Maureen C. Miller's expertly crafted and superbly illustrated volume is, from beginning to end, an intellectual and visual feast for liturgical scholars and art historians, whether they be novices or more seasoned specialists. This book is one of those rare academic works that combines the author's erudition and meticulous research with ease of accessibility.
Miller's work is comprised of six chapters that progress in chronological order, going roughly from the Carolingian era to the early scholastic age of Latin theology and liturgy: 1) "Let Them Exhibit Holiness"; 2) "A Clerical Spirituality"; 3) "Resplendent in Gold"; 4) "Women and Men"; 5) "Reform"; 6) "Good Lordship." Every chapter is informed by years of research and perceptive analysis by one of the foremost experts in the field of medieval liturgical studies. Given the richness of Miller's work, it is a real challenge to do it justice in a short review. That said, there are two major themes in her study that merit close attention: the Church's justification of the use of costly and extravagant vestments as a vehicle for clerical reform and spiritual renewal; the religious and cultural tensions that emerged because of the manufacture of liturgical garments by women who "served at the altar" from a distance.
The starting point of Miller's inquiry is the Church in the late Roman Empire. Given the humble origins of the Christian faith and the asceticism of its earliest practitioners, it is not surprising that clerical dress, both within the confines of the liturgy and everyday "street wear," would become the subject of sometimes pained and protracted discussions among Christian leaders. For example, in examining a fifth-century debate over the use of the pallium (a long woolen, scarf-like vestment worn by the pope, archbishops, and some bishops), Miller highlights the tension that existed in the early Church on the use of vestments that are nowhere mentioned, let alone prescribed, in the pages of the New Testament. As she notes: "At the very origins of Christian liturgical dress there were within the church those who embraced majesty and solemnity in the name of honoring God and those who found ornament offensive as a betrayal of Jesus' message" (17).
How, then, did the ascetical and counter-cultural ethos of early Christianity eventually evolve to justify the use of secular Roman garb, sanctifying and transforming it for Christian purposes, on a universal scale? How did this lead to an accelerated historical trajectory that included the production of the more ornate and costlier versions of the liturgical vestments of the Latin Church that predominated in the later medieval period (and which persist to this day)?
Given the historical parameters of her work, Miller really does not address the first question but turns her full attention to the second. Her sources run the gamut, from literary texts (including formal liturgical expositions from the ninth through early thirteenth century), to iconographic evidence from medieval manuscripts and works of art, and beautifully presented and carefully explained color photographs of the surviving vestments themselves, preserved in various cathedrals, museums, and historical archives. The book also includes a glossary of liturgical terms and precise descriptions of each liturgical vestment that she discusses in the body of her work (247-52). Miller's analysis can also take some surprising forensic turns that show the degree of complexity involved in the manufacture of various vestments (including textile patterns that can be studied to determine the provenance and cost of various fabrics).
Miller argues that the driving force for the creation of costlier, more ornate, and uniformly worn vestments were the reform initiatives of Frankish and Ottonian monarchs and the higher echelons of their clergy. She documents a perceptible shift towards the production of such garments that began in the ninth century, during the ambitious liturgical and educational reforms of the Carolingian rulers. As Miller notes, before this era, the subject of clerical attire was given scant attention by popes, synods, and general councils: "Before the Carolingian era, Roman conciliar documentation shows utterly no interest in clerical attire" (26). The Carolingian penchant for "getting things right" in the celebration of the divine services cut across all aspects of liturgical performance, from proper prayer texts, to proper forms of chant, to appropriate types of vestments. The proliferation of Roman Ordines--pedantic "how-to" liturgical booklets--that were hybrid creations, combining genuinely Roman with Frankish-Germanic customs, led to fruitful and enduring exchanges among clerics spread across Europe. Miller thus argues that "micro-Christianities" of the late antique Church evolved into a medieval Christendom that was more unified in its prayer texts, liturgical ceremonies, and clerical attire through "the myriad exchanges among clerics across significant distances" (35).
