Seminar          A Material World: Medieval Clothing and Costume

A Seminar for Graduate Students

In the medieval world clothing was an essential sign of social position and was controlled by legislation. Cloth could be extremely expensive, both because of the costs of its raw material, and because considerable labour and skill could be expended in its decoration - for example with embroidery, or with jewels - and in its moulding to the human form as clothing.  For this reason, medieval romance often features items of clothing with symbolic or even magical power. Now, though we may be more suspicious generally of the idea that we can judge people by the way they are dressed, we can understand why it is still important to have prohibitions on impersonating a priest or a policeman.  And we readily accept that theatrical costume will give us clues as to the nature of a character presented to us.  Theatrical allegory depends on external signs of which costume is often the richest.  At the same time, in medieval drama a fundamental separation, or non-identification, between performer and part designedly characterises medieval understandings of theatrical performance. Medieval players were not attempting to ‘become’ the roles they embodied: player and part remained distinct in the space and time of performance. Both role and costume are an outer layer which the performer temporarily adopts.  In the Tudor Interludes playwrights began to exploit both social and theatrical convention with explicit references to the confusions that can be created when outward signs are not trustworthy. 

Assessment will be by Seminar Paper, to be submitted to Prof. Dutton as a Word document (by email)

deadline Sep 1st 2020

Weekly plan:

19.2    Veils, nets and jewels: Judith

26.2    Cloaks and girdles: the clothing of the Blessed Virgin Mary

4.3       Nuns' habits and liturgical vestments

11.3    Wearing White: the Book of Margery Kempe

18.3    Cloaks and girdles: clothing in medieval romance

25.3    Costuming scripture: the evidence of the York Cycles

1.4       Dressing the Jews: N Town

8.4       Costuming allegory: Wisdom

22.4    The cloak of human flesh: Julian of Norwich and Piers Plowman

29.4    Gilding the Lily: women and their finery in fabliaux

6.5       Dressing the devil: Mankynde

13.5    Disguising the devil: Magnyfycence

20.5    Dressing the fool: Wit and Science

27.5    Conclusions

Learning outcomes:

  • Knowledge of the styles and contents of medieval drama
  • Knowledge of selected narratives of medieval romance
  • Understanding of the material realities of medieval drama
  • Appreciation of medieval attitudes to clothing and costume
  • Understanding of the historic processes by which medieval garments were produced, and of their social symbolism
  •  Increased familiarity with Middle English language