14 October 2020

Book review: Chaucer and Array

This book discusses the way Chaucer uses costume and fabric (and plays with reader expectations of costume and fabric descriptions) to provide characterisation, further depth to the plot and/or to characterise himself as an author. It covers a variety of Chaucer's works, as specified in the title. 

However, note: it does not include the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. If you are looking for an analysis of that, do not buy this book. For that, see two other books in this series by Laura F. Hodges: 'Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue' and 'Chaucer and Clothing: Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales'.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's discuss this book. It's really, really interesting and also really readable, which is always a plus. The book clearly demonstrates a) how clever a writer Chaucer was, b) how incredibly well-read at least some of his audience was expected to be and c) how you'd be an absolute fool to do any sort of costume analysis of fiction written in the medieval period without having a very good understanding that costume cannot always (and, indeed, I would say possibly never can) be taken at face value as simply a description of what a real person of that status and situation would wear.

The chapters are as follows:
  1. Dressing the Warrior and the Streets of Athens in the Knights Tale.
    • This includes a discussion of how medieval streets were decorated for tournaments vs. for royal visits and also how Chaucer subverts audience expectations by failing to describe most of the warriors in this tale.
  2. Sartorial Signs in Troilus and Criseyde.
    • This discusses how Troilus, Criseyde and Pandarus' costume is used to aid their characterisation, and how the dress accessory gifts given by characters have various meanings.
  3. Reading Griselda's Smocks in the Clerk's Tale.
    • This discusses the various smocks Griselda wears and how they add to the story (and how Chaucer again subverts audience expectations by not providing much other costume description for Griselda).
  4. Reading Alison's Smock in the Miller's Tale.
    • This discusses Alison's smock. I found it particularly interesting as it deals with how the smock is 'broyden al bifoore' and how this really shouldn't be taken at face value, e.g. as evidence for blackwork embroidery on shifts, as others have suggested.
  5. Costume Rhetoric for Sir Thopas: "knight auntrous".
    • This discusses how Sir Thopas' unusually (for Chaucer) lavish costume description is used to heighten his ridiculousness.
  6. Conclusion: Other Facets of Chaucer's Fabric and Costume Rhetoric.
    • This summarises and draws conclusion from the other chapters, plus includes a few more of Chaucer's works such as The Complaint of Mars and the Legend of Good Women.
All in all, I'd very much recommend this book if you are stepping beyond the basic 'amateur medieval costume enthusiast' selection of books and you want to explore medieval costume in textual sources. It's a very readable book and, as well as providing many interesting examples of how costume and fabric are used in Chaucer's work, clearly demonstrates some of the potential pitfalls waiting for the inexperienced interpreter of this sort of source. My only proviso is that (as I said at the beginning) if you are interested in an analysis of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, don't expect to find it here.

Title: Chaucer and Array: Patterns of Costume and Fabric Rhetoric in the Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and Other Works
Author(s): Laura F. Hodges
Series: Chaucer Studies
Publisher: D.S. Brewer
Publishing date: 2014
ISBN: 978-1-84384-368-9

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