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Old 23rd July 2006   #1
HSG
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Default ''Well clothed with flesh'' (Medieval Beauty V)


For this, the final installment in our Medieval Beauty series, we end at the beginning. That is, we close with a discussion of the writer who is widely regarded as the first immortal poet in the English language: Geoffrey Chaucer.

In our previous explorations of the feminine ideal in medieval literature, we encountered Latin, French, and Italian texts, but with Chaucer, we come at last to an English-language work.

For all of Chaucer's reputation as the father of English letters, there was a domestic literature in Anglo-Saxon Britain which predated him. Some of the poems in that tradition, such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are still canonical.

However, the Norman conquest of 1066 largely eradicated Anglo-Saxon literature, as it did much of the extant civilization, and established in its place a more continental culture.

The resulting stylistic change was substantial. From what survives, we know that Anglo-Saxon literature, with its Germanic roots, oriented itself around the Sublime, rather than the Beautiful. One may experience a taste of this Nordic culture in the melancholy poem titled "The Ruin," which evokes a Sublime sensibility that the English-speaking world would not know again until the dawn of Romanticism, in the late 1700s.

But Chaucer based his poetry on continental models, including some of the works that we examined earlier in our Medieval Beauty discussions, such as Le Roman de la Rose. And like his Romance-language predecessors, he generally favoured the aesthetic of the Beautiful over the Sublime.

This is not to say that darkness is absent from Chaucer's work. His most famous literary achievement is undoubtedly The Canterbury Tales, which, like Boccaccio's Decameron, is a series of narratives linked by a framing device. In that collection, "The Pardoner's Tale" stands out as a particularly eerie and powerful text, among the earliest literary horror stories in the English language.

But the Beautiful was Chaucer's forte, and nowhere in his entire opus is his conception of the feminine ideal better expressed than in the work that first established his renown, The Book of the Duchess (c.1368-69).

In The Book of the Duchess, the poet dreams of wandering into a forest glen, where he encounters a black-clad knight, who is visibly overcome by sorrow. The knight relates how he lost his beloved lady in a game of chess with the goddess Fortune (i.e., she died tragically), and the rest of the poem comprises the knight's passionate description of his lost love.

The knight recalls how he first saw his late beloved while she was dancing ("I saw her dance so gracefully / Ring-dancing and most sweetly singing"),

Valerie Lefkowitz in her more gorgeous, fuller-figured days of yore, modelling for Goody's

and recounts the qualities that stole his heart:

For every hair upon her head
To state it truly, was not red,
. . . nor yet brown in hue,
But glittering golden to the view . . .

Amber Cather modelling for UllaPopken.de. If only this beautiful but too-thin model could become genuinely full-figured!

But what a face my Lady had!
Alas! My heart is sorely sad
I cannot give account of it!
I lack the English and the wit
To tell its loveliness in full;

Shannon Marie in a Bloomingdale's ad from Mode magazine; still unrivalled as the most gorgeous plus-size model of all time

Besides, my spirit is too dull
To grasp so great a thing entire.
I have no wit that can aspire
To comprehend her loveliness.
But she--and this I can but stress--
Was pink and white, fresh, lively-hued,

Kelsey Olson modelling for Torrid. Click to view the source of this image

And daily her beauty was renewed.
Her face was best, in highest measure,
For truly, Nature took such pleasure
To make it lovely that she might
Be the ideal of beauty bright.
Highest example of Nature's work
And paragon: in deepest dark
I seem to see her evermore. . .

Charlotte Coyle; test image

So smooth and comely was her neck
There was no sign of bone or break
Upon its whiteness
that missat,
And it was straight and smooth and flat
Without a hollow, and collar-bone
By her appearance, had she none
.

Kailee O'Sullivan modelling for David's Prom, 2006

Her throat, as I have memory,
Seemed a round tower of ivory . . .
Her name, it was good Blanche the Fair.
That was my Lady's name most right
Because she was both fair and bright;

Victoria Lewis; test image

Her birth-name surely was not wrong!
Most lovely shoulders, body long
And arms, like every limb, God knows,
Well clothed with flesh
. . .

