To Appear or to Be

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Το Appear or to Be



his collection represents an attempt to study methods of obtaining a deeper insight into the content and forms of symbolic com-munication in the Low Countries during the late Middle Ages. We worked on the assumption that in addition to direct, utilitarian communication every society needs symbolic communication. We focused on the ways in which the positions of individuals and groups were represented. There has been little systematic research into the many aspects of this particular field of study. The contributions presented in this volume examine diverse forms of symbolic communication, their functions and meaning.

There seemed to be sufficient reason for the production of a publication in English that would focus on the Low Countries in the light of the formulation of problems and themes Coming at least in pari from other regions. International scholarly literature contains relatively little up-to-date Information about the Low Countries, which was among the most densely populated, and in every sense one of the most dynamic, regions of Europe. Yet the Low Countries, situated on the edge of three great linguistic areas and at the heart of a busy commercial System, is an exceptionally interesting region for the study of the circulation of cultural modeis. The paucity of Information on the subject in international literature is simply a result of the language barrier posed by both the sources and many of the learned studies. We hope that this collection will facilitate access to the most recent publications and views.


experts made a single-discipline study of the material: each tried to integrate perspectives and sources that were traditionally part of an adjacent discipline. We studied different social environments within which particular texts, objects or practices functioned: princely households, the nobility, the universities, town patriciates, entire urban and rural communities. Some media focus on an individual — mystical literature for example, — while others belong to the public domain, such as a procession or major sculpture in a church. The sources that were analyzed cover a wide ränge: legal and official documents; diverse literary genres, from the courtly romance, chroniclers in princely Service and Spiritual works to narratives and plays for a town audience; and Visual material, varying from badges, graves, drawings and woodcuts to paintings and the monumental works of great artists.

We tried constantly to answer several different questions, because we wanted to elicit different sorts of data from each source at the same time. Our first question was what the sources could unwittingly reveal about social identifications and attitudes, how these were perceived and how people dealt with them. Next, we had to discover the role our sources themselves were expected to play as a symbolic means of communication for their primary public. In addition to functional Information practically every source also contains an additional message, which was created with a specific purpose, at a given time and in a particular environment. Annelies van Gijsen expressly wams us against hindsight interpretations, based on our own, or even traditional, romantic, explanatory modeis. One way of avoiding this pitfall seems to be by approaching the same problems from different points of view and using different sources.


distinguished the wealthy elite. On a more modest scale, the mass-produced pewter badges, with their diverse antique, profane, Christian and populär symbols, fulfilled a similar role in associating the wearer with a particular message, which was visible and recognizable to persons both known and unknown (Jos Koldeweij).

The need to define their position was feit as strongly by individuals as by collectives such as princely households, towns and rural communities (Peter Hoppenbrouwers). At table, at court, in a patrician militia or on a town Council, everyone knew his exact place according to rank, seniority and age (Fred van Kan). Processions were organized with increasing care in a hierarchically ascending order. Military campaigns and ceremonial assemblies were often the background to quarreis about the right of precedence which a particular prince, nobleman, town or region believed should be claimed (Robert Stein, Blockmans & Donckers). Failure to obtain this precedence resulted automatically in a loss of prestige. Everybody's Status, therefore, had to be constantly demonstrated, at every opportunity and using all available means. The patricians of Brüssels supported Jan van Ruusbroec's spirituality, which anticipated such themes as the embarrassment of bourgeois riches and poverty as a blessing in disguise (Geert Warnar). Α hundred years later a patrician could stand out above others of his Station by having himself and his family and his armorial bearings depicted Standing close to the tabernacle, by a well-known artist in an impressive sculpture in an important church. The artist, in his turn, could rise above his fellow craftsmen by giving himself a visible position in his artistic production (Johann-Christian Klamt). Fifteenth-century Flemish painters did that increasingly in self-portraits. Moreover, a number of sources reveal that certain artists could afford a more prominent Status than their numerous colleagues who earned no more than other craftsmen (Maximiliaan Martens).

The recognition of a person's position was based on a number of factors, of which some were fairly objective (lineage, function or office, fortune, age) while others were subject to a value judgement, such as a person's accomplishments. The ceaseless show of marks of Status and ambition contributed to the winning of the recognition essential to a position of honour. Since this activity was made manifest through a number of media on both material and Spiritual levels, an equally multifaceted approach is essential to understand it properly.


revealed a person's position. Manners, the style of dress and food showed quite clearly the rank, category and order to which a person belonged (Raymond van Uytven). Self-definition and dividing lines were a matter for careful consideration when marriages were arranged among the nobility, in order to assess the relative positions of the families concerned. Lifestyle was one aspect that could be thus assessed: living in a castle, hunting, owning falcons, not being subject to taxes were all indicative of nobility (Antheun Janse). In a dynamic context, frictions between layers of the nobility would be a normal occurrence, such as those between the old families living on their estates and newcomers who rose in society by holding office at court. This sort of friction can be seen in the historio-graphy of the court of Holland, where current tensions were spotlighted by means of criticisms directed towards the lifestyle of the nobility in the past (Jeanne Verbij-Schillings).

The codes of conduct of the nobility were also explored in the French-language literature intended for a noble public at the court of Hainaut. Moralizing verse contained direct precepts of behaviour, while love stories in which class boundaries were breached showed indirectly what the proper social order should be. By means of the literature that was read or recited in their circles, members of the elite were persuaded of the necessity of preserving the social hierarchy by following certain rules of behaviour and codes of ethics. Fiction allowed the overstepping of these norms to be described and considered in an entertaining and exciting way, so that finally the absolute inadmissability of overstepping the norms was confirmed all the more strongly. Norms and Standards could be challenged in a fictional context, but literary communication continued to function exceptionally well as a means of promoting internalization of the rules of behaviour (Danielle Queruel).


One thing is absolutely certain: a purely straightforward reading of such stories would ignore both their debt to literary tradition and the moralizing purpose which may well have been behind the circulation of these messages among a bourgeois public (Annelies van Gijsen).

The Interpretation of the populär theme of the domineering wife, which was widespread in both printed texts and illustrations, immediately comes to mind. Did it indeed reflect something perceived as a real social problem? From the punishment of marital fights men appear to a very large extent to have been the more aggressive partner, while the position of the working woman had been accepted for a long time. So the problem of Interpretation arises on two levels: a) How realistic were the relationships presented? b) What was the purpose of ihis symbolic communication? Did the entertain-ment value of such productions not lie more in the reversed and exaggerated situations than in the presentation of reality? If it is accepted that the rules of the literary gerne of populär reading or theatre require a divergence from reality to allow the public to enter a fictional world, then the function of these stories can be understood as an attempt to influence reality by presenting an exaggerated or reversed picture of that reality as being ridiculous (Blockmans & Neijzen). Similarly, a large number of woodcuts on the theme of the sensual, insatiable woman should not be interpreted as a simple reflection of reality but as a perception which provokes a moralizing reaction in the form of an amusing lesson in virtuousness (Hanneke de Bruin).


gives some indication of reception in relatively wide social circles.

The badges that Jos Koldeweij studied form another interesting example of this. The thousands of these cheap mass-products still in existence leave us in no doubt as to how widespread they were. Most of them have been found in archaeological contexts that give some indication of their use. The identification of the individual with the image is particularly direct in this medium, because the badge was chosen to be worn very visibly on clothing. Some images could be connected to the illustrations in the margins of manuscripts recalling literary themes from the Roman de la Rose, La

Chätelaine de Vergi and Aristotle and Phyllis.




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