As I was studying a Portuguese book on medieval embroidery, I came across an article by José Alberto Seabra Carvalho on the craft of embroidery in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Although he acknowledged that some embroidery was undertaken by the women in noble households and by nuns in convents, he also came to the conclusion, by studying the surviving pieces and combining them with the historical records, that those were made by men in commercially run workshops. Their quality is simply too high. It requires many years of training before one is able to make a living from making orphreys. At the same time, he briefly investigates this ideal of the 'pious woman'. As long as her hands were busy doing needlework, she could not daydream and get into trouble. In addition, her handy work could contribute a bit to the household. These opinions are not his but come from contemporary sources. And here we have precisely this duality: needlework itself is not much valued as it is done by women to keep them from having a wandering mind. While at the same time, commercially produced goldwork embroidery requires many years of training and is thus the domain of men. The duality and stigma embroidery 'enjoys' today is thus an old one. Art versus craft. And only for women. Let's explore what that looks like in medieval and early modern images!
Female embroiderers are depicted in two different ways: stitching in hand or sitting behind a slate frame resting on trestles. Usually, it is not ordinary women that are depicted embroidering. Especially not in the earlier periods. It is either Mary employing a needle or a queen/noblewoman stitching. Stitching in hand requires very little in terms of professional tools. Mary on the left has a simple basket filled with scissors and a bobbin with thread. This is in strong contrast to Joseph's array of professional carpenter tools hanging on the wall. By the way: I don't think St Francis would approve of Jesus tying a rope to a bird :).
Contrary, Mary on the right, is shown in a much more professional setting. She uses a large slate frame and a pair of trestles. The spool she is holding might be wound with gold thread. It looks like she is using her slate frame and trestles set-up as a kind of working table with balls of yarn laying on top. Some people argue that this shows Mary making a tapestry instead of an embroidery. However, I think she is in the process of couching down a gold thread on top of red and green silk embroidery. In both images, combining embroidery with childcare seems not to be a problem. Maybe that's why the child is harassing the bird?
Male embroiderers, on the other hand, are depicted in one way only. As professionals. No cosy stitching whilst watching a child. Maybe medieval and early modern men were just not prone to 'daydreaming and getting into trouble'?
The above illustrations show men sitting behind slate frames in the typical posture of an embroiderer. One hand above the frame and one hand below to speed up the process. And I love the non-ergonomic posture of the man on the right. At least none of the above men can be told off for crossing their legs :). By the way, I think we also see very realistic depictions of how these professional workshops were set up back in the day. The men on the left are probably working outside under a portico. Maximal use of daylight, but a bit sheltered from the weather conditions. The man on the right has the luxury of window glass. But he still needs to sit right in front of them and even needs to open the top window for clear, unfiltered daylight.
The stereotypes depicted in the above images, some over 600 years old, seem to persist today. When I am demonstrating professional goldwork embroidery at my local open-air museum I get many stereotypical reactions. Many women equate what I am doing with cross-stitch embroidery. And when they hear that this is not my hobby, but my profession, I get 'the look'. It is not a kind look :). Some even react very irritated. How can a woman, who has gone successfully through university, want to stitch for a living?! How on earth did I sink so low? Very few women admit that they themselves stitch. And the ones that do, get younger from year to year. So, there is hope!
Many men, on the other hand, have a very different reaction. They univocally acknowledge that what I am doing is very different from the needlework their mums and wives did or do. They are interested in my tools and the mechanics of it all. Some remark that this is 'typical' women's work. When I then explain that this was a male profession for hundreds of years, I have their full attention. Some even ask if I personally know male embroiderers (Gary Parr, you are getting famous here in Bavaria!). A few are so intrigued, they revisit the museum and seek me out to see how the work has progressed. And as they can precisely point out what I had accomplished last time, it is clearly about the embroidery and not about me :).
