Material and Symbolic Gift-Giving

Clothes in English and French Wills
  • Kathleen Ashley
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The “social life of things” (or material culture) has become the subject of intense study and theorization during the past twenty years. Material culture is studied to discover “the beliefs—the values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions—of a particular community or society at a given time. The underlying premise is that human-made objects reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of the individuals who commissioned, fabricated, purchased, or used them and, by extension, the beliefs of the larger society to which these individuals belonged.”1 As the most literal form of “material culture,” cloth and clothing have been the focus of widespread interdisciplinary interest that encompasses not just fabric objects but also their representation in visual and verbal texts.2


Material Culture Underlying Premise Verbal Text Gift Economy Funeral Ceremony 
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  1. 1.
    Jules David Prown, “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction” from History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. Steven Lubar and W David Kingery (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 1.Google Scholar
  2. have focused on representations of courtly clothing in literary texts. See, for example, E.Jane Burns, Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Susan Crane, The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity During the Hundred Years War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). For a historical approach, see Kay Staniland, “The Great Wardrobe Accounts as a Source for Historians of Fourteenth-Century Clothing and Textiles,” Textile History 20 (1989): 275–81. Clothing was a favorite gift in courtly culture. Brigitte Buettner, “Past Presents: New Year’s Gifts at the Valois Courts, c. 1400,” Art Bulletin 83.4 (2001), argues that seasonal courtly gifts, étrennes, performed a kind of ‘symbolic alchemy’ whereby a ritual is produced in order to suppress the reality of economic exchanges, a ‘sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange’ that wove people into a complex web of prestation and counterprestation allowing social cohesion and competition to be expressed and perpetuated,” (618). The key to this kind of gift-giving, she points out, is that it was done in semipublic rituals instead of privately;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. See also the overview by Christopher Tilley, “Ethnography and Material Culture,” in Handbook of Ethnography, ed. Paul Atkinson et al. (London: Sage, 2001), pp. 258–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 8.
    Mauss’s work was translated as The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison. Introduction by E. E. Evans-Prit chard (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1954).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Marshall Sahlins, “The Spirit of the Gift,” in The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity, ed. Alan D. Schrift (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 95.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Chris A. Gregory Gif s and Commodities (London: Academic Press, 1982), p. 41.Google Scholar
  8. see her Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). She argues that, “What motivates reciprocity is its reverse—the desire to keep something back from the pressures of give and take. This something is a possession that speaks to and for an individual’s or a group’s social identity and, in so doing, affirms the difference between one person or group and another” (p. 43). The “inalienable value” added to objects might be seen as an updating of Mauss’s concept of hau, the power/spirit in the gift (pp. 8–9).Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Yunxiang Yan, The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 44.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    It is true that the majority of wills by women are those of widows, who had relative freedom to dispose of their property. However, the Burgundian examples include a fair number of testaments by married women as well. Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), says that “to ask about the gender of the gift … is to ask about the situation of gift exchange in relation to the form that domination takes in these societies” (p. xii). She argues that “ceremonial exchange, with its myth that gifts create gifts,” tends to hide the “fact that such exchange is the means by which wealth is appropriated” (p. 151). In Melanesia, she suggests, men use the ceremonial exchange system to suppress the fact of inequality of access to resources and to ensure their own domination. Men, she argues, are able to use the system to transform wealth into a “singular identity” for themselves—their prestige (p. 159). She posits two types of sociality: collective and singular. As this essay will suggest, wealthy women in early modern western culture often make the same attempt to create a “singular identity” for themselves through their gift-giving. In her study of aristocratic women, Barbara J. Harris draws on wills to analyze female control over property, noting that women with no children distributed their goods to “a relatively narrow group of their natal kin—their siblings and siblings’ children.” She remarks on the “dense, enduring female networks” of childless aristocratic wives and widows, and the “phenomenon of movable goods, especially jewelry, plate, and clothes, passing from one woman to another over a number of generations,” English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 15.
    C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Handbook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 202. Lincoln wills mentioning gifts of russet coats, gowns, hose, hats, caps, ‘kyrtells,’ or other garments include # 3, 8, 39, 44, 62, 105, 110, 116, 122, 138, 146, 158, 161, 184, 230, 332, 348, 353, 383, 397, 435, 516, 568.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Karen Casselman, a specialist on early dyes, notes that dyes of purple hues can be produced from a variety of sources (lichen, folium, cochineal, lac, murex, and madder), and that “dyers have a fondness for purple because it shows a high level of technical skill” (personal communication). She suspects that the violet color in the Lincolnshire clothing comes from folium but it might also come from a lichen dye, both of which could be referred to by the common name ‘turnsole.’ See also her Craft of the Dyer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), and Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book (Dover, NY: Dover Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  13. however, Natalie Zemon Davis, writing on The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), briefly mentions gifts given in testaments, and singles out special gifts of personal property given by women. She says that most often “it was the women who turned their belongings into signifying gifts, and not just rosaries, rings,Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    See the discussion of processions, including funeral processions, in my Introduction, “The Moving Subjects of Processional Performance” in Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Wim Husken (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), pp. 7–34, especially pp. 11–12. On the black garb of those accompanying the body in procession, see Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas, Costume for Births, Marriages and Deaths (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972), pp. 182–92.Google Scholar
  15. see also the analysis of Baret and his will by Gail Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 72–79.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    See, for example, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods (New York: Basic Books, 1979). Consumption is defined as “a use of material possessions that is beyond commerce and free within the law.” Thus, “consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape” (p. 57). “Goods … are ritual adjuncts;Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    On English sumptuary law, see Frances E. Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1926).Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Wilbfrom Doctors’ Commons, pp. 6–7. On the vogue for luxury furs, see Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, trans. Caroline Beamish (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 73–74. They note that a taste for dark furs, especially sable and black lamb, arrived in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century. ‘Awndelettes” of precious metal may be aiguillettes, which were ornamental shoulder knots.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    Clive Burgess notes that perpetual chantries of the very rich have been well scrutinized, but the foundations by the commercial classes of the fifteenth century have been less studied, “Strategies for Eternity: Perpetual Chantry Foundation in Late Medieval Bristol,” in Religious Belief and Ecclesiastical Careers in Late Medieval England, ed. Christopher Harper-Bill (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1991), pp. 1–32.Google Scholar
  20. 31.
    Michael M. Sheehan, C.S.B., “English Wills and the Records of Ecclesiastical and Civil Jurisdictions,” Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988): 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© E. Jane Burns 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen Ashley

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