Today, I am going to review a book that has been published about four years ago. Just like me, you might have missed this one; it isn't primarily about embroidery. In addition, with a selling price of €215/$247, it is rather expensive. It is always nice to read a bit more about an expensive book before you commit. The full title of the book is: Clothing the Past: surviving garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. The authors, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale R. Owen-Crocker are leading experts in the field of medieval studies and medieval textiles. So let's explore what's between the covers of this 435-page book!
As said, this book is not primarily on embroidery. But since textiles of the upper classes were often decorated with embroidery AND these textiles had a better chance of survival, quite a few pieces with lovely embroidery are described in this book. This difference in survival chances between textiles of different social groups is discussed in the first chapter of the book: the General Introduction. One of the strengths of this publication is that the authors have tried to include as many 'everyday clothes' worn by 'everyday people' as possible. This has resulted in the inclusion of many archaeological finds from York (UK), Monasterio de Santa Maria La Real de Huelgas (Spain), Bocksten (Sweden) and Herjolfsnes cemetery (Greenland). Preservation issues regarding burial conditions in archaeological excavations (including tombs) are also touched upon. For instance, linen does not usually survive in an archaeological context; it rots away. Hence the misconception about medieval people not wearing underwear.
In total, 'portraits' of about a hundred textile pieces are grouped together in 10 chapters. We move from head to toe and from outer garments to socks and underpants. Each of these chapters starts with an introduction in which relationships, similarities and differences between the pieces in a particular chapter are discussed. Each chapter has at least several embroidered pieces in them. New to me were the textiles from the Royal tombs in the Monasterio de Santa Maria La Real de Huelgas. Have a look at this spectacularly embroidered and beaded Spanish Birette found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda (AD 1255-1275).
Each 'portrait' consists of a picture or pictures of the piece and a description with plenty of citations for further reading. I got the feeling that the authors were more comfortable with sewing than with embroidery. The construction of the different garments is discussed in greater detail than the embroidery. For me, the gold standard of describing embroidered pieces are to be found in the publications of the Abegg Stiftung. However, as this book is published in English but contains so many pieces originally published in German, a Scandinavian language, French or Spanish you are bound to find information that is new to you. And when you then decide to dive into the original publications you have an idea of what they are about.
So: is this book for you? That's a little difficult to answer. For those of you who like to look at close-up pictures of pretty embroidery for inspiration; this book disappoints. There are no such pictures and the description of the embroidery is too flimsy. However, if you are interested in medieval textiles in general and archaeological textiles in particular; this book is for you! I have read it from cover to cover and placed many post-its throughout the book for revisiting later (and I've ordered suggested literature through second-hand websites!). As the book is quite expensive and has such a large scope, you might want to try to order it through your library first and then decide on a possible purchase.
Coatsworth, E., Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2018. Clothing the past: Surviving garments from early medieval to early modern Western Europe. Brill, Leiden.
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