Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

The Guardian ran a piece today, reviewing the upcoming exhibition at the V&A, Opus Anglicanum, which focuses on the dazzling medieval embroidery produced in England in the fourteenth century. I was especially interested, because the book chapter I’ve been working on recently has to do with medieval textiles as objects that fire up the imagination – specifically, Chaucer’s imagination.

This is a really fascinating period for the textile trade in general: English weaving, for example, is just beginning to shift from being a craft carried out by women on a small scale, producing fabric from their own looms, to a more lucrative business on a larger scale, using a bigger, fancier loom, and dominated by … yes, of course, men. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, though set in France, is a beautifully imagined story of a household of weavers in such a situation, a story told partly through the eyes of Christine, a skilled weaver banned by her town’s guild from contribution to the official (and taxed) labour of her husband’s workshop.

Royal 20 C.V, f.61v

Penelope, cheerfully weaving away as Odysseus murders her suitors, in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. From London, BL MS Royal 20 C V, f. 61v (detail).

But many aspects of the trade were, and remained, associated with women. In this period, embroidery – the specific subject of the exhibition – was taking on a distinctly seedy reputation, for this very reason: its women practitioners were suspected of involvement in the sex trade. Women were strictly banned from moonlighting in the opposite trade – sex workers as well as textile workers – and a delightfully scandalous legal record of the late fourteenth century concerns the famous cross-dressing prostitute known as John (or, alternatively, Eleanor) Rykener, who electrified his witnesses by coolly declaring his habit of having sex with men while posing as a woman, and preferring to seek out priests for the better money they paid. Who was Rykener’s formative influence in this piece of (presumably, successfully constumed) deception? A embroideress known as Elizabeth the Broderer, already known to the courts for her role in trafficking young women into the sex trade, using her embroidery shop as a front. Such sensationalism about women and the textile trade persisted long after the Middle Ages, for what it’s worth: there’s a fantastic piece of writing by an anxious Parisian doctor in 1886, who claimed that the, ahem, stimulating friction caused by peddling a treadle-operated sewing machine was leading to a sexual frenzy amongst the city’s female garment-workers, leading to a generation of young women exhausted and weak from the debilitating effects of near-perpetual orgasm.

Well, if you say so.

But women working in the textile trades could, of course, be thoroughly respectable: we have plenty of records of solidly reputable medieval citizenry making their money from their cloth merchandise, and plenty of evidence of women in the trade organising morally improving situations for their young female apprentices. Indeed, as I wrote on this blog in 2014, by the fifteenth century, we can see parallels between highbrow courtly literature and the most prosperous London families working in the cloth trade, including women and their young female apprentices.

My interest in medieval textiles is piqued by these kinds of contextual detail – the scandals, the insights into ordinary working conditions, the changes in production that changed real women’s lives. But, I am aware that these textiles were also, often, incredibly beautiful and skilled products in their own right. The exhibition photos show sumptuous clerical vestments, spread to show the magnificent embroidery that would have draped over a priestly body, as well as rarer survivals of the humble equipment used to make them, and the fragments of material treated less kindly by time and the ravages of unscrupulous collectors. Reviewing the exhibition, Jonathan Jones admits to the significance (as well as the impact) of this work:

In the 14th century, if you wanted the very best cope or orphrey (a kind of long bishop’s scarf) you ordered it from embroidery workshops in London – the finest gothic embroideries in Europe were being done a stone’s throw from Old St Paul’s. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for “English work”, and it was in huge demand. In the middle ages, the embroidery makers of London had the kind of status that Flemish tapestry weavers were to achieve in Renaissance Europe.


The Jesse Cope (detail) ca. 1310-25, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London


So far, so positive, right? Admittedly, if you’re not particularly clued up, you might find the clarifying comparison of the last two lines about as clear as mud: I didn’t know what kind of status Flemish tapestry weavers had in Renaissance Europe, to be honest, and now I’m not much clearer. But ok.

Jones’s review provides the kinds of intriguing details I enjoy finding out in an exhibition – such as the fact that much of the clothing shown is, in fact, taken from the opened graves of medieval churchmen by archaeologists of later periods who did not scruple to remove even shoes and stockings. But it also seems ambivalent about its own displays of knowledge. Ultimately, Jones condemns

… the dry manner in which this exhibition relentlessly demands that we admire its orphreys. It misses the point about medieval religious art. … For no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.

