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Dress, Jewels, Arms and Coat of Arms: Material Culture and Self-Representation in the Late Middle Ages


The serious gentlemen on the image above are - no doubt - feasting. Who can they be? One is startled by the huge 'stars' on their 'coats': are these the apostles receiving apocryph stigmata at the Last Supper, or the jolly company at the feast of Cana? The supposed divine halo is nothing more than a sign of earthly pride: the apostle-looking figures represent the Order of the Star, l'Ordre de l'Etoile, a French order founded in the 14th century ro rivalize the English Order of the Garter. The size of the stars suggests the basic importance of the Order in the self-representation of these knights, at least, it seemed so to the 15th century illustrator of this manuscript of the Chronique de France.

The purpose of this manual is similar: to show how the emerging self-consciousness of the Late Middle Ages tried to represent and define itself in objects. Of course, the fashioning of human identity was already a common process in the Classical Antiquity: "Such self-consciousness had been wide-spread among the elite of the classical world, but Christianity brought a growing suspicion of man's power to shape identity." (Stephen Greenblatt) Augustine said: "Hands off yourself: try to build up yourself and you build a ruin." In this aspect the Late Middle Ages, but in some cases already the High Middle Ages have brought along a change. The representative members of the society, whose circle gets bigger and bigger, start to fashion themselves according to ideal patterns: from the idea of Christian ruler it descends to the courtly lover, to the knight and finally to the bourgeois. The self-fashioning consists not only of manners and taste, the internal adornment of the man, but also of external, bodily ornaments, which express the belonging of their possessors to a certain part of the society.

The four essays gathered here give both an introduction to evolution and history of medieval arms, heraldry, costumes and jewelry, and try to offer a key to the interpretation and symbolism of the ornaments, where possible. The authors of the manual (Russel Mitchell - arms and armor, Vladimir Baranov - heraldry, Annamaria Kovacs - costumes, Dora Sallay - jewelry (techniques), Elena Lemeneva - jewelry (symbolism), Kiss Farkas Gabor - editing) do not claim originality, the purpose of the project was to produce a booklet which might serve as a useful tool in teaching and also as a reference and starting point for further studies.

The manual consists of four main sections, a glossary with links to the sections and a general bibliography. We tried to link the hypertexts at as many places as possible, so one could find cross-references between different sections, as well. The navigation is made easier between the four main sections by references at the top of the pages. Almost each image can be viewed in largo by clicking on them. You can also download the entire manual (8 Mb) to navigate and study offline. If you have any suggestions or you encounter problems using our page, please contact us.

The introductory thoughts are based on Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-fashioning, from More to Shakespeare, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Central European University