Megan Garcia (MSA/Goddess, New York) modelling for the plus-size style guide, ''Figure it Out''

And the nails red, and round each breast,
And broad the hips to give good rest
Unto the straightness of her back.

Lillian Russell

I knew in her no single lack,
For all, as far as I could tell,
In every part was fashioned well.
(895-960)

Sophia Myles, in a still image from the film ''Tristan & Isolde''; courtesy sophiamyles.org

* * *

Regular readers of this forum will find the knight's description of his lost love extremely familiar. Her "glittering golden" hair, her "pink and white" complexion, and her soft features--so "fair" that they define her by name ("Blanche," meaning "white")--are traits that she shares with every paragon of medieval beauty whom we have encountered in Chaucer's predecessors.

And, also like his literary forbears, Chaucer enthuses over the well-fed appearance of his "ideal of beauty bright," delighting in how "broad the hips" seem, how "well clothed with flesh" are her "arms, like every limb." Her neck is so plump, Chaucer writes, that it shows "no sign of bone or break / Upon its whiteness," and he praises her soft fullness by noting that "collar-bone / By her appearance, had she none."

(This aversion to a visible clavicle had a clear precedent in Roman poets such as Maximian, and remained a key characteristic of ideal beauty well into the days of Lillian Russell, over five centuries later.)

* * *

We undertook this series examining medieval concepts of feminine beauty for several reasons.

First, it seemed important to disprove the modern myth that the adoration of the fuller female figure is an ethnic matter, and that non-Caucasian cultures are more receptive to plus-size beauty than is our own.

As this series has demonstrated, nothing could be further from the truth. The veneration of plus-size beauty is absolutely central to the Western tradition--in fact, it comprises its aesthetic core. The attributes that Western culture has traditionally associated with full-figured beauty are specifically the "fairest" of physical features. Medieval writers universally associate a soft, generous figure with golden hair, azure eyes, and fair skin. Beauty is, after all, not a culturally-constructed standard, but an essential ideal that resides in the human heart.

Second, some visitors may have noticed that our online museum of timeless beauty, the Pinacotheca, lacks a gallery for the Middle Ages.

That is not because the medieval ideal was different from that of any other age in Western history. Quite the contrary. Rather, during the Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome, Western art lost its naturalistic qualities, and was reduced to a flat, two-dimensional style, more akin to Byzantine forms. The art of the early Middle Ages does not represent human figures naturalistically, but symbolically, and the physical size of these figures is not based on any individual's proportions in real life, but on his or her place in the Great Chain of Being.

Note, for example, the following page from a famous illuminated medieval manuscript, called the Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift. This depicts King Wenceslaus IV, the King of Bohemia (grandson of the ruler about whom Guillaume de Machaut composed his eponymous poem, The Judgment of the King of Bohemia).

It shows the king looking considerably taller and larger than his courtiers, but this is not because he was a giant, or held a court of dwarves, but because his physical size in this image represents his royal status. (When Christ in depicted in medieval art, he towers over every other figure.) The size of the lesser courtiers is directly proportionate to their social/theological standing.

Western visual art did not return to naturalistic depictions of human appearance until the Renaissance, which occasioned the revival of the Classical approach. Thus, for example, the following manuscript page (created during the Renaissance), illuminating a text from Plutarch, shows a full-figured Venus with Classical attributes, including generous thighs, and a curvaceous waist:

However, although the Classical ideal was temporarily absent from Western visual art during the Middle Ages, it still remained culturally dominant in other art forms, such as literature--a fact to which the texts that we have examined attest.

And just as the Renaissance brought back visual depictions of plus-size beauty in Western art after a prolonged absence, let us hope for a similar cultural Renaissance today--one that will restore the timeless idea of full-figured femininity to its rightful position of aesthetic dominance, in the present day and age.

.................

