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