Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Chapters 5 and 6 try to show the ways in which social selves were constructed from each other, by and through other people. By contrast, this chapter is an attempt to see how the material world was appropriated to social selves and how the social expression of self took essential material forms. Every act of work, of walking, of giving, of adorning, was in part an injection of self, a marking of territory, a singing of the body that was me-in-the-world. “Oh, how much cost is bestowed nowadays on our bodies and how little upon our souls! How many suits of apparel hath the one and how little furniture hath the other!”1 When William Harrison wrote this lament upon English customs in 1577, he was a late example of a religious and moral sentiment ignorant or disapproving of a long-lived feature of the culture.2 When Joan of Arc put on her pants, it marked and made her destiny, her difference from the other French girls, her calling. Her judicial trials circled around her clothes and she was eventually condemned for them.3 When Margery Kempe donned her headdress of gold pipes in early fifteenth-century Lynn, it was a projection of self, and its ethics were social rather than religious, inarticulate but deeply entrenched, albeit cast in an unfamiliar key for us and a contemptible one for the William Harrisons of the world. However, the crucial point is that the clothing mattered. It has been argued for early medieval culture that “materialism…utterly permeated every facet of social and personal experience.”4 The later medieval self also remained naturally expressed and understood through the things of the world.


Fifteenth Century Moral Sentiment Social Expression Indigo Blue Fine Clothes 
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  1. 1.
    William Harrison, Description of England (Washington and New York: Dover Publications, 1994), p. 146.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See John Scattergood, “Fashion and Morality in the Late Middle Ages,” in England in the Fifteenth Century. Proceedings of the Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp. 255–72.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Susan Crane, “Clothing and Gender Definition: Joan of Arc,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 (1996): 297–320;Google Scholar
  4. Katherine French, “The Legend of Lady Godiva and the Image of the Female Body,” The Journal of Medieval History, 18 (1992): 3–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 4.
    Thomas Patterson, “Self-worth and Property: Equipage and Early Medieval Personhood,” in Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain, ed. William D Frazer and Andrew Tyrell (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), p. 66.Google Scholar
  6. R.H. Britnell, The Commercialisation of English Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  7. Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing Society, 1300–1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996),Google Scholar
  8. John H. Harvey with Arthur Oswald, English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1500 (Gloucester: Sutton, 1987), p. 286.Google Scholar
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    Katherine French, The People of the Parish (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 102–105;Google Scholar
  10. Julia Carnwath, “The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Thame, Oxfordshire, c. 1443–1524,” in Trade, Devotion, and Governance, ed. Dorothy J. Clayton, Richard G. Davie, and Peter McNiven (Stroud: A. Sutton, 1994), p. 191Google Scholar
  11. 57.
    See A.J. Scrase, “Development and Change in Burghage Plots:The Example of Wells,” Journal of Historical Geography 15 (1989): 49–65, which provides some background.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    William Langland, Piers Plowman; The C Version, ed. George Russell and George Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 373.Google Scholar
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    See Caroline W. Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995),Google Scholar
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    Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast:The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)Google Scholar

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© David Gary Shaw 2005

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