Meaning and Its Objects: Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance France.
Yale French Studies 110. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 192 pp. illus. $22. ISBN: 0-300-11241-6
This stimulating collection of interdisciplinary essays offers a discerning look at the "pre-modern textual and visual culture of France to trace how it created, transmitted, and transformed meaning" (1). Arguing that France holds the "richest Western source of material evidence" (1) for the medieval and early modern period, Burland, LaGuardia, and Tarnowski have assembled twelve excellent articles and a useful introduction that examine a rich array of objects from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries: catalogues of stolen goods, weapons, bladders, and clothing are just a few of the artifacts that figure in this volume.
Section 1, "Gifts and Exchange," focuses on objects used to signify, construct, and transform identity. In Aliscans, Andrew Cowell tells us, the low-prestige club identifying the warrior-cook Rainouart as a peasant is transformed through his heroic performance into the symbolic equivalent of the "classic emblem of nobility, the sword" (14). Upon learning that he is in reality a Saracen prince, Rainouart breaks his bloodstained club, which mirrors his fragmented identity, and replaces it with a literal sword given to him by William of Orange's wife, which emblematizes his "full entry into the Christian military aristocracy" (17). In the second essay, Deborah McGrady shows how Guillaume de Machaut, in his Fonteinne amoureuse, uses the material object of the poem to valorize commissions, which "straddle gift-economy and mercantilism" (21), and to upend the traditional patron-poet hierarchy. In contrast to the token gestures of reciprocity used in feudal societies to "reinstate social hierarchies," the "counter-gift" of all his land and wealth that Machaut's fictional prince uses to repay the poet reverses their roles, affirming the writer's supremacy. Moving from gifts to literary exchange, Margaret Burland's essay on Galeran de Bretagne focuses on the narrative cloth woven by Gente, and worn by her abandoned daughter Fresne, in this thirteenth-century verse romance inspired by Marie de France. Embroidered on one side with images of creation, and on the other side with narrative echoes of stories from the past, the cloth serves as an ingenious model of representation, reception, and transmission.
The second section of the volume, "Images and Portraits," privileges the visual dimensions of material culture and includes numerous illustrations. In her analysis of Gautier de Coinci's Miracles de Nostre Dame, Peggy McCracken emphasizes the miraculous power attributed to material images of the Virgin, while Alexa Sand links a fourteenth-century profile of Jean le Bon to devotional altarpieces and political portraiture on coins and medals. By comparing two illustrated manuscripts that commemorate Anne of Brittany's entry into Paris at the time of her coronation in 1504 and her funeral ten years later, Cynthia J. Brown brings to light both the evolving political iconography of the queen and the royal and public dramas that helped shape her image. Two additional highlights of this section are Ann Rosalind Jones's examination of a sixteenth-century costume book that at once entertains readers by picturing "foreigners as exotic others" (120) and "encourage[s] social protest" (121) by satirizing the clergy and Europe's class system; and George Hoffmann's insightful reinterpretation of Montaigne's lost tower paintings, which offer a model of "cross-reference and allusion from one wall to the other" (133), mirroring the essayist's own reading practices.
The third set of essays, "Plans and Procedures," begins with Jeff Persels's examination of the rich historical context and therapeutic function of urination in Rabelais, and concludes with a symmetrical return to the opening essay's theme, in an article by Michael Randall on the sword's two-edged political symbolism in Du Haillan's Histoire de France. In between these analyses of lower-bodily strata and high-prestige symbols, David LaGuardia focuses on the lower classes in his thought-provoking look at catalogues of stolen goods, forcibly narrated by criminals accused of transgressing their culture's property system, in the Registre Criminel du Chatelet de Paris, 1389-1392; and Andrea Tarnowski, in an essay on Philippe de Mezieres, examines the medieval visionary's paradoxically material preparations for a spiritual crusade against avarice, materialism, and private property. Overall, this well-conceived and effectively organized volume combines a much-needed exploration of material culture in medieval and Renaissance France with richly woven and interrelated reflections on topics as diverse as class, gender, identity, justice and injustice, politics, exchange, representation and reception, performance, and theology.
ELIZABETH CHESNEY ZEGURA
University of Arizona