While the higher clergy might have some anxiety about allegations of worldly pomp in their liturgical attire, Miller contends that they were primarily motivated by the noble spiritual goals of various reform movements: "Reformers used the ornate style to further several ends: the maintenance of patronage, the improvement of the clergy, the visual articulation of hierarchies, and the advancement of clerical claims to status" (178). To underscore this point, Miller cites the research of modern social psychology, which contradicts the old cliché: "clothes don't make the man." Social scientists have coined the term "enclothed cognition" to describe the effects of wearing a particular type of garment on the psychological disposition of its wearer (188). As Miller summarizes this modern research, she notes that "it was found that wearing a type of clothing associated with scientific carefulness and attentiveness, actually did significantly influence the wearer's performance of tasks requiring sustained attention." She goes on to say that clerical reformers from the ninth through thirteenth century seem to have understood this principle, and they believed that "wearing garments associated with clerical virtues might help clerics exhibit those virtues in their ministry" (188).
Miller supports such claims by referencing the abundant expository material found in formal liturgical commentaries. There she finds solid evidence to show how liturgical expositors believed that the sacred vestments donned by the clergy celebrating the liturgy could have the transformative power to "make" or "remake" the man approaching the sacramental altar. The proliferation of vesting prayers that accompanied the vesting of the cleric in the sacristy (77-87) served as a palpable reminder to a clergyman that he was, to quote St. Paul, "putting on a new man (Eph 4:24)," as he clothed himself in the sacred liturgical garments. The proliferation of allegorical liturgical expositions, from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, helped to promulgate and standardize spiritual interpretations of each vestment. They were understood by liturgists to correspond mystically with the weapons borne by the secular knights of Christendom: "When he secures his cincture over his alb the cleric girds his sword so that he might vanquish God's enemies" (211-12).
But one of the paradoxes of the manufacture of medieval liturgical vestments is that the "new man" approaching the altar was touching garments that had been crafted almost exclusively by women. In a modern global economy--with mass production of clothing by anonymous workers on the other side of the world, where consumers purchase their clothes "off the rack" in large department stores or online--it is hard for us to fathom the intimate and personal nature of the clothing industry in the Middle Ages. Nor would we immediately understand the spiritual tension that could exist in such an economic system. For example, the polemical and theological literature of the reformers of the Investiture Controversy is filled with misogynistic tropes of female seduction and depravity. Was not one of the cornerstones of that reform movement the imposition of celibacy on the Latin clergy, many of whom had had common-law wives before the reform began? How could clergymen--who vowed lifelong celibacy and for whom women were the symbol of man's fallen nature, the embodiment of the seductive power of sin and the lust that defiled the clerical soul--be involved in personal business with the women who made these vestments?
Miller notes that this conundrum was not as insoluble as it might first appear. The production of textiles was, indeed, a female craft, but the various waves of reform that swept through the medieval Church saw the proliferation of refined and more ornate types of liturgical textiles, produced by elite women, as a form of patronage for the higher clergy (144-45). It was the higher clergy themselves who saw the potential for broader forms of patronage after an original request for the production of a particular vestment. With the increasing importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary, male clerics also found an opportunity to impose spiritual meanings on the female manufacture of liturgical vestments that could, in some meaningful form, "purify" the traces of the "female" on the liturgical garment. As Miller notes, ecclesiastical authorities began to "link the clerical spirituality of vestments to stories of pious and holy women's textile work. The Blessed Virgin and other women saints manifest their purity and piety by spinning and weaving. Their textile work is either associated with prayer or characterized as a prayerful activity" (151).
In the final analysis, I am hard pressed to find anything deficient in this marvelous work. While Miller clearly delineates her time frame as c. 800-1200, it might nonetheless be helpful for the less experienced researcher to have more background information on what she identifies as the "everyday wear" of late antique Roman society (62). But this is really a bit of nit-picking that does nothing to diminish the quality of this work and Miller's profound contribution to the field of medieval liturgical studies and art history. This book will long be considered an authoritative reference work for the complex history of medieval Christian liturgical vestments, the process of their manufacture, and their religious and political symbolism. Miller's work will also undoubtedly stimulate further research on the socio-economic and artistic contributions of women who crafted the garments that would cover clergymen's bodies as the sacred liturgies were performed. As various waves of religious reform swept through Latin Christendom, women increasingly bore the brunt of the generic misogynistic tropes of the clerical reformers; at the same time they increasingly "served at the altar from a distance" with the manufacture of vestments. As Miller notes in her conclusion, the often neglected role of women in the production and maintenance of liturgical vestments is paradoxical, and it "merits further research" (239).