Past presents: New year's gifts at the Valois courts, CA. 1400.

Author:Buettner, Brigitte

While art historians have steadily pursued the study of patterns of artistic consumption and production, they have paid much less attention to the distribution of artistic goods. What follows proposes to address this aspect of the "life of things" by focusing on gift giving, arguably the major mode by which objects circulated before the ascendancy and triumph of market economies. A nearly universal phenomenon in pre-modern societies, gift exchanges--of material objects, services, or people--lay at the core of the social contract; without reciprocity, there would be no community, no culture, not even language. Beginning with Marcel Mauss's Essai sur le don (1925) and Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), the function, meaning, and impact of gift exchanges have been investigated intensely by anthropologists. (1) And the gift has been periodically revisited by some of the most acute thinkers of our times, from Pierre Bourdieu in The Logic of Practice to Jacques Derrida in Donner le temp s. (2) In comparison with this almost totemic list of major texts in the social sciences, the historical disciplines have remained next to silent. (3) Yet it is the absence of art history in this debate that is especially surprising, simply because without objects there would be no gifts. (4) Moreover, one of the constants of gift giving across cultures is that the valuables used as gifts were more often than not those that we have come to regard as works of art, those that now line the walls and fill the cases of our museums--things that provide what Jean Starobinski has nicely characterized as a "surplus of visibility." (5)

During the European Middle Ages, gift exchanges or, rather, the broader principle of reciprocity--that is, the obligation "to give, to receive, and to reciprocate," in Mauss's classic formulation (6)--nourished an immense variety of public and personal experiences. (7) It played a vital economic role in ensuring not only the flow of things but also some redistribution of wealth; it was a social behavior that bound rulers and subjects, husbands and wives and their kin, lovers and beloved. Reciprocity informed medieval religious attitudes, for giving alms or seeking the benevolence of God and his deputy saints through Church donations and prayers were all, in the end, acts of gift giving. As an expression of largesse--the supreme chivalric virtue--gift giving held a prominent place in the long tradition of ethicopolitical treatises and thus in the norms of conduct of medieval elites. Gifts were used as political weapons to make and unmake alliances, to forge diplomatic ties, to signal dominance; they were deplo yed to bridge the divide between the living and the dead in funerary offerings, between humans and the divine in charitable giving. And because they tended to be more precious and memorable than everyday objects and carried special meanings, they spoke to people's aesthetic and affective sensibilities. Medieval society afforded countless opportunities for granting presents, extending from basic modes of sociability, as the keeping of an open table, to the more institutionalized forms of social communion, such as weddings, royal and princely entries into cities, embassies, peace agreements, appointments to an office. Gift giving was so much woven into the medieval mentalite that one cannot turn the pages of a literary work, in Latin or in the vernacular, religious or secular, history or fiction, without constantly stumbling over its glorified manifestations.

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to provide a generic survey of medieval rituals and images of reciprocity, but rather to highlight one key, if little-known and studied, instance of seasonal gift giving at the Valois courts during the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422): New Year's Day, known at the time as the etrenne, a word, derived from the Latin strena, used both for the gifts and the ritual exchange. A few surviving objects will guide this inquiry, which is otherwise based on the richly detailed if bloodless household accounts and carefully compiled inventories of the first Valois collections. Additionally, and because there is no imagery of the etrennes properly speaking, I shall rely on related imagery, mostly scenes of book presentations, for visual evidence. Though these are now analyzed in terms of commission and patronage, they, as much as the action they represent, would have been couched in the more flowery language of gift giving. Thus, instead of looking at these miniatures, deliberately chosen because they are among the best known of the period, in terms of their political meaning (as is generally done), I shall explore them for the ways in which they illuminate and are illuminated in turn by this innovative ritual of late medieval court culture. It is one of this study's assumptions that objects and images mattered not primarily for their meaning but more for their performative efficacy, and that is precisely why they played a role in the production and reproduction of social relations within court society. By so attending to the specifically visual dimension of gift giving, often overlooked by social scientists, this study primarily wishes to be a contribution to what Oleg Grabar has aptly termed the "anthropology of courtly objects." (8)

