating from the Mediterranean Sea and the trade of French wool and linen for silks, so valued in French courts and literature.

"Women Silk Workers from King Arthur's France to King Roger's Palermo (Yvain ou Le Chevalier au lion)," Chapter 2, focuses on the displaced, captive female silk workers in Chrtien's Yvain, comparing them with the historical silk workers of Palermo, courtly ladies in romances, and the mistreated women in the Old French chanson de toile. The silk workers in Yvain produce cloth of silk and gold while being incarcerated, exploited, kept in poverty, but in a "courtly castle"--a paradoxical situation for commercial activity. Burns compares their silk production with the notable "Palermitan Silks" produced by Muslims and Christians, explaining that both workshops exemplify displaced silk workers and technology. Providing the context for the dissemination of types of silk and gold work, she defines cloth of gold, orfrois, and Tiraz. Burns designates Chrtien's silk workers as a "narrative keyhole" into the production practices of medieval silk factories or workshops (59-60). Through this "keyhole," readers may see behind literary phrases mentioning "worked cloth" evoking images of exquisite art, and may imagine the abused workers who produce this beauty. Further, Burns contrasts these foreign workers with Fresne, in Galeran de Bretagne, who autonomously creates the beautiful objects she sells in her own shop, the literary courtly ladies who make beautiful vestments for churches for their own pleasure, and the victimized women of the chanson de toile (62, 67).

"Women Working Silk from Constantinople to Lotharingia," Chapter 3, is illuminated by another literary pairing: Le Dit de l'Empereur Constant and Le Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole. Burns connects these works through their inclusions of one objectan aumosniere, sometimes called "Saracen work" and characterized as a "signature article of aristocratic clothing" (73). Burns posits that, through silk work, the heroines of these narratives, Sebelinne and Lienor, manipulate the circumstances of their lives to achieve personal satisfaction. This chapter illustrates Burns' metaphorical latitude in discussing a heroine's "manipulation" of silk work. In Sebelinne's case, the manipulation consists of opening an aumosniereand altering the message within before sending it on- -actions that ultimately change her own, Constant's, and the empires fate. This aumosniere is someone else's silk work. Only metaphorically has Sebelinne manipulated silk work, but Burns states, "In one sense we might understand Sebelinne as 'working' the aumosniere much as heroines in the Old French chanson de toile work fabric" (78). Further comments such as "The 'aumosniere de rice oeuvre' so ably 'exploited' or 'worked' by the astute heroine Sebelinne" (82), ask the reader to make connective leaps between textual fact and metaphor. This section of Chapter 3 concludes with a comment on Sebelinne: "Her 'silk work', reveals how female protagonists can use trans-Mediterranean luxury textiles to disrupt highly gendered cultural and legal paradigms that govern medieval marriage and political succession" (83). While true in terms of Sebelinne's opening the purse and changing the message, surely these acts are not "silk work." In contrast, Lienor's aumosniere and the belt to which it is attached are set up by the romance's author to represent Lienor's craftsmanship as a needlewoman capable of producing the fish and bird, "trans- Mediterranean" designs decorating them (94). Lienor is demonstrably a courtly silk worker with knowledge of silk work representative of Mediterranean commercial activity. And she employs her own handiwork to establish herself as an acceptable bride for Emperor Conrad. Nevertheless, Burns equates Sebelinne and Lienor as silk workers:

Standing at two outposts across a sea of silk, both heroines, one putatively Greek and the other nominally French, come together through their work on lavishly decorated alms purses, known widely in the trans-Mediterranean language of silk as neither Greek nor French, but as a crossing place between the Christian west and Islamicate cultures as 'aumosnieres sarrasinoises'. (99)

Although this reader cannot accept all of the metaphorical connections suggested in this chapter, Burns' evocations of silk garments throughout Old French literature as revelatory of the widespread Mediterranean silk trade and the "mark of European courtliness itself," her description of Islamic decorative patterns, her brief survey of silk ceintures in Old French literature, and her explication of Lienor's wedding robes make this chapter rewarding reading for those interested in literary costume, medieval international trade, and cross-cultural connections.

Dido and Nicolette comprise the female literary focus in Chapter 4, "Following Two 'Ladies of Carthage' from Tyre to North Africa and Spain to France (Le Roman d'Enas, Aucassin et Nicolette)." Initially, Burns tells us that Dido and Nicolette "represent two very different narrative trajectories" (101). She maintains that both romance heroines "rewrite established narratives of the problematic 'foreign' woman," unlike the captive silk workers in Yvain, "but by manipulating metaphorical forms of cloth and gold, respectively" (101). In her life and death, Dido is characterized as someone corrupted through her opulent sartorial display--dressed in her native "porpre vermeille." Ensuring an understanding of opulence in this romance, Burns describes Tyrian purple as dyed "deep violet and scarlet-hued purple," and distinguishes it from vermillion cochineal dyes and Byzantine royal purple (103-6). Stretching the concept of cloth work, however, Burns claims that Dido's handiwork consists of manipulating the hide of a bull to gain possession of land for Carthage. While certainly crafty leather manipulation, this is not cloth making. The second of this chapter's heroines, Nicolette, victim of the Mediterranean slave trade, cunningly uses her hands to fashion a rope of sheets and effects an escape from captivity. Although Burns refers to this feat as part of Nicolette's "Linen Handiwork" (126-7), she never is a cloth worker per se. Burns later notes that Nicolette "works not linen or even silk, but gold":

Although the transformation is metaphorical, it carries important material consequences for the heroine Nicolette who effectively redefines her embodied value as a slave, transposing her initial worth as a commercial cargo into a golden object beyond commercial circulation. (127)

The remainder of this chapter discusses Nicolette as valued slave and as desirable relic, the Mediterranean trade in both slaves and relics rivaling the commercial activity in silks and spicesall part of the make-up of the sea of silk at large. Burns charts Nicolette's progress of redefinition from being "a silk-clad woman merchant," mistress of Mediterranean commerce, to being an unbuyable female, and finally to "that seemingly 'French' and Christianized courtly lady seated on an elegant 'dras de soie'" (135-6).

