Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative
John A. Burrow
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
£40.00, 200 pages, ISBN 052188815649 (hardback).

Diana Dominguez
The University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College


John Burrow, Emeritus Professor and Research Fellow in the Department of English at Bristol University, has produced a fascinating study of non-verbal communication elements in both well-known and lesser-known medieval texts. It is the first general study of its kind in English, and provides a new way of reading such romance texts as the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the French romances of Chrétien de Troyes, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Romances are particularly apt subjects for studying gestures and other non-verbal communication elements, as so much of courtly behavior depended on coded communication between participants. However, Burrow also includes a study of gestures and looks in texts not often associated with the need for the "secretive" or "coded" communication: William Langland's Piers Plowman, Jean Froissart's Chroniques, and Dante Alighieri's Commedia.

Burrow bases his study on a passage from Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana, in which he describes and defines his idea of verba visibilia (visible words), or non-verbal signs that impart some kind of meaning, rather than an involuntary reaction (like a blush or a sneeze). He principally concerns himself with instances of gestures and looks that fall under the category of deliberately conveying meaning or messages to observers. The book is divided into six chapters: in his Introduction (chapter one), he provides brief theoretical background regarding non-verbal communication and explains his motivation for presenting such a study; chapter two and chapter three deal with the categories of gestures and looks (both facial expressions and communicative gazes or glances) respectively, with copious examples from a wide variety of medieval texts; in chapters four and five, he gives detailed discussions of specific works that, he says, are particularly rich in such gestures and looks, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (chapter four), and Dante's Commedia (chapter five); he concludes with an enlightening Afterword (chapter six).

Burrow's purpose in writing the book is two-fold. He explains that gestures and speaking looks played a highly important part in both public and private exchanges in medieval society, and, as such, should be expected to be found in the texts of the time, but can be— and often are—misunderstood or simply neglected by readers not aware of their significance or presence. While non-verbal communication is taken for granted and usually instinctively understood by most face-to-face speakers or viewers of media like film and television, texts, especially early texts, present a problem for readers not familiar with the social and historical context of the non-verbal signs performed or demonstrated by the characters. Burrow's primary purpose is to bring attention to such elements and provide readers and scholars with a richer contextual understanding of situations and exchanges between characters. He additionally hopes to bring a historical understanding to gestures, looks, and other non-verbal signs that can help modern readers understand how certain signs have changed over time, and, once again, bring deeper understanding to the texts in the wake of such historical context. He explains that, because some of the signs and gestures used in these early texts have largely lost their importance or force in modern Western cultures, it is easy for modern readers to misunderstand or underestimate their significance to both the story and medieval audiences.

While the subject matter is of utmost interest, naturally, to medieval scholars like me, I found the writing to be quite readable, so that a non-scholar with an interest in either the texts or the topic would find the style accessible. I can easily see providing excerpts or even a whole chapter of this book to students in an undergraduate literature class, or the whole book to students in a graduate medieval literature course as supplemental material to complement one or more of the texts covered in the book. Burrow supplies useful, contextual information about the passages he includes as examples, as well as relevant historical and social background for each of the elements of non-verbal communication he explores in the texts, explaining the varieties of ways these elements, like bowing or kneeling, might be used in different social situations or cultural environments. In several instances, he provides interesting explanations of how certain medieval gestures or expressions have evolved into contemporary society, which sheds light on what might be called curious archaisms in our own modern society. One example is Burrow's discussion of the practice of "plighting one's troth," or pledging one's vow to be true. In many medieval societies, "plighting one's troth" often was done as the person placed a hand (usually the right) on some kind of sacred book or relic, a scene found in many medieval texts. This custom can still be found in most courts of law, when a witness is asked to "swear to tell the truth" while placing a right hand on a bible or other holy book.

In general, I find Burrow's analyses and interpretations of the texts and the instances of gesturing or other non-verbal communication elements reasonable and plausible. He bases his interpretations on the most commonly accepted meanings for the non-verbal communication elements he describes, and takes pains to explain the research he has done to arrive at such interpretations. My only problem with his interpretations is that, in several places, he seems to imply that the gestures, expressions, and gazes he presents can only be interpreted in the one way he describes. These pronouncements seem to arise from what I find to be a problematic statement in his Introduction about the theoretical foundation upon which he bases his analysis. He admits that using a modern theory like interpretation of non-verbal communication elements is challenging because meanings assigned to non-verbal signs are predicated on intentionality of the ones demonstrating or giving the signs, and, since intentionality cannot be directly observed, meaning, therefore, cannot be assumed with any degree of exactness. He sidesteps this thorny issue as it applies to texts, however, with the following statement: "But this objection hardly has any force for a student not of behaviours but of texts. Unlike real people, persons in texts have no inaccessible insides, nor can they harbour intentions beyond what their author states or implies" [p. 3]. While, on the surface, and for the general reader, this argument is reasonable, there are two problems here.

