Undercutting the Fabric of Courtly Love with ‘Tokens of Love’ in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival
By Evelyn Meyer
New Research: Yearbook for the Society of Medieval Germanic Studies, Vol.1:1 (2013)
Introduction: In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach provides us with several intriguing examples in which clothing—to which I am limiting myself in this article—plays a surprising role in the construction of gender roles that undercut and/or affirm the fabric of courtly love. On a surface level, clothing seems to perpetuate normative gender constructions in which women are locked into the role of an aloof beauty, the desirable waiting to be desired by a knight. Men on the other hand are in control of women and act upon them, especially when their honor and social distinction increases by being associated with the lady. Herzeloyde’s shirt, Condwiramurs’s silk shirt and velvet coat, and Bene’s and Repanse’s erotically charged coats are but a few of the plethora of examples in Parzival in which clothes are used to express contradictory meanings to the beloved and the public. Furthermore, they signify multivalent constructions of gender in the relationships between men and women.
In this article I will focus on two areas in which clothes provide us insights into Wolfram’s complex commentary on constructions of masculinity and femininity, and the discourse of courtly love: the pinning of a woman’s clothing to a knight’s armor and the male and female cloaked bodies. These examples will demonstrate that the giving and accepting of women’s clothing often serves as a contested site in the power negotiations between courtly women and men, and that there is no single pattern which they follow in their interactions. They both affirm and undercut the fabric of courtly love and simultaneously challenge our modern assumptions of binary gender constructions in the Middle Ages.
Several courtly ladies in Parzival initiate love service with knights and cause “gender inversion” between courtly lovers beyond the pre-marriage phase of their relationship. They attempt to avoid being the object of male desire or to immobilize men with their erotically charged gifts. Knights, on the other hand, resist women’s attempts to control their lives, in particular from those courtly ladies who want to manipulate knights into love service and submission. Though they frequently accept tokens of love to wear on their armor, knights attach them to “inappropriate” places, thus sending a message of resistance back to their ladies. Female clothing given as tokens of love to knights reveals moments of gender inversion, gender reversal and resistance to gender expectations in Wolfram’s Parzival.