Monday 25 February 2013

Nuns and Needles

                In my last post I wrote about the flourishing culture of Anglo-Saxon female scribes, largely connected with English conventual life. Its final and greatest flowering  came in Winchester, located at a convent founded by Alfred the Great: the Nunnaminster of St. Mary’s in Winchester, where his daughter Æthelgifu was installed as abbess on lands deeded to Alfred’s queen Ealhswith. A group of manuscripts associated with the Nunnaminster have been identified by Malcolm Parkes as being copied by female scribes; they include the Book of Nunnaminster, the Trinity Isidore, the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the Junius Psalter. The Book of Nunnaminster, which originally came from Mercia, preserves forms of confession and absolution and prayers containing female grammatical forms, while the Parker Chronicle contains the contemporary record of Ealhswith’s land donation for the minster (Parkes). Pam Robinson has furthered this research, attempting to identify some of the Nunnaminster scribes by name. If there is an “Alfredian revival” of learning in ninth- century Wessex, then part of the credit must go to the Anglo-Saxon nuns who contributed to the accessibility of texts.

But the Alfredian revival of learning in convents and monasteries was ultimately unsuccessful. The weaknesses in education and focus that King Alfred deplored continued, and by the second half of the tenth century, a major initiative was undertaken to reform monastic life, making (almost unilaterally) the Rule of St. Benedict the governing system in them. St. Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury, 960-988), Æthelwold (Bishop of Winchester, 963-84), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester, 961-92) undertook what is now called the tenth-century Benedictine Reform, with the support of King Edgar (959-75). The Regularis Concordia (between 963 and 975) established a written agreement among monasteries about uniform practices, among them being upgraded education for monks and a new emphasis on celibacy and a separation of monasteries and convents, with distinct roles for male and female religious. As a result, the practice of abbesses reigning over double monasteries came to an end, as apparently did the existence of convent scriptoria as well, with that task being delegated to male scribes. Relatively few Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that are associated with women can be identified after the Benedictine Reform, and Pam Robinson and I can only identify one named female Anglo-Saxon scribe after the imposition of the Regularis Concordia.
Maniple Terminal

But what happened to the artistic impulses of these religious Anglo-Saxon women? Here I move into the realm of conjecture, but I would argue that they stopped writing with their styli and took up their needles. Less than half a century before Anglo-Saxon women apparently stopped copying manuscripts, we see the first surviving examples of one of the most desired of all medieval arts: English embroidery, opus Anglicanum. The art of embroidery was already known in Anglo-Saxon England, with major centers in both Canterbury and Winchester, where those active centers of women’s copying were located. Aldhelm in De Laudibus Virginitatis describes these feminine accomplishments: “The shuttles, not filled with purple only but with various colours, are pushed here and there among the thick spreading threads, and then with the art of embroidery they adorn all the woven work with various groups of figures” (Christie 1).

 In England, the oldest datable examples of English religious embroidery, now assembled in a stole and maniple in Durham Cathedral, were commissioned by Queen Ælflæd for Bishop Fridestan in Winchester between 909 and 916, at just about the time nuns began to be eased out of their scriptoria. The program of embroidery is ambitious, involving portraits of 21 carefully-chosen prophets and saints, linked together by patterns of winding foliage and beautiful examples of tablet embroidery (Ivy; Christie). The stole is marked by two tablets identifying both the original donor and recipient, much as an ex dono inscription would do in a manuscript, again consonant with scribal practices. Several scholars who have written on these tapestries have suggested that a scribe or illuminator may in fact have pricked out the pattern for the embroiderers to follow; or, if I am right about who these embroiderers might have been, they might be former scribes transferring their methods of work from one medium to another.
Detail of Maniple of St Cuthbert

Catherine Karkov has recently argued that the program of illustration in these vestments is an articulation of sophisticated political theories about kingship (73-76), and the level of work is consonant with such an important argument. These embroideries  apparently remained in royal possession, and the vestments were part of a donation made by Ælflæd’s stepson King Athelstan to the shrine of St. Cuthbert in 934, after which they were probably assembled into their current form and eventually buried with the saint’s uncorrupted corpse (Coatsworth passim). When Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827, the vestments, still largely intact, were removed and preserved; they are widely regarded as the finest examples of early English embroidery, with their elaborate undercouching and gold-wrapped silk threads (Owen-Crocker 311). To see these embroideries in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral, where they are on exhibit today, is to be struck by their artistic and technical sophistication; the details of foliage and figures are highly reminiscent of some of the finest manuscripts of the Winchester School, such as Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert (Cambridge Corpus Christi College, MS 183) and the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold (British Library Additional MS 49598), copied by a monk of the Old Minster in Winchester in the 960s, about half a century after the Cuthbert embroideries were made. As you can see, the iconography and letter forms are very reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination, including the portrait of Etheldreda in the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold.

