English medieval embroidery might seem an odd subject for a book, but this is no ordinary volume. Published to accompany a major exhibition at the V&A (which runs until 5 February 2017), it is not only a catalogue and scholarly monograph but also a visual feast, with magnificent colour plates on virtually every page, bursting at the seams with titbits of fascinating information. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to hug yourself with glee: revelatory and as exquisitely produced as the medieval embroidery it celebrates.
The stereotypical embroiderer, medieval or otherwise, is always female and usually noble-born. Charles Henry Hartshorne, writing in 1845, summed it up neatly in one of the earliest studies on the subject: embroidery ‘served to occupy the leisure of the English gentlewoman when there were but few other modes in which her talents could be employed’; immured within a castle chamber or convent, ‘the needle alone supplied an unceasing source of amusement’. What English Medieval Embroidery demonstrates is that embroidery in England was first and foremost a business, employing both male and female workers whose professional skill was renowned throughout Europe. In the 13th and 14th centuries their work was in demand everywhere from Scandinavia to Portugal and from Riga to Patras, with the Church hierarchy and the papal curia, in particular, proving insatiable in their appetite for what was known outside England as opus anglicanum. The acerbic chronicler Matthew Paris complained that in 1246 Pope Innocent IV, ‘made greedy’ by the sight of the embroidered vestments of English prelates, ordered all Cistercian abbots in England to send him gold embroideries to decorate his own chasubles and copes (full-length semicircular processional cloaks) ‘as if they were obtainable for nothing’. Boniface VIII, a supreme patron of English embroidery during his lifetime, as both user and donor, chose to be buried in golden vestments worked with nearly thirty scenes of the Infancy and Passion of Christ, while a papal inventory of 1336 reveals that one of his successors possessed thirteen copes, twenty-nine chasubles, eight altar frontals and five jewelled mitres, all decorated with English work.
The superior quality of opus anglicanum depended on its use of luxury imported fabrics such as silks from China, the Persian Gulf and possibly even Mongol territories, backed with heavy-duty linen from France or the Low Countries to support the weight of the surface embroidery and such embellishments as precious stones and pearls. The embroidery itself was worked using many-coloured silk threads, some of which were wrapped in strips of gold, silver or silver-gilt foil to create metallic threads, which could measure as little as 0.25mm in diameter. These extraordinarily fine metallic threads were characteristically held in place by stitching on the reverse of the fabric using a painstaking technique known as underside couching, which was invisible on the surface. Underside couching gave the finished cloth greater strength but was extremely time-consuming: in the 1260s it took four women almost four years to complete a richly embroidered altar frontal for Westminster Abbey.
What made opus anglicanum unique, and therefore so sought after, was the fact that it covered the whole surface of the commissioned work. For example, a pair of episcopal stockings and shoes (a rare survival) from the tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter, who died in 1205, are embroidered from top to toe with intricate but delicate silver-gilt patterns of diamonds, stars, bows and rosettes, interspersed with eagles, lions and dragons with serpents’ tails. It is no coincidence, however, that most surviving examples of opus anglicanum take the form of ecclesiastical vestments, in particular the copes worn by prelates during divine office, which display the dramatic scale, beauty and technical proficiency of English embroidery at its best. On the back of the cope, where it would be most visible to the congregation as the priest faced the altar, would be an embroidered image of the Crucifixion, often the centrepiece of a crucifix-shaped band depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Representations of saints, apostles and Bible stories would cover the rest of the garment, each set within a trefoil, quatrefoil or roundel that linked and maintained the symmetry and cohesion of the composition. Wide bands along the straight edge of the cope would feature either purely decorative embroidery or a series of biblical scenes. What English Medieval Embroidery reveals so clearly is that these designs were closely related to images produced in other contemporary media, such as wall paintings and manuscript illuminations, and that their place in the iconography of the period should not be underestimated. English embroiderers were influential, for example, in spreading the cult of St Thomas Becket and the controversial doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin.
By the 1350s, however, in order to satisfy the market for opus anglicanum both abroad and at home, speedier techniques were increasingly used, such as surface couching and, more especially, appliqué, which allowed motifs to be cut out and worked separately before being incorporated into the design. At the English royal court, where there was an inexhaustible demand for the rapid decoration of clothing, furnishings, horse trappings and banners, whole workshops of designers, painters (who would draw out the design to be worked onto the cloth), thread makers and embroiderers were set up, operating under the supervision of the royal linen-armourers. They were paid by the day or at a piece rate for each commission, their expertise reflected in their wages. Thomas Carleton, king’s armourer in the 14th century, made enough money to acquire and build several houses and shops in London, as well as to become an alderman and MP.
This book will undoubtedly become the standard work of reference on medieval English embroidery, but it is much more than that. It provides an illuminating insight into a neglected corner of medieval life and is a treasure trove of beautiful images that will endure long after the closure of the exhibition that it accompanies.