Chapter 5, "Women Mapping a Silk Route from Saint-Denis to Jerusalem and Constantinople (Le Plerinage de Charlemagne)," explicates this mid-twelfth-century work ostensibly concerned with Charlemagne's travels to the east in search of relics to bring home to Saint-Denis in the west. This chapter is less concerned with women than its title suggests. In Le Plerinage there is only the scantiest mention of women; nevertheless this poem opens a "narrative keyhole," to use Burns' earlier phrase, through which we may view medieval silks, their uses, and the commercial system--including relics, spices, and misplaced workers--that distributes all of this wealth. This work exposes conflicting attitudes toward fabrics as Burns explains: On the one hand, silk is coveted and viewed as "a vibrant commercial commodity and a key diplomatic currency...a mark of both mercantile success and political power" (138). King Hugh, the male protagonist opposing Charlemagne, illustrates this worldly attitude and exhibits his wealth of silk accordingly (144-5). On the other hand, Charlemagne views silks as "morally corrupting" and "extravagant," favors the wearing of wool and linen, and equates the wearing of silk, gold, and silver with "pagan idolatry" (142-3). However, as Burns notes, while in the Holy Land, Charlemagne founds a church dedicated to the Virgin, a church, ironically, well-known for its commercial trade in spices and silks (147). This church/trade combination comprises yet another "keyhole" view of Mediterranean commerce and its pagan/Christian complexity. Further, to her depictions of Charlemagne's Frankish queen and King Hugh's silent wife, so briefly on stage in this work, Burns adds two more royal women and states their metaphorical connection:

Queen Eleanor of France and the Byzantine Empress Irene face off across the Mediterranean and across the three hundred years that separate them historically in an unexpected narrative couplet: two women joined metaphorically by the opulence of luxury goods considered to be the cultural hallmark of the seductive and dangerous Constantinople as opposed to the more austerely devout Saint-Denis. (154)

Burns makes an epic attempt in Sea of Silk to enable reader understanding of the many-faceted oriental, European, and Mediterranean commerce. This chapter is especially illustrative of the difficulties in explicating "the ability of medieval silk to challenge and restructure the falsely polarizing cultural divisions that the contest of crowns [Charlemagne vs. Hugh] underwrites" (155).

"Silk Between Virgins: Following a Relic from Constantinople," Chapter 6, treats the material evidence of one of the most honored of the relics acquired by Charlemagne in the Holy Landthe chemise of the Virgin. This chapter, reprinted, with changes, from "Saracen Silk and the Virgin's Chemise: Cultural Crossings in Cloth," Speculum 81.2 (2006): 365-97, recounts medieval legends of the Virgin and textiles or garments that fulfill protective functions. Burns explains that the Virgin's chemise, the principal relic at Chartres Cathedral in the Middle Ages, was depicted in chemisettes, worn and carried on pilgrimages. She provides a summary of the history of the chemise, customs of veneration of the Virgin, and descriptions of the chemisettes, the "locally produced lead badges [that] provide ... the most extensive available representations of the Chartres relic." Burns describes the chemisettes as the product of "imagined visualization" of the chemise supposedly hidden in its reliquary (164). She also recounts medieval legends of Mary and the miracles wrought through this relic, initially thought to be a silken garment. She further explains how the chemisette pilgrim badges represent both devotion to the Virgin and the local production of linen. Burns posits that this is an account that "maps an important site of cultural crossing between the Chartrain Virgin and the Virgin of Constantinople" (165). Both Constantinople and Chartres have benefited from female protective garments according to medieval legends, and Burns demonstrates the international connections she cites through eight illustrations that depict both eastern and western style chemises found on the chemisettes. As is her custom, she also provides the background information concerning the renowned linen production in Chartres from the late thirteenth-century forward and the Virgin's significance to this commercial activity due to her practice of both the contemplative life and the active life of a spinner and weaver. Finally Burns explains the coin, the "Denier Chartrain," its international commercial implications and its cultural connection with Chartres Cathedral. Burns comments: "The chemisettes do help us situate the Virgin at Chartres culturally...between western Christian Europe and what were often considered in the medieval French imagination to be Saracen lands" (183).

Overall, Burns' Glossary is a success, but "Escarlate" might benefit from an explanation of its importance as a woolen textile, and the "Tartaires" entry is missing a word. Burns supplies informative notes and Primary and Secondary Works bibliographies. Her Index should prove helpful, although not every textual use of a term is listed: baudequin is indexed, but its mention on 148 is not; cendal is indexed, but lacks its variant spelling, sendal ("sidonia" 59); chasuble 36-8 is omitted; mentions of linen production are omitted (117, 215-16n22); as are porpre (103, 214ns3-4), samit (86, 102, 148), scarlet (color 103; fabric 214n4).

Minor issues aside, clearly Burns follows every thread of her research to its end. This practice produces the fascinating background information included in each chapter and rich notes. Those who read Sea of Silk for literary commentary should find much to consider and everything needed for further research. And those who read from cover to cover will find that their own mental "map" of the medieval silk trade will be both literarily enriched and culturally annotated.

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Laura F. Hodges