The first implication Burrow makes is that the author's intention is knowable simply by reading what he/she stated in the text. While it is reasonable to suggest that authors in the period Burrow is studying most likely were describing gestures and looks in order to reveal/demonstrate the meanings most commonly understood during that period, it is misleading to insist that the authors absolutely meant to impart those meanings, for it implies a knowledge of the authors' intentions beyond what anyone, then or now, could know. Because Burrow adds that characters cannot intend any meaning beyond what the author "implies," he brings up the problem of reader/observer interpretation of those actions—which he claims is not a problem with reading actions of characters in texts. Understanding what an author implies is, by nature, an interpretive and subjective practice.

The second problem I have with the statement stems from my own background in "performance" theory, which looks at behaviors as "performed" (consciously or unconsciously) in order to produce some kind of reaction from others or achieve some kind of purpose. While this theoretical field is still primarily rooted and applied in social research, it has begun to be applied to textual analysis, and Burrow's study would fit into this category. Burrow's statement implies that the gestures or expressions a character exhibits can only be interpreted as the author intended, and, for Burrow, this seems to mean according to the customs of the period in which the text was produced. In general, this is most likely the case, but performance theorists hold that those who create a story (oral or textual) generally describe actions in accordance to their preconceptions of what those actions "mean" (i.e. one writer may interpret a man directing an insulting word at another as a sign of hostility, while another writer may interpret such an action as a form of bonding between good friends). Those who then read or listen to the story will also interpret those actions based on their preconceptions of what those actions "mean."

For instance, Burrow describes a scene from Malory's Morte Darthur in which Guinevere kneels to Sir Bors, one of Arthur's knights. Burrow explains that once Arthur enters the room, Bors is quick to pull Guinevere up from the floor, for having a person of greater status kneel to him puts him into a dishonored position, and also implies dishonor to Guinevere, who should not bow to someone below her socially. It is plausible, of course, to assume that Malory, understanding the customs surrounding these actions, intended to convey the message that Sir Bors did not want to be dishonored, and that Guinevere had become improper because of her desperation and her erratic emotions over Lancelot—a common reading of Guinevere's behavior based on what might be called patriarchal or misogynistic views.

Performance theorists would argue, however, that, while Malory may have intended to portray Bors and Guinevere in this manner (which assumes knowledge of authorial intent) because this is how he interpreted those customs and women's behavior, it does not necessarily hold true that the behaviors he once observed were "intended" to impart those "meanings"—they are Malory's interpretations of what those gestures meant to him. It is just as plausible to read Bors's behavior as an intimate gesture toward the woman he knows his closest kin (Lancelot) loves, whom he has vowed to defend in Lancelot's absence, and can be read as Guinevere's ploy to coerce Bors to serve as her champion in Lancelot's absence by reminding him of his intimate knowledge of their situation. As this scene leads to Sir Bors agreeing to serve as Guinevere's champion on the jousting field, does he do so out of pity for her emotional state or because her ruse worked? Malory may have observed such behavior in women and interpreted it as emotional hysterics; others who perhaps engaged in or were recipients of such tactics may have interpreted what they observed as a shrewd performance—interpretation on the part of readers (or analysts) is based on their interpretation of such behavior, regardless of presumed author intention, and, therefore, cannot be stated as an incontrovertible fact, even for characters in a text, as Burrow seems to claim.

The preceding discussion does not intend to suggest that the book is without theoretical or historical merit. Because "performance" theory applied to literary texts is not widespread or fully accepted in the literary interpretation field, especially among medievalists, and because it is fraught with the problems and debates that any controversial theory attracts, it is safe to say that most medievalists will find Burrow's interpretations sound, viable, and highly relevant. I found Burrow's interpretations of scenes that I have read, studied, and taught for years enlightening, and his analyses gave me a greater contextual sense of how to approach the texts he discusses. His accessible writing style, his liberal use of examples from a variety of texts in order to give readers a sense of the scope of these gestures and expressions, and his thorough and understandable explanations of those gestures, looks, and gazes in their historical contexts make this a valuable addition to medieval studies which points the way to further research in this much needed area of analysis.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.