An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 23, 2014

Trigg: Shame and Honor

Stephanie Trigg. Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Reviewed by: Emily Griffiths Jones (

Although recent job lists have occasionally made me rue the day I chose as a graduate student to pursue Early Modern rather than medieval studies, Stephanie Trigg’s Shame and Honor made me delighted to be what I am: a scholar of another period who remains fascinated by the medieval, both in terms of its resonances throughout later eras and its enduring influence on contemporary popular culture. Trigg is a medievalist who aims in this book to build “a bridge between two disciplines that have sometimes seemed antithetical”—medieval studies and medievalism studies—and who successfully presents a vibrant example of how diverse fields of literary, historical, and cultural studies might speak to one another (11). Shame and Honor is an unconventional and ambitious history of the Order of the Garter from its foundation in the 1340s through the present day, one that flouts usual strictures on periodization and responds to the growing demand for scholarship that rethinks such boundaries.

Trigg seems to have chosen the Order of the Garter for her subject both out of personal enthusiasm for its strangeness and for its exemplary illustration of how the historical phenomena of the Middle Ages adapt, or are adapted, to later fetishizations of the medieval. Pointing to the Order’s “more or less continuous history of activity” since its founding, she proposes that it “resonates both backward and forward in time” as a medieval institution “and as an ongoing project of medievalism” (3, 5). Her book takes as its “repeated theme […] the necessary tensions between the Order’s periodic appeals to its medieval foundations, on the one hand, and its insistence, on the other, that it can update itself and remain responsive to the ever-changing imperatives of modernity” (6). Trigg is quick to note that Shame and Honor does not seek to offer “a straightforward or comprehensive narrative of the Order’s history” and in fact that it “works against conventional chronologies.” (14, 13). She characterizes it instead as “a symptomatic long history,” one which critically examines certain key moments when the Order considers its own odd origins and interrogates or reinvents its practices to suit its present needs (14). In addition to resisting the limits imposed by strict diachronic narrative, Trigg proposes that in order to fully grasp how the Order has transformed, we must explore it simultaneously “in historical, cultural, and imaginative terms”: accordingly, her analysis throughout the book rests on striking examples not just from history, but also from literature and popular culture (11). Shame and Honor is a “vulgar history” of the Order of the Garter because it depends both upon the sexuality inherent in the Order’s foundational myth—in which King Edward III glorifies an undergarment that has fallen from a lady’s leg—and upon unofficial popular impressions and interpretations of the Order.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Ritual Histories,” presents a roughly chronological account of the Order’s origins and its first few centuries. In chapter one, Trigg establishes the three concepts that will be crucial to the rest of her analysis: “ritual criticism,” the ongoing and often fraught conversation about the Order’s origins and practices; “mythic capital,” whereby the medieval period’s aura of mystery and romance continually regenerates the Order’s cultural status; and “medievalism,” the reimagining of the Middle Ages. Here, Trigg introduces the myth of the Order’s foundation, the enigmatic motto Honi soit qui mal y pense (“Shamed be he who thinks evil of it”), and the way both the myth and the motto entwine the concepts of honor and shame. The continuous history of the Order, Trigg suggests, is deceptive, since cultural senses of the honorable and the shameful are always in flux; however, the contentious discourse about the Order’s origins and ritual practices enhances its mythic capital, and so ensures the ongoing vitality of both the Order and debates surrounding it.

The second chapter rehearses what we know (and what we do not) about the Order’s medieval foundation and its central mythology; Trigg argues that the ambiguity of the motto, which “celebrates its own ambivalence,” and of the founding story contributes to the Order’s mythic capital by “seem[ing] to confer a kind of authority […] on those cunning or bold enough to decode” the occluded medieval “knowledge” (71, 68). Her case is bolstered by short readings of several early texts that reference the Order and explore the intertwining of shame and honor, femininity and masculinity, and sexuality and chivalry: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 1460 romance Tirant Lo Blanc, and Polydor Vergil’s early sixteenth-century Anglica Historia. Trigg demonstrates how the “persistent fascination with” and “equal distrust of” the Order’s sexy origin stories “[generate] rather than [close] down interpretations” (65, 71).

In chapter three, Trigg considers the first few hundred years of historical commentaries on the Garter and how they critique and renegotiate the medieval past, balancing the Order’s mythic capital with the embarrassment engendered by its foundational eroticism (whether romantic and heterosexual or chivalric and homosocial) and by the temporary humiliation of the monarch. She suggests that “the very medievalness” that these histories must confront “plays an important role in the freedom of invention,” proposing that the Renaissance witnessed the “gradual development of a self-consciously modern scholarly method, one that takes active pleasure in sifting and sorting various medieval accounts” (106, 116). Early scholars of the Order and its rituals were both attracted to and made anxious by its medieval heritage, and by “the potential of medieval tradition to confer shame and honor” (123).

