Some of the most prestigious fabrics of the 13th and 14th centuries were produced by women, in secular workshops as well as in religious orders throughout England. Carol McGrath writes about the luxurious garments that gave her the background for one of the characters in her latest novel, The Silken Rose.
English embroidery was once the most desired in all Europe; indeed the opulent style was known as Opus Anglicanum, ‘English work’.
Throughout the medieval period embroidery was equated with luxury. Religious garments as well as fashionable clothing owned embroidery that was exquisite. Embroidery was used on book covers, bed covers and bed curtains, jupons, heraldry, purses, and belts.
Opus Anglicanum refers to a particular style of English embroidery valued throughout Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. By the 15th century copy-cat embroidery workshops had been established in Northern Europe.
It was outstanding for its use of rich materials, gold and silver threads and jewels especially seed pearls. In candlelight this medieval bling glowed and sparkled. Within a cathedral it created a sense of awe when a bishop or an Archbishop moved about the altar or walked in procession wearing a valuable cope decorated with gleaming gold and silver thread.
Rich vestments of Opus Anglicanum covered with gold, silver gilt, silk, velvet and seed pearls linked the trappings of earthly power with the holiness of heavenly power as the play of light slid over the surface of a cope increasing the splendour of a church spectacle.
How did the embroiderers create the desired effect? They used a technique of underside couching. This involved laying a metal thread on the surface and attaching threads of gold, silver and silk with a linen thread at regular intervals from underneath, therefore providing a surface on the ground fabric which would catch the light and give a sense of flow and texture. The spots where the metal threads were pulled down moreover created a pattern on the surface allowing a hinged effect. Appliquéd jewels were added and they would make a garment flow and glitter when the wearer moved.
Crusaders returned to Europe with rich eastern fabrics which gave embroiderers solid gold grounds on which to work. The embroiderers, also influenced by the crusades, adopted motifs such as paired animals and the Tree of Life. This is a stylised tree descended from the sacred trees belonging to goddess-worshipping cultures such as Egypt and often referred to in the Old Testament. There was a concern for nature and the everyday life of craft-workers. For instance, a dog might bark at an angel appearing to shepherds during the Nativity.
An image that was used extensively on copes was the Coronation of the Virgin, often placed high on the cope, lying on the upper part of the priest’s back. Key images placed below the Coronation of the Virgin would incorporate scenes from the Bible and saints from The Golden Legend.
Women were viewed in a dual way by the church. During the 13th and 14th centuries the cult of the Virgin meant women were revered as mothers. As Queen of Heaven she bows her head to her son who bestows power on her. But as a virgin she denied earthly woman’s sexuality.
Queenship during the High Middle Ages is frequently linked with the Cult of the Virgin during these centuries. Margaret Howell writes of Ailenor of Provence, subject of The Silken Rose: “The sense of empathy with the virgin as mother was inescapable for a devout medieval queen.” She notes that the association with the Queen of Heaven depicts the earthly queen as an authority figure.
Embroidered images of fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth repeat across ecclesiastical garments, illustrating a contradiction between the place of women in medieval society and the misogynist position of the church.
Women were also seen as temptresses. Eve was tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden; she tempted Adam and caused them to be expelled from the garden.
Embroidery was produced in both secular workshops and in religious houses. Female embroiderers who owned workshops cut across the notion that the majority of religious work, such as copes, was worked in convents or monasteries, in Beguine societies or by noble ladies.
Medieval crafts were open to women. Guilds made provision for widows so women could carry on the family business. The widow would have had to have taken part in the work for at least seven years before succeeding to her husband’s business.
One such widow during Henry III’s reign was Joan, late wife of John de Winburn, who was paid for a cope of “samite embroidered with the Jesse Tree which the King offered in St Peter’s Church at Westminster at St Hilary’s.”
The Jesse tree was a popular image, tracing the lineage of Christ as royal from the house of David.
Another 13th-century embroiderer, Mabel of Bury, appears 24 times in the Liberate Rolls of Henry III between 1239 and 1242. She was a feme sole and not employed by the king’s merchant suppliers. In 1239 she was paid £10 for embroidering a chasuble and offertory veil. Pearls were purchased for her to use on the commissioned chasuble. She was given 40 shillings to buy gold.
The king called in appraisers to assess her fees and London embroiderers to advise him as “he did not want to offend in this matter or incur to some extent condemnation of himself.” Mabel went on to embroider a stole, a fanon, an amice, collar and cuffs. Her last work for Henry III was an embroidered standard for Westminster Abbey which was his life’s building work.
The medieval records for the Embroiderers’ Guild were unfortunately destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666; but we know many embroidery workshops of the 13th century were situated around old St Paul’s.
The workshop was the centre of domestic and public life with the sale of goods being transacted in the house. Apprentices, male and female, were included in the family.
One of the main characters in The Silken Rose is an embroideress to Queen Ailenor. I focused on secular embroidery in the novel because I imagined Ailenor as a queen who, as well as being beautiful (according to primary sources written by Matthew Paris), intelligent, and a lover of Arthurian legend, was a woman who appreciated beautiful fabrics and clothing.
Carol has written several historical novels, including the Daughters of Hastings Trilogy, and is working on a book about Tudor sex and sexuality.
Hilary Green has written about Opus Anglicanum in her Historia article about international trade in the early Middle Ages.
The Adoration of the Magi from an Opus Anglicanum chasuble, Metropolitan Museum of Art: via Wikimedia
The Butler-Bowdon Cope, V&A: via Wikimedia
The Coronation of the Virgin from the Butler-Bowdon Cope: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Detail from the Tree of Jesse Cope: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Mermaid from funeral pall: from the collection of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, supplied by author