References:


Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Book of the Duchess." c.1368-69. The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue and Four Tales with The Book of the Duchess and Six Lyrics. Trans. Frank Ernest Hill. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1930. 159-78.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Book of the Duchess." c.1368-69. Love Visions. Ed. Brian Stone. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1983. 22-57.

(Special thanks to Kirsten for bringing the Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift to our attention, and for an enlightening discussion of the Byzantine influence on medieval art.)


Last edited by HSG : 21st September 2006 at 00:03.
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Old 24th July 2006   #2
Emily
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Default Re: ''Well clothed with flesh'' (Medieval Beauty V)

Of all of the models who have been featured in these Medieval Beauty threads, I still think Shannon Marie stands out as the fairest of them all. It's like the poets had her beauty in mind, when they composed their verses. It's such a shame that she put her career on hiatus. Just think: all these years, the industry could have had another Barbara Brickner -- that is, another model so wondrously beautiful that her every image would have been a revelation, her every campaign would have helped advanced size celebration and restore the timeless femininity, the way that Barbara’s campaigns have done.

In Chaucer’s verses, I was especially struck by this line:

Quote:
Originally Posted by HSG
in deepest dark
I seem to see her evermore. . .
That's a sentiment that I haven't noticed in the work of the writers who preceded Chaucer. It signals the deeper significance of the beauty of the knight's lost lady -- that her image still lives on in the knight's memory as an ideal who can dispel the dark sorrow of human existence.
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Old 6th August 2006   #3
HSG
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Default Re: ''Well clothed with flesh'' (Medieval Beauty V)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Emily
It signals the deeper significance of the beauty of the knight's lost lady -- that her image still lives on in the knight's memory as an ideal who can dispel the dark sorrow of human existence.

In fact, Chaucer develops this theme even further in The Book of the Duchess.

As the poem progresses, the knight relates the details of his courtship to the narrator. The knight reminisces about the effect that the sight of Blanche's beauty had upon him:

Most fervently I longed to see
My sweet: so well she physicked me
That when I saw her any morrow,
I was cured of all my sorrow

That whole long day until the eve;
I felt that I could never grieve,
Whatever misery made me smart.
(1101-07)

This is a remarkable anticipation of the Romantic concept of beauty, as an imaginative power that can supplant even the most oppressive material reality (whether that beauty manifests itself as feminine loveliness, or the natural world, or, in the case of Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper," as a stirring song).

The poem itself re-creates the salutary effect that the knight's lady achieved, while she lived. By compelling the knight to dwell on the image of Blanche, the narrator allows the bereaved once again to be "physicked" by his beloved--even after her death--through the memory of her beauty, which has been preserved within him.

The knight's grief at losing Blanche can only be assuaged by the beauty that she possessed. She alone can cure him--but she has passed on. The poem overcomes this paradox, by effectively bringing the Duchess back to life, in art.

Beauty thus triumphs over the grave, thanks to the mimetic power of poetry.

In the narrative, the knight also recalls how the transcendental power of his lady's beauty was not wrought upon him alone, but upon all who saw her, and could appreciate her splendour:

. . . she was like a torch so bright
That everyone could take its light
Yet never make that light the less
.
In manners and in comeliness
Just so my lady did appear;
And all could take from her fine cheer
Enough to make their spirits stir
If they had eyes to look at her.
For I dare swear if she had been
Among ten thousand beauties seen,
She would have been at very least
The chiefest mirror at the feast,
Though all were standing in a row,
For men whose eyes could judge and know.
(963-76)

The "torch" reference associates the lady's preternatural beauty with Promethean fire, a similarly divine gift bequeathed to mortals. And by limning her brilliance in words, the poem allows every reader to be uplifted by the Duchess's beauty, as is the knight within the poem.

Far from being an ephemeral quality, the lady's beauty assures its own immortality, by inspiring the art that will preserve the memory of that beauty, for all time.

Ljubenka, from Ford; stunning new test image. Ljubenka is yet another promising talent who could be an extraordinary plus-size beauty, and an important model, if only she were fuller-figured.

(Ljubenka, from Ford)


Last edited by HSG : 6th August 2006 at 16:17.
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