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Blogging Kalamazoo Session 540: Experiencing Textiles in Medieval Culture and German Literature

Sunday, May 12, 2019 - 09:03

Blogging Kalamazoo Session 540: Experiencing Textiles in Medieval Culture and German Literature

Sunday 10:30

Sponsor: Society for Medieval Germanic Studies (SMGS)

Mit kunkeln und mit schaeren: Tools for Reading Textiles in Medieval German Texts

Hannah Hunter-Parker, Princeton Univ.

Medieval German romances include many details of textile objects, but the usual interpretation is of the objects as metaphors, rather than focusing on them as actual objects. The central content will be a German version of the Trojan chronicle. Although descriptions of textile objects may be extensive and detailed, the focus, both in the text and in literary scholarship rarely considers their materiality and construction. Textiles are treated as unimportant except for their symbolic meaning in the text. This overlap between “text” as textile in literary analysis is of long standing, but elides the textile as object. We now move on to a consideration of the Trojan Chronicle (early 14th c.). A verse translation of a French original, but expanded from the original. This paper looks at two specific additions in the German version. We get the episode of Achilles being hidden among the women, wearing women’s clothing, and performing women’s textile crafts. The man sent to find him lays out two sets of merchant wares: textile supplies (thread, scissors, etc.) and arms and armor. The second added passage is earlier, in the prologue, when the author compares the art of the poet to other crafts (including several textile crafts) as better because the poet uses only the tools of his mind. There is an implication that the physical crafts poetry is compared to are feminized in some way.  We get a context of disputes in the German textile trades at the same era where specific elements of the craft were gendered and women were being elbowed out of some aspects of cloth production. Examples of legal conflicts between male merchants and the female piece-workers supplying them with specialized labor, but also of special privileges given to the textile industry, such as exception from military service. This feeds back to the tension between the tools of textile work and the tools of war, in the prologue, where the poet is jealous of the high monetary value assigned to textile work and objects. This tension may not be descriptive, but rather aspirational on the part of the poet. He wishes for his work to  be seen as more valuable. And yet, the poetic descriptions of cloth and clothing, even in a symbolic context, had a life beyond the chronicle itself, being adapted into other mediums such as minnelieder, while the more polemical prologue was, in some versions, cut.

Weaving Words, Spinning Yarns, and Embroidering the Truth in Medieval German Literature

Kathryn Starkey, Stanford Univ.

German literature full of descriptions of fine textiles, both as setting and as objects of exchange between the characters. The physical and economic attributes of these textiles are elaborate and prominent. While often treated as symbolic background objects, understanding their place within the story requires an understanding of the historic material context. Cloth is uniquely able to create a setting of luxury and exclusivity. But they are also invoked for literary purposes. Various approaches to studying textiles in literature: in relation to clothing and the visual arts, as information for understanding surviving material objects, and as symbolism within the story itself. This paper looks specifically at the meaning of lengths of uncut cloth.  Luxury fabrics may be kept as part of a royal treasury, a story of supplies for the production of clothing, but a means of story and exchanging wealth on its own.  These opulent descriptions of the silks and furs in royal treasuries do not reflect the reality of German courts at the time of composition, but rather represent an ideal. The possession of lengths of costly uncut silk fabric is a mark of the resources of the possessor. These may be given as-is, as lengths of uncut fabric, as a gift as part of politically critical power exchanges. The bestowal of such a gift creates an obligation in the recipient, as well as establishing social hierarchies. (Gifts always go from higher to lower.)  But in contrast to gifts of clothing and other functional objects, uncut cloth behaves more as a commodity and can be given in any direction in the hierarchy. Uncut cloth can be exchanged as a type of tribute, not as an establishment of a hierarchical relationship. In the story of Kudrun, a give of uncut silk is performed at a critical point in the narrative when the giver’s status has been challenged by a disaster and he must securing support and alliance. The refusal of such gifts creates conflict and anxiety, especially when misunderstood by the recipient who offers a return that’s inappropriate to the relationship between the two. (Entwined in this is the wooing/abduction of a woman as a potential part of the exchange.) For context: the Sachsenspiegel distinguishes textile objects and uncut cloth as possessions, especially as inheritance. A widow is entitled to manufactured textile objects, but uncut cloth goes to the male heir. Conclusion: review of the purposes of textiles and textile imagery in medieval German literature.

Who and What Do You Pin It On? Badges and Belonging in Late Medieval Europe

Ann Marie Rasmussen, Univ. of Waterloo

Paper looks at three portraits (comprising two sitters) and the place of badges within the images. These badges (signs, signa, etc.) were prevalent in medieval culture, worn by many parts of society, and intended to be seen and understood  as claiming various types of social relationships. They participated in making identity visible, similarly to other genres of objects such as clothing and heraldry. Portrait: Henry IV, Duke of Mecklenburg, ca. 1507. Probably made to commemorate his marriage (with the bridge’s portrait now lost). The badge is a miniature halberd, suspended from a collar, visible at this neck above the shirt. The badge is only one of a number of signifiers within the portrait. The pendant badge bears heraldic meaning but is less fixed than a coat of arms. Generally these types of badges were voluntarily chosen to show alliance (though there also could be social politics around wearing them). While badges were often of cheap manufacture (e.g., pewter or lead), in this case it is of precious metal set with a jewel. Another sign is an embroidered “H + V” on the upper edge of his shirt. (This would be the initials of Henry and Ursula.) Initials are another popular type of metallic badge. His gown has appliqué of the same pole axe, as well as a “ragged staff” cut tree trunk motif. These are very large in scale. He is also wearing an elaborate hat, ornamented with metal beats and gold cord woven through slits in the hat, with the cord threaded through 9 rings of individual design, similar to the ring he wears on his hand. So what does all this symbolize as a whole, other than simple wealth? As abstract signs, some knowledge is necessary to decode them (knowledge that would be available to his contemporaries).  Some are obvious (like the initials) but others are obscure (like the rings on the hat). Second portrait: Oswald von Wolkenstein (poet, 1432).  Brocaded gown, ornamented collar-necklace with motifs of the jar and lilies, white sash ornamented with a set of badges: cross, dragon, jar with lilies, gryphon. These represent his membership in various chivalric orders: Order of the stole and jar, Order of the dragon. Goes back to the paper title: badges aren’t necessarily “pinned” on. They might be necklaces, embroidered, or part of other jewelry. Metallic badges might be pinned or sewn. Those from Britain and France usually had pins, while those from Germany and Scandinavia typically had eyelets for sewing to a base. (Examples of pilgrims badges shown sewn onto hats, for example.) Who wears these signifying devices? Not only the elites, but also ordinary pilgrims, etc. Always designed to be attached in a visible way. Textile signifiers were discussed by nobles in correspondence to coordinate signs of support for particular persons and groups. Third portrait: genealogical manuscript of Henry and his second wife, that includes armorial shields, banners, etc. Heraldic symbolism requires familiarity with the symbolic system. Discussion of the production context of the three portraits.

Respondent: Monica L. Wright, Univ. of Louisiana–Lafayette

An overall discussion of how these papers bring together the meaning and materiality of textiles within their texts.

Major category: