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15.10.18, Sylvester, Chambers, and Owen-Crocker, eds., Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain

The Medieval Review

15.10.18, Sylvester, Chambers, and Owen-Crocker, eds., Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain

Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook presents the reader with a richly interesting and useful collection of documents offering information about medieval clothing practices and the role of textiles more broadly. It accomplishes much, even while suffering from some shortcomings. I write this from the perspective of an art historian who works on medieval dress, not a linguist; thus I cannot comment on the quality of the editors' (or in some cases, other scholarly contributors') modern English translations of texts originally in Old and Middle English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman French; for scholars who wish such comparisons, this edition conveniently prints the original and translated texts side-by-side. Instead, I consider this book from the perspective of its usefulness for researchers and students who wish to consult these documents to more clearly understand the social and religious roles dress and textiles played in Britain between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries.

The uncredited introduction offers an excellent overview of how scholars can interrogate a wide variety of documents for information about both secular and religious dress and textiles. It characterizes the various genres of documents--e.g., wills, inventories, literary accounts, sumptuary laws--with regard to the type of evidence each can provide and the sorts of insights scholars can gain from them. Some documents have been widely published, while others are little-known or newly published here. As the introduction clarifies, the documents offer insights regarding class, status and wealth; contemporary morality and desire for dress reform; medieval material culture; and even people's personal values, as, for example, recorded by bequests in wills. As the introduction concludes, "It is the texts which make the culture of the past available to us" (8).

The remainder of the book divides into seven chapters, each focused on a category of documents. Very usefully, the editors begin each with a general introduction that provides detailed information regarding earlier scholarship on and sources for the documents, and brief analysis of the types of information the reader can ascertain from them as a group. Depending on the section, discussion follows on, for example, language, archival sources, or textual traditions. The documents themselves follow, each numbered and with its own individual introduction regarding dating and origins, references to earlier scholarship and editions, and commentary on the text itself. The original text then appears on the left (verso) page, facing its modern English translation on the opposite (recto) page.

The first chapter, "Wills," includes generally brief excerpts from forty-seven wills of both men and women dating from the mid-tenth century to the mid-fifteenth. Here we particularly find insight into medieval people's relation to their clothing and textiles, since wills record what items were valued, whether in economic or sentimental terms: my "tent and my bedding, the best that I had," are bequeathed to Bishop Ælfric (23); Lady Peryne Clanbowe leaves her "everyday gown of marten fur" to her servant (41); Lady Alice West bequeaths a featherbed along with "a pair of Rheims linen sheets" and other bedding to her son (33); while Richard Dixton leaves his "soul to God Almighty...and all the company of heaven," and gives the chapel where he is to be buried "a cloth woven with silver thread and a cloth of black-coloured damask" for making vestments (51). The priest Nicholas Sturgeon's bequests of his "green silk bed, with its tester and canopy of white and red-striped tartarin," the "wall-hanging with the [embroidered images of the] Nine Worthies," and the "blue bed with the lion curtains, coverlet, bedclothes, a pair of sheets and a gown" (55) reveal the important role textiles played in clergy's quarters.

Chapter 2, "Accounts," focuses on wardrobe accounts of royalty and others from the late thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, some of which were previously unpublished, while others were long out-of-print. As the introduction notes, these are particularly useful in providing the names of medieval textiles, items of dress, and accessories, and they reveal changing fashions, while the listed monetary values of the objects and accounts of commissions offer further insight into medieval commerce and economic practices. That concerning the 1297 wedding of Elizabeth, countess of Holland, records that thirty-five tailors worked for four days and nights in order to produce her wedding dress (71); King Edward III's account from 1342-1343 notes--among many other items--his order for "three corsets" (79) and his payment for the tailors' lodging while they fulfilled his extensive sartorial requests.