I do find this a bit rich coming from someone who presumes we’re all up to speed about the state of Flemish tapestry making circa 1550. And I could certainly quibble about the rather bizarre idea that everyone in the fourteenth century enjoyed the kinds of unimpeded sight-lines to the altar that Jones seems to imagine here (medieval churches and cathedrals tended to have rood screens, blocking much of the view to the altar, and allowing the priest to get on with his business, as it were, in a semi-private space with God. It’s also, arguably, slightly dubious to talk about ‘harmonious’ singing in this context, at least as I understand medieval music, which is to say, not very much. But the major point that bothers me here about Jones’s rather style-over-substance image of medieval art as a vast multimedia experience is that it suggests that embroidery, on its own, just isn’t very much worth bothering with. It’s not like proper art, is it? The kind we are, of course, accustomed to seeing without the supervention of tinkly recorded plainsong or gently strobe-like light patterns mimicking the effects of stained glass.

And – cynic that I am – I can’t help wondering why medieval embroidery attracts this particular kind of criticism. Why is it so unworthy of an exhibition to itself, so direly in need of some kind of leavening of spectacle and show? Why does Jones cling so desperately to the nice chivalric image of the Black Price’s embroidered grave clothes and to his own vision of the bishop animating the robes with his busy masculine body?

Hmm. I wonder.


Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Note: There is a more positive (and, frankly, for my money more interesting) review here, also from the Guardian and written by Maev Kennedy.

10 thoughts on “Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

  1. Interesting, the link between sewing and sex work. In the 19C ‘distressed needlewoman’ often carried the overtone that such women were no better than they should be. Yet as I understand it, much religious embroidery was done by nuns. I wonder if age plays a role – sewing requires good eyesight, and without spectacles, older women were at a disadvantage in sewing OR sex work.

    • That’s interesting about the nineteenth century and the nuns’ embroidery. I’ve certainly heard about both that and weaving being crafts nuns did to support their orders. My cousin was a nun, and she could do beautiful decorative embroidery, though I never asked her if this was something she’d ever been required to learn, or whether it was just part of her repertoire of pre-monastic skills.

      Sewing and eyesight would surely be an issue, I agree! When you think of the available light sources, too, it’s remarkable how much people got done and how intricate it is – as they surely can’t have worked only in strong daylight.

  2. I also am sadly underinformed on Flemish tapestry weavers, but my first thought on reading that reference was to think the weavers were men, as men naturally set the standard for excellence. Hmph.
    I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but I am interested to know when your book might be available for purchase.

    • Ha! Yes, I believe you’re right there!

      The book will be a while yet, unfortunately. I imagine when I get a date I will be so thrilled I’ll post it on here! 😀

  3. Wasn’t it though that pre-renaissance there was virtually no ‘cult of the artist’ in western (or indeed eastern) Europe and although the work was valued the artist creating it was regarded as little better than an anonymous artisan.

    Jones assertion that embroidery was part of a multimedia spectacle must have been self-evidently true at that time, but our modern concern with placing value on pieces because of their artistic providence would surely be a misreading, and as such wouldn’t it be a mistake to assign greater or lesser perceived value to any item because of the sex of it’s creator?

    I’m far from an expert, but whereas virtually the first thing we want to know about a piece now is who the artist was and their creative process to produce a piece, to the medieval mind that would be far further down the list, coming a long, long way after how the piece glorifies God (and the like). I doubt embroidery would have necessarily been considered ‘lesser’ because it was created by women simply because at that period who it was created by really didn’t figure that highly.

    I’d have thought an interesting line would have been to compare historical perceptions with woodcarving, because both are now seen as ‘crafts’ rather than Fine Art, and woodcarving would seem very equivalent as part of the ‘multimedia spectacle’ to embroidery, but being wholly (AFAIK) created by men.

    • You know, I don’t actually know whether there was or wasn’t a ‘cult of the artist’ in terms of textiles.

      I do know there definitely was a cult of the artist in relation to other kinds of art, though – Christine de Pizan mentions by name the (female) illuminator with whom she often worked, and certainly some literary artists were cult personalities.

