15.03.16, Hodges, Chaucer and Array

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Anke Bernau

The Medieval Review 15.03.16

Hodges, Laura F.. Chaucer and Array: Patterns of Costume and Fabric Rhetoric in the Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and Other Works. Chaucer Studies. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2014. Pp. xi, 232. ISBN: 9781843843689 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anke Bernau
University of Manchester

In Chaucer and Array: Patterns of Costume and Fabric Rhetoric in the Canterbury Tales: Troilus and Criseyde and Other Works, Laura F. Hodges sets out to "discern patterns, major and minor" in Chaucer's "costume rhetoric" (2). The book is divided into an introduction and six chapters; it also includes four short appendices that illustrate and contextualise different aspects of the book's argument. Hodges' methodology is expressed most succinctly at the opening of chapter three, where she highlights what she believes is missing from existing scholarship on "The Clerk's Tale". Critics need to pay attention "to the broad combined contexts of medieval material culture--the placement of each garment within the history of costume, the quality and value of its fabric and decoration, and its style and suitability to its wearer's social circumstances." In addition to this, the critic should also consider "literary aspects such as each garment's depiction: in description that is reportage, or part of a character's characterization, or named within a metaphor that portrays additional social implication beyond the literal." Doing these things "provides a deeper comprehension of Chaucer's costume rhetoric," "especially the manner in which" it "teases out additional layers of meaning" (92). The introduction connects this book to two of Hodges' (well-received) previous works on costume in Chaucer's 'General Prologue' (Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue [2000] and Chaucer and Clothing: Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales [2005]), and sets out her aim to expand on these by looking at Chaucer's oeuvre more comprehensively. While she does refer to a wide range of works, the individual chapters focus on specific texts.

Chapter one, "Dressing the Warrior and the Streets of Athens in the Knight's Tale," argues that this tale confounds audience expectation of "costume rhetoric" in romance, and goes on to illustrate the workings of this by focusing on the description of knights and processions in the tale. Here, Hodges argues, Chaucer "both follows tradition of costume depiction in its spectacular processions and deviates from it" (14). Hodges offers detailed explanations of specific sartorial and textile terms to show how Chaucer "resist[s] romance conventions" by refusing to describe the main characters in a detailed description. Indeed, the only characters who are accorded such attention are the relatively ones of Lygurge and Emetreus. This "costume rhetoric sleight-of-hand" provides a "sartorial glamor" that "both reflects, and reflects upon, the estate of the major characters, Palamon and Arcite" (28) and, ultimately, illustrates "Theseus's royal magnificence" (31). Hodges then focuses on late medieval street processions in order to think through the role that textiles played in them and, therefore, how Chaucer's audience might have read those represented in the tale. She concludes that, "in depicting such lavish decor, Chaucer...elevates the status of the tournament procession and emphasizes its importance beyond any tournament procession known to him or to his contemporaries" (52).

In chapter two, "Sartorial Signs in Troilus and Criseyde, Hodges continues her discussion of romance. While Troilus, too, "lacks lengthy romance costume passages for [its] major characters," Hodges maintains that there are numerous "costume signs, metaphors, and allusions in this work [that] comprise a more substantive list than has previously been analyzed" (54). These are "[p]regnant with literary as well as contemporary social and moral significance," they "highlight the plot structure" and "explicate and elucidate characterization" (54). Hodges suggests that each of the main characters is aligned with a "signature costume or garment" which is then set off against the others "in a rhetorical technique best described as 'interlacing'." Over the narrative, the meaning of each garment shifts in significant ways. Criseyde's signature garment, for instance, is her "'widewes habit large of samyt broun'" (cited at 58). Hodges offers us a detailed explanation of the cloth and its colour, in order to argue that while Criseyde's "black silk mourning garments testify to the reality of human mortality and mutability, they nevertheless exhibit a sheen associated with celestial beings" (59). The cloth indicates Criseyde's social standing as well as her desirable femininity (60), and the outfit as a whole signals moral qualities ("circumspection, modesty, chastity, faithfulness, ...prudence")--the very "'habits" of widowhood'" which Pandarus is urging her to reject along with its "habit" (62). Troilus's 'signature costume' is his battered armour, the description of which is deferred until book two. The hood--and its associations with playfulness, deceit and trickery--is Pandarus' signature costume, completing the trio (65-66). The remainder of the chapter touches on the "reversal[s] of pattern" offered by the narrative's treatment of "nudity" as well as of a range of other sartorial items. It traces the "distintegration" of the lovers' relationship in book five as it is indicated through repetitions and subtle variations of the costume rhetoric deployed in the previous four books, and concludes that, in this poem, "costume rhetoric characterizes the players in this romance, interacts with aspects of setting, furthers the plot by highlighting significant moments and actions in the story, and works symbolically and metaphorically to say more than the images initially conveyed" (90).

