the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

The Politics of Gift-Giving: Part 1 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 25, 2006

In the Middle Ages, an artistic product could not be made without the backing of a patron. There was neither the leisure nor the resources we enjoy now to enable artists or organizations to create art without a view to sustaining their livelihood or permanence. If such activities did exist, then their products could only have been ephemera, for the medieval art that has survived testifies to a firm tradition of patron-client relations. At its core, the relationship of patron to client in medieval art is modeled on the conventions and ideology of gift-giving.

My interest in this and the following post is to observe some images of patrons and gift-givers, and to interrogate the messages conveyed by these depictions.

However, before the art, must come the history. So, a word on patronage and the politics of a gift-giving economy. Until the advent of early-modern money economies, gift-giving was the prevailing mode of effecting contractual relationships. And depictions of gift-giving can be found in art extending back to the ancient Near East.


(A procession of tributaries at the Persepolis Ceremonial Complex, 330 BCE)

Fast-forward over a milennium, and the contractual and social importance of gift-giving persists. Among all strata of medieval society (and here I am speaking of what are now England, France, and Germany) relationships were established and defined through the process of gift-giving. The bestowal of presents and the dynamics of reciprocity touched upon every social relationship, from the realm of agriculture, to government, to religion, to love. The gift was a concrete mediator binding two parties, physcially manifesting and declaring the nature of the relationship. We even know of laws dating back to the 8th century, which regulate gift-giving. Pervasive throughout these edicts was the insistence that to refuse a gift was to exhibit bad manners, and, more importantly, to flout a social contract.


(15th century image of gifts given by the Dukes of Berry and Burgundy to the emperor Charles IV)

What were the kinds of messages conveyed by the social contracts forged in medieval gift-giving? By bestowing a gift upon a a peer, the medieval individual proclaimed loyalty and perhaps kinship. Upon his beloved, fidelity and esteem. Upon a superior, fealty and honor. And upon a subordinate, he proclaimed his wealth, power, supremacy, and largesse. It’s been shown, even, that excessive prodigality and even insolvence were a form of social and symbolic currency in the middle ages. Whereas, in capitalistic societies, he who has the most wins; in medieval societies, he who gives the most wins. Common to all of these relationships of gift-giving is not only the tangible bind that the object supplied, but also the obligation it placed upon its recipient.

Unlike the anthropologist or the economic historian, however, as an art historian I am interested in the visual documentation of gift-giving. While the artifacts themselves can reveal much about the social and economic history of the Middle Ages, I am much more intrigued by the ways in which individuals presented themselves (or commissioned themselves to be represented) through the act of giving a gift. What did people in the Middle Ages want to say about themselves through commemoratory images of their bestowals, and how did these images supplement the gifts themselves?

In my next post, I’ll take up these questions and address specific images of gift-giving.

3 Responses to “The Politics of Gift-Giving: Part 1 of 2”

  1. So is there an art history trail that shows someone just getting sick of this whole deal? An illumination of someone regifting, perhaps, in an effort to pass the indebtedness on to some other schmoe? Nothing worse than a gift with strings attached. Unless it’s something really sweet.

  2. gninja said

    Indeed. And I’m glad you brought up this matter. Medieval Art Historians refer to this convention (evinced in a collection of manuscripts in the British Library– under the shelfmark BL Ingratitudinous MSS 1-386.2). As far as we can tell from these images, passing on the indebtedness, or “Regifting The White Elephant,” as we like to call it, was an elaborate ritual in which the donor went to great lengths to obscure from his recipient the regiftedness of the regifted gift. The regifter also had to obtain a notarized copy of indebtedness transference from the original gifter. Needless to say, the intricacies of this process were disincentive enough, and most recipients just put up with being some lord’s vassal. At least until Christmas.

  3. Claudia said

    Dear Sirs,

    The Positivo Informática would like to request authorization to reproduce these enclosed images, The Politics of Gift-Giving: Part 1 of 2, for permanent use in our CD-ROMS and on websites kept by Positivo Informática, e.g. Portal Educacional (, commercialized in Brazil and of restricted access to registered students and websites customized for some of our conected schools.

    We found these images on

    We would like to receive information about how you do expect the credit lines to appear in the material.
    Let us hear from you as soon as possible.

    Yours sincerely,
    Claudia Cruz
    Departamento de Iconografia
    Divisão de Portais – Positivo Informática

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