      But I think you probably have a point that, often, people wouldn’t be concerned whether a piece was made by a man or a woman because they simply wouldn’t have known or cared. Interesting.

  4. Do you think that’s true in the same sense as our modern perception of what an artist is though? Whilst I’m sure some individuals would have been known for producing particularly fine pieces, appreciated as craftsmen, and would have attracted disciples to learn their skills, that’s not the same thing as the veneration given to artists as individuals with unique perspectives on the world that we understand.

    Our modern day understanding of art is intimately compounded with our appreciation of the artist as the creator, but that developed I’d suggest overwhelmingly by what happened from the Renaissance forward.

    Couple of points in support of that. Firstly artists didn’t sign their work before the Renaissance – that’s very much something that develops at that point for the first time since antiquity – precisely because I’d suggest before that they were not seen as individually important. Secondly since then we’ve layered on successive expectations of what being an artist means, from Michelangelo via Caravaggio to van Gogh with a particularly fruitful seam added by the Romantics (I’m looking at you Percy Bysshe). Until the last century or so that temperament would have almost wholly been applied to Art and Music, with Literature muscling in laterally. Nowadays I’d suggest we retrospectively apply an ‘artist’ lens to just about anything that’s been created, but in the historical context that’s just not relevant to the people at this time. I don’t think embroidery is likely to have been valued less because it was made by women as who anything was made by wasn’t understood as important in the same way we do now.

    Oh, postscript as another item occurs to me. The Alfred Jewel at your rival university.: that has the words ”Alfred ordered me made” inscribed around it but no mark at to identify the artist who made it – which is almost precisely the opposite of the modern situation.

    • I have to admit, I’m sceptical of arguments that posit a clear break between medieval and Renaissance modes of thinking and working.

      In this case, I can think of artists who made sure their work was attributed to them, including nuns who wrote books, and certainly including people like Christine de Pizan, who constructed books including author-portraits of themselves. William de Brailes, the illuminator who is usually credited as the first illuminator of a recognisable Book of Hours, likewise includes signed pictures of himself in his work (he worked in Catte Street in Oxford, not far from where the Alfred Jewel is kept).

      I think the issue is more that, while we know the names of people like Michelangelo, we’ve forgotten the names of people like Christine or William – partly because of the scale of their work, but far more because of this perception of the Middle Ages as a period that wasn’t interested in the individual identities of people, including artists. We tend to think that the idea of the individual is post-medieval, partly because it suits us to believe in the Middle Ages as an idea of massed consensus – shared belief in the Catholic Church, universal failure to understand science, etc. etc. But medievalists (and early Modernists) are unpicking these ideas more and more, I think.

      • Well certainly I’d concur that individualism is a feature of the thread of Western Civilisation that extends back to antiquity and wasn’t invented by the renaissance. However it seems to me unarguable that something has changed in our perception of what it means to create art … to be an artist … over the last 600 years or so, and that while there may be a common thread the magnitude of the change means it must be regarded as a new phenomena which we shouldn’t apply retrospectively.

        I’d concur that I’m possibly being somewhat bias here in that my perception if this is build on years of traipsing around European art museums and churches as an interested observer, I’m far from an expert, and I don’t know very much about the history of illumination and zilch about medieval literature, but just as the status of composers changed even over the period from say the standing and regard with which Hildegard of Bingen was held, to the Superstar Genius status of Wagner (and on to Jagger!) something similar happened in the visual arts, at least those not regarded as ‘mere’ crafts.

        Incidentally in any museum that has medieval work I’m always struck by how different it is. I was in National Museum of Art in Warsaw last year which has the most extraordinary Medieval Art Gallery (, including a quite stunning collection of wood carvings. There’s a large depiction of Jesus carrying the cross in there which unfortunately I can’t find any pictures of beyond my quick snap ( Jesus himself is near life-sized (it’s a big work) but at first glance he’s surrounded by children of various size. Takes a few seconds to realise that this is because the carver has used convention we’re familiar with in paintings of showing the figures by size according to importance. Once gets quite blaze about that as an image, but when you see it in full 3D it does underline that how these people were thinking about representing the world was really quite different to us,

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