Chapters three ("Reading Griselda's Smock") and four ("Reading Alison's Smock") can be read as a diptych of sorts: both focus on depictions of smocks, but in different ways which reveal important things about how to read the respective plots and the literary conventions being employed and played with. In both tales the smock acts as "an important costume sign representing social status or character" (91). Because it can signal radically opposing conditions and traits--such as "nobility or peasant status", or "humiliation or triumphant dignity" (91)--the smock illuminates the central, troubling aspects of "The Clerk's Tale," the subject of Chapter 3. After offering a brief "contextual background of the smock" with illustrations (92-99), Hodges notes that what is significant about the description of Griselda's smocks is that "Chaucer presents them without rhetorical and sartorial elaboration in spite of their importance to the plot" (99). This is in sharp contrast to "The Miller's Tale" (chapter four), in which Chaucer's "elaborate depiction of an artisan's wife" offers us an instance of "generic displacement" (118). While Griselda's dramatic changes of fortune and her "unchanging essence" (110) are both underlined by the scenes of clothing and unclothing that punctuate the narrative, the absence of descriptive detail about the very different kinds of smocks she would have worn at different stages of the story illustrates for us how Chaucer "follows literary convention, but with unexpected and inventive twists" (117). It also reminds us of the modern audience's need for contextual detail.

Chapter four marks a departure because it deals, for the first time, with a lengthy and detailed descriptio; however, this descriptio is out of place, and looking at the treatment of costume rhetoric in this tale lets us see more clearly the workings of its "social satire" (119). Hodges argues that Chaucer's description of Alison's smock consists linguistically of a fusion of "realistic English terminology" (used to describe the "basic garment"), with "romance-style details" (like embroidery) (120). Hodges then delves once more into an examination of contextual sources in order to determine what, exactly, Alison's smock might have looked like, discussing in particular the nature of the "coler," the social implications of the detail of her outfit, contemporary attitudes to ornamentation, the kind of embroidery that might have decorated the smock, the additional clothing a medieval audience may "have mentally supplied" (133), since Alison is not wearing a garment over her smock, and the question of whether the odd "coler" "might be a relic borrowed from some earlier source or analogue, as yet undiscovered" (135). Hodges concludes that Alison is "surrounded by the romance rhetoric of descriptio, which [Chaucer] has withheld from his noble heroines" (139).

Chapter five discusses "Sir Thopas," arguing that Chaucer's simultaneous conforming to, and refusal of, romance convention is "[n]owhere...so apparent as it is in his costume rhetoric for this tale" (140). In this sense, chapter five can be read as a companion piece to chapter one (and, to a lesser extent, chapter two): the absence of description of the main characters discussed there is more than made up for here, for "Sir Thopas bears the distinction of being Chaucer's only knight-protagonist who is thoroughly identified by name, geographic origin, and two complete costumes" (141). (It also connects to chapters three and four in its interest in underclothes.) Yet the descriptio of Thopas, too, "plays fast and loose with literary conventions", creating a "disorderly poetic effect" (144). In the arming scene--"the only full-scale arming scene in the corpus of [Chaucer's works" (152)--such confusion is further compounded. Thopas is "both over-armed and under-armed" (152), going "to his possible death as a dandy" (153). The tale is a "mock romance" (142), whose comedy finally tips over into tedium (162). Hodges agrees with Alan Gaylord's argument that it is the "figure of the poet as craftsman" that is being parodied here (163); Thopas and his tale "illustrate the many ways in which we may savor [Chaucer's] more restrained depictions of a host of other characters" (166).

The sixth (and final) chapter is the book's conclusion, entitled "Other Facets of Chaucer's Fabric and Costume Rhetoric". While referring to a wide range of Chaucer's works (e.g., Legend of Good Women, Complaint of Mars, House of Fame), the Conclusion briefly touches on numerous issues, such as Chaucer's translation of costume descriptions, his use of colour symbolism, and his expert knowledge of textiles and fabric terms. His work as Controller of the King's Custom and Subsidy of Wool, Hides, and Wool Fells "provided intimate and detailed knowledge of medieval cloths" (181), and of sumptuary laws and trade. For Hodges, it is precisely the informed and expert use of "costume rhetoric" that such experience makes possible that confirms Chaucer as "the master of the telling detail" (186).

I have to confess that I came to the book as someone interested primarily in aesthetics and poetics. And while I have learned much about medieval clothing, I am not sure how well the two main topics ("costume" and "rhetoric") come together here. Or, rather, I am not sure how illuminating readers expert in one or the other field will find the conjunction as it is developed here. There are undoubtedly interesting insights on offer, but it is not always evident how (or even if) the discussion of "material culture" as it is practiced in this volume moves forward (or into a different direction) the readings of the poems themselves. That this is the case is indicated by the frequency with which existing readings of the tales are reiterated or confirmed. The author's careful scholarship is evident on each page, for the footnotes are extensive (and often very interesting)--indeed, they regularly take up half of the page. However, this does mean that the main body of the text is considerably shorter than the number of pages suggests, and at times this shows, as chapters dash from one short section to the next. Aesthetics--a field revitalized and transformed in recent years (both within medieval studies and beyond), and one that can speak to scholars interested in all kinds of cultural "artefacts," whether material or textual, or both--is not considered here at all, yet this could have provided a valuable and innovative perspective. As it stands, I am not entirely sure which audience the author is writing for: readers expert and interested primarily in medieval clothing, or readers interested primarily in medieval poetics. I don't think it will appeal equally across the board, and the author's own expertise (and interest, I suspect) seems to lie more firmly with the former.

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Author Biography

Anke Bernau

University of Manchester