Chapter 3, "Inventories and Rolls of Livery," like the accounts in the previous chapter, includes particularly helpful information on dress and cloth nomenclature. The editors include three inventories from St. Paul in London (from 1245, 1295, and 1402); these not only describe textile patterns in detail, identifying saints and scenes, and clarifying usage of these cloths as ecclesiastical vestments and furnishings for altars, they also offer insight into their acquisition by recording previous owners and naming donors. The roll of liveries for Edward III particularly engages readers because it records accounts for armor and dress made for the king's tournaments as well as items made for his "entertainments" (123).

For me, chapter 4 ("Moral and Satirical Works") was among the most interesting and useful: texts from the twelfth to fifteenth century that condemn new fashions and ridicule both men and women. The editors here include a wide variety of sources for such moralizing texts: advice manuals for children, chronicles, sermons, and satirical works. Men draw criticism especially for their long, pointed shoes, their beards and/or long hair, and for tight and padded doublets that are too short and revealing. Women's hair especially provokes criticism; for example, around 1300, women's "buns of hair" on either side of the head were called "lumps that are attached to her jowls" (164), and a fifteenth-century sermon refers to women "with their pretty heads set up on high and horned, as if they were senseless beasts" (157).

Chapter 5, "Sumptuary Regulation, Statutes and the Rolls of Parliament," highlights information about fashion gleaned through restrictions and mandates. As scholars have long argued, the major incentive for sumptuary legislation was to maintain class distinctions, although protectionist economics also played a role. Records beginning in the late twelfth century and continuing through the late fifteenth demonstrate how England made use of sumptuary laws; these not only reveal class hierarchies but also provide nomenclature for social ranks. The Act of October 1363, for example, distinguishes grooms, craftsmen, gentlemen, esquires, knights, and lords, mandating grooms "shall have cloths for their clothing or shoes, of which the whole cloth shall not exceed 2 marks" (203) whereas craftsmen could not "take or wear cloth for their clothing or shoes of a higher price than 40s for the whole cloth" (205). Clerical dress was similarly restricted: "[No] clerk should use large fur-trimmed or lined hoods which extend beyond the base of the shoulders, unless he is an archbishop, bishop, archdeacon, or dean" (209). Punishments included fines and forfeiture of the offending dress to the king.

Chapter 6, "Unpublished Petitions to King, Council and Parliament," concerns grievances submitted to the king, council, or parliament between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, related to cloth and dress. A late thirteenth-century petition complained with regard to the livery of children (which at this time included food, candles, firewood, and bedding, as well as clothing) who were wards of Edward II, requesting reinstatement of their earlier, more generous allowances (241). Another from 1342 concerns claims made by the weavers' guild of York that in Yorkshire, only they could enroll weavers permitted to weave "striped or coloured cloth...upon pain of forfeiture of 10 pounds to our lord the king" (247).

The final chapter, "Epic and Romance," includes multiple excerpts from a variety of medieval literary texts, including Beowulf and the Constance, Launfal, and Freine Groups of medieval romance narratives. Some tales, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lais of Marie de France, are well known to medievalists; others are much less so. While these often short excerpts could usefully send the reader to the longer texts for fuller context, reading this series of short excerpts proved confusing and not particularly enlightening about dress terms and practices.

Overall this is an exemplary collection of texts, but there are ways the book's scholarly apparatus could have made it more useful for most readers who are unlikely to read it from cover to cover. The book does include a "List of Documents" at the beginning, but most do not include dates; while each section approximates a chronological sequence, dating spans vary, and some chapters subdivide their documents into smaller categories that disrupt the chronology. The list of wills or accounts, for example, would be much more useful if dating information were included. The editors do include a helpful explanation of their editorial conventions in transcribing the original texts, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an excellent glossary of mostly dress or textile terms that not only defines them, but includes document numbers for where the terms appear. These last references, however, are incomplete, and more importantly, the book lacks a true index. This collection would be more useful for researchers if one could look up terms such as "hair" or "headdresses"; both these elements appear as topics within multiple documents, yet no apparatus currently exists to find them.