Christianizing the Roman Kalends

When the Valois courts celebrated the New Year in the late Middle Ages, they (re)inscribed themselves into a long ritual tradition. The custom of marking the New Year by exchanging gifts as a tangible good omen is a seasonal rite observed by most cultures. (9) In the West--where Christmas absorbed most of the rituals previously associated with the New Year only in the late nineteenth century--its roots reach back to the ancient Near East. (10) One of the most grandiose visualizations of gift giving ever, the sprawling ruins of Persepolis, the Persian palace complex built under Darius I and Xerxes and destroyed by Alexander the Great's troops in 330 B.C.E., still testifies to its importance. (11) The surviving relief decoration that adorns the northern and eastern staircases leading to the Great Audience Hall (apadana) displays a marvelous collection of varied but properly compliant foreign delegations presenting finely detailed gifts or, as we would have it, tributes (Fig. 1): vessels, jewelry, animals, weapo ns, textile products, and raw materials (gold)--in essence, the same highend objects that one encounters in Europe at a much later date. And that continuity in the nature of the gifts is matched by the stability of the iconography of gift giving, which underwent remarkably few changes in its long history from such early examples down to the Middle Ages and beyond.

While it appears that the Greeks did not celebrate the beginning of a new year (perhaps because there never was a generally agreed-on day to do so), such festivities are well attested for Rome. (12) In the Republican age, when the year started on March 15, family and friends exchanged strenae, simple presents from the natural and agricultural world, such as laurel branches, dried fruits, nuts, and honey. However, once private citizens resolved to include principes among the recipients of New Year's gifts, the custom evolved into a more elaborate ceremony cementing both horizontal and vertical social relationships. The Kalends--moved for military reasons from the spring to January in 153 B.C.E.--developed into a major festival during the Imperial era with the presentation of gifts to the emperors, of money in particular, during a now official ceremony attended by all orders of Roman society as its centerpiece. And the Kalends of January grew even more important, outdoing the popular Saturnalia celebrated from December 17 to 24, when they were chosen as the day for consular inaugurations. A multilayered festival, the Kalends in late antiquity spread over three to four days and encompassed both civic and personal rituals. Judging from contemporary accounts, gifts were carted through the streets by the thousands, to be heaped on relatives and friends gathered at banquets. (13) These private festivities were interspersed with official ceremonies: the Senate's and the army's swearing of allegiance to the emperor through sacrifices and prayers (vota); the offering of strenae to the emperor; and, in return, the showering of money (sparsio) on the crowds by the emperor and by the freshly minted consuls, who also financed the famed circus games and animal hunts, an extravagant counterprestation for the power that now elevated them above common mortals.

Rome bequeathed the New Year's festivities to the medieval West, despite the early Church's vocal charges against the "pagan" exchange of wishes, the decking of tables with opulent and varied dishes as a prefiguration of the riches to come, and the general belief in auspicious or nefarious signs with which January 1 was supposedly laden. (14) Above all, Christian apologists inveighed against the revelry and raucous processions of disguised people, men as women, both as beasts, going from house to house carrying their wishes and quests for small presents--a custom that left deep traces in the West. They castigated the Christian flock for continuing to spend money on material presents instead of channeling their resources into a goal with spiritual rewards, whether alms to the poor or donations for the foundation of churches. Augustine, for instance, impressed with his usual hortatory vigor on his audience, "When they [the pagans] give gifts; do you give alms. They are called away by songs of license; you, by t he discourses of the Scriptures. They run to the theatre; you, to the church. They become intoxicated; do you fast." (15) Finally, as had been done with other Roman festivals, the Kalends were converted: the beginning of the year was moved back to the spring and a special mass, ad prohibendum ab idolis, was...

To continue reading