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‘wordy vnthur wede’: Clothing, Nakedness and the Erotic in some Romances of Medieval Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Amanda Hopkins
Affiliation:
Warwick University
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Summary

CLOTHING plays a vital role in many Middle English romances. Dress can ridentify the social rank of the wearer, as it does in various ways in the Middle English redactions of Marie de France's Lanval, or be a public demonstration of social condition, like Criseyde's widow's weeds. It can even aid personal recognition, as when Orfeo discovers his queen in the Otherworld: ‘Be hyr clothys he hyr knew’. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, it is clothing rather than anatomy that is the ‘prime indicator of gender identity’ in medieval texts. It can be a valuable gift, like the cloth studded with gems presented to the emperor in Emaré, later made into a robe for the eponymous heroine, and descriptions of costly clothing and rich materials serve to add an exotic quality to many texts. Allusion to nakedness in romance may refer to poor clothing rather than complete nudity, as at the beginning of Havelock when the author writes: ‘þe tale is of Havelock imaked;/ Wil he was litel, he yede ful naked’. The editor glosses naked as ‘poorly dressed’; in medieval texts, then, nakedness is not necessarily an absolute concept, but can indicate that the social status of the wearer is compromised by garments that do not echo his true social rank. Similarly, references to nudity sometimes evoke the context of largesse, intimately connected with gifts of clothing, for example in the criticism of the late merchant's overspending in Sir Amadace:

‘He cladde mo men agaynus a yole

Thenne did a nobull knyghte…

Burdes in the halle were nevyr bare,

With clothes richeli dighte.’

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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