Part two, “Ritual Practices,” is less chronological and more thematic in its explorations of the Order’s medieval legacy. Chapter four looks closely at the concept of shame—the flip side of the Order’s capacity to distribute honor—through the ritual expulsion of its members. Such ritual, Trigg argues, reflects “the uneven survival of medieval chivalry in postmedieval culture” (128). The chapter incorporates both historical examples of the dismissal of disgraced knights, in which period-specific politics merge with medieval ritual practice through “stripping the knight of his chivalric accouterments,” and brief literary examples drawn from Sir Gawain, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and (with some reductiveness) Shakespeare’s I Henry IV (136). It also explores the potential shamefulness of too much ritual pomp, in which the honor of the Garter risks becoming ludicrous, and again addresses the relationship between shame and sex through unruly popular songs that mock “attempts to regulate the distribution of shame and honor” (165).

The fifth chapter considers historical moments of ritual reform and change when the Order challenges, debates, or reflects upon medievalist tradition. Here, Trigg presents a compelling narrative in resistance to “proud” histories of the Order that stress tradition, evolution, and continuity; instead, she emphasizes instances of rupture and forgetting (171). These include moments of reform, such as Edward VI’s anxious de-Catholicizing of medieval tradition, and (most interestingly) the highly irregular history of women in the Order before their formal admission under Elizabeth II. Trigg reminds us that the Order is highly capable of adaptation and social change without necessarily conforming an orderly or progressive social teleology.

Chapter six, which explores medievalism through gender and the embodied performance of wearing the Garter, is perhaps the book’s strongest and most exciting section, in which Trigg’s capacity for nuanced criticism and her commitment to a multidisciplinary approach are most richly evident. Here, she performs engrossing readings of visual art, examining how the monarch performs the bestowal of the Garter; a reading of film alongside historical example, conceptualizing a “queer Garter” as “a sign that inaugurates shifting sexualities and multiple temporalities” (212); readings of portraiture and funeral effigy, showing how both female and male bodies problematize and transform Garter traditions; and finally a reading of a novella, Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, revisiting problems of shame and honor through wardrobe choices in early twentieth-century “dandy fiction.”

The third and final part of Shame and Honor, “Ritual Modernities,” integrates the first two parts’ chronological and thematic approaches. Chapter seven recounts the history of the Order in twentieth and twenty-first centuries, exploring the intersections of the medieval with the modern and postmodern. Trigg proposes, quite convincingly by now, that we might read the English monarchy’s “long history of overcoming shame, scandal, and political challenges”—sexual and otherwise—“as a long, continuous gloss on the Garter motto” with its “defiant magic” (251). She poses the question of “how medieval, now, is the Order of the Garter?”, considering contemporary issues of ritual performance, costume, and photographic portraiture, and answers “that the increasingly vague and shifting notion of ‘tradition’ [has] displace[d] the historical specificity of the Order’s medieval origins” (252, 263). Today, medievalism has sometimes become a form of play or pastiche, both for the monarchy and within the popular or public sphere. Ultimately, Trigg concludes, the Order’s role at any point in time, including today, is bound up with its beginnings: it can never fully “resolve the question of its origin, and will never be able to acknowledge the medievalism of the medieval thing at its heart” (275).

As someone who works in seventeenth century studies, I might occasionally have been grateful for a more straightforwardly chronological approach that granted more equitable attention to successive periods or regimes. For instance, while Trigg offers an interesting extended discussion of Edward VI’s sixteenth-century concern about the Order’s Catholic associations with Saint George, her treatment of Charles II’s seventeenth-century relationship to the Order is mostly limited to a brief comment on his reaffirmation of monarchy, and references to the Interregnum—and to what the “shame and honor” of the Order might have meant then—occur only in passing. Readers may find their own special areas of interest similarly underrepresented here. However, Trigg is forthright about the fact that her book is a collection of illuminating case studies rather than a comprehensive historical narrative, and it is a fascinating one. Her work successfully invites further scholarship by encouraging readers to ask their own questions about how the Order’s role in one circumstance might transform in another. While Shame and Honor’s ambitious project of considering six and a half centuries of Garter history may uncover more material through some eras, genres, and themes than through others, it introduces richly provocative ideas to scholars of any period with an interest in medievalism.

Emily Griffiths Jones
Massachusetts Institute of Technology