There are other early embroideries whose patterns also resemble manuscript illustrations. In the early 1980s, Millie Budny identified a group of late 8th or early 9th century embroidery fragments preserved in the church at Maaseik as being Anglo-Saxon religious embroideries associated with the veneration of Saints Harlindis and Relindis, both women educated by Anglo-Saxon missionary nuns. While the saints themselves were renowned for “the work which is accustomed to be done by female hands in various ways and varied adornment, namely sewing and weaving, designing and working, and arranging gold and pearls on silk” (Budny 354), these embroideries are the work of southern English workshops, traveling the same route as the manuscripts and vestments sent by Eadburga and other English religious women to missionaries in the Rhineland. With a major embroidery center at Canterbury, only a short distance from Minster Thanet in Kent, it’s easy to see that the two spheres of women’s artistic endeavor may have overlapped, with Maaseik offering us the proof.

A tradition of Anglo-Saxon women artists in thread can be identified. As early as the 9th century, Eanswitha, an embroideress at Hereford, was granted a lease for life on a 200-acre farm by the bishop of Worcester, in exchange for renewing, cleaning, and adding to the vestments of the cathedral priests. William of Malmesbury reports that St. Dunstan designed embroidery patterns for a stole to be embroidered by “a certain noble matron, Ædelþrym…which she would then execute in varied embroidery of gold and gems.” Ædelfleda, widow of Byrþnoð, the alderman of Maldon fame, gave the church at Ely a hanging embroidered with the deeds of her husband, according to the Liber Eliensis, while Queen Ælgiva (or Emma), second wife of Cnut, presented to the cathedral at Ely
a purple banner she had made, surrounded on every side by a border of gold embroidery, and adorned with magnificent embroidery of gold and precious gems, as if it were inlaid such that nowhere in England is there to be found any embroidery of equal craftsmanship and value, for her needlework seems to excel in worth even her materials. To each of our saints she offered a silk cloth embroidered with gold and gems, though of less value [than the banner]. She also made coverings for the altar, a large green pall strikingly adorned with gold plates, and above it a cloth of tissue of bright sanguine tint, with a border of gold embroidery a foot broad, presenting a sight of great magnificence and value. (Christie, p. 1, 31)
A slight but steady pattern of women being associated with both books and embroideries can be established, one that suggests how closely connected the two artistic industries may have been.
Maniple Detail

By the time of the Conquest, William of Poitier, chaplain to the Conquerer, conceded that “the women of England are very skillful with the needle and in the matter of tissues of gold,” and when Bishop Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry c. 1070 C.E., he found a wide range of female embroiders to work on it, both secular and religious. (Whether those embroideresses were predominantly English or Norman is the subject of continuing scholarly dispute, and maybe another blog down the road.) In the eleventh century, chroniclers refer to the art of embroidery as acum scribere (to write with a needle) or acu pictura (painting with a needle), testimony to the artistic elements in production of textiles. As these productions may have taken years to embroider, the work involved was certainly comparable to that of copying, rubricating, and decorating a manuscript.
                These tantalizing connections suggest that the embroidery salon may well have succeeded the scriptorium as the provenance of talented English women, providing them a continuing outlet for their artistic visions when theological politics closed the doors of manuscript production to them. The same impulses that led Eadburga, Lioba, and their sisters to copy texts for the greater glory of God and the furtherance of Christianity, when denied expression on vellum, led to works of pious art executed in silk and metallic thread.  An article on opus Anglicanum examples at the Cloisters quotes an unnamed 17th-century historian who wrote that “nuns with their needles wrote histories also” (Young)—and those histories continue to unfold for those of us who take the time to examine the manuscripts and textiles in which they are preserved.

Contributed by: Dr. Jo Koster


Budny, Mildred. “The Early Medieval Textiles at Maaseik, Belgium.” Antiquaries Journal 65.2 (1985): 354-489.
Budny, Mildred, and Dominic Tweddle. "The Maaseik Embroideries." Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 65-97. Print.
Christie, A. G.I.  English Medieval Embroidery. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1938. Print.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Embroideries from the Tomb of St. Cuthbert.” In Edward the Elder: 899-924, ed. Nicholas J. Higham and David Hill. London: Routledge, 2001. 297-306. Print.
Ivy, Jill. Embroideries at Durham Cathedral. Durham: The Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1992. Print.
McKitterick, Rosamond. ‘Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century.” Francia 19.1 (1992): 1-36. Web. 28 October 2010.
Owen-Crocker, Gail R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Rev. Ed. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.
Parkes, M.B. “A Fragment of an Early Tenth-Century Manuscript and Its Significance.” Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983): 129-140. Print.
Robinson, P. R.  “A Twelfth-Century Scriptrix from Nunnaminster.” Of The Making Of Books: Medieval Manuscripts, Their Scribes and Readers: Essays Presented to M. B. Parkes, ed. by P. R. Robinson and Rivkah Zim (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), 73-93.
Whitelock, Dorothy . English Historical Documents 500-1042. 1955. Rpt. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Young, Bonnie. “Needlework by Nuns:  A Medieval Religious Embroidery.” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 28.6 (Feb. 1970): 262-277. Print.


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