I really hope that some people who see me stitch in the museum pick up a needle. Regardless of their reaction. Embroidery is fun! The ancient forms should be studied and revived. The professionalism of the makers should be acknowledged and valued. I hope you liked this blog post. Maybe it can contribute a bit of 'fact' to the craft versus art debate. Knowing that we are repeating the medieval and early modern idea of the 'ideal woman' when we see embroidery solely as a craft (in the modern sense), might make people think twice before they argue their case.
The above images are not the only ones I have collected over the years. My valued Journeyman Patrons will have access to a Padlet with 10 additional images.
Seabra Carvalho, J.A., 1993. O Ofício. In: T. Alarcão & J. A. Seabra Carvalho (eds), Imagens em paramentos bordados seculos XIV a XVI, Instituto Portugues Museus, p. 16-21.
Seldom do we have a chance to meet the people who created the medieval embroideries. Especially written sources containing the names of female embroiderers are rare as hen's teeth. Imagine my delight when I found an older Belgian publication that contains precisely that! It is a list of 175 (!) people who were drawn in from all over the place to help embroider equipment, clothing and tents for a duel between Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. The original documents preserved do not only tell us something about the embroiderers and other craftspeople involved, we also have a list of the embroidered items. Let's explore!
Why did these two men think it a good idea to fight till death? It was about a woman: Jacqueline Countess of Hainaut. She interfered, with her second husband Humphrey, in the power politics of Philip the Good by trying to claim her rights in Hainaut. In essence, it was a family feud as most of these people were closely related to each other.
In order to have the most splendid kit to try to kill Humphrey, Philip ordered his man Andre de Thoulongeon to ride to Paris in haste to collect master craftsmen in the art of weaponry, painting and embroidery. Andre contacted Thomassin de Froidmont, Philip's weaponry master, Thierry du Chastel, who later surfaces in the historical sources as Philip's head embroiderer and the painter Hans de Constance (his name suggests he came from Konstanz in Southern Germany). Painter Hans came to Bruges and worked for 70 days on the embroidery designs. Simon de Brilles, an embroiderer of Philip, was asked to take care of the masters that came from Paris and to direct the embroiderers that worked on repairing the embroidery on the weapons and Philip's tent.
The first embroiderers arrived at Bruges on the 26th of March 1425. They worked in the ducal palace. Over the next weeks, more and more embroiderers arrived. They came from Bruges, Ghent, Lille, Brussels, Mechlin, Antwerp, Tournai and many other places. All in all, 175 people of which 22 were certainly women (I wasn't sure about 9 names if they were male or female). This underlines the general impression I have so far gotten from the historical documents that significantly more men worked as professional embroiderers than did women. Some people stayed the whole 70 days and others came for only a couple of days. They finally completed the task on the 21st of June.
What did 175 embroiderers produce between the 26th of March and the 21st of June 1425? They made seven horse trappers made of velvet and embroidered with the coat of arms of Philip or his counties, his motto and the cross of St Andrew. As far as I know, the only surviving medieval embroidered horse trapper is held at Musee Cluny in Paris (Cl. 20367 a-g). They also made tabards, those heavily decorated tunics that were worn over chainmail or harness. Furthermore, banners and a tent needed to be decorated with embroidery. The Belgian authors think this not to be very much ... Why then did some embroiderers have to work through the night to get it finished in time?!
In the end, it was all for nought. Philips and Humphrey decided that trying to kill each other wasn't the best way to solve the conflict. Diplomacy did. On the 23rd of Mai 1425, the duel was called off. Interestingly, the embroidery works continued until the 21st of June. The, no doubt, splendid embroideries were transported to Lille on the 9th of September and kept there for safekeeping. Maybe they were used for the tournament in which Philip the Good and John of Lancaster both appeared in 1427. There is a written source that confirms that the tent made for the duel could still be admired in Lille in 1460. Unfortunately, none of the embroideries seems to have survived till the present day.
The list in which the embroiderers are listed shows some interesting details. Foremost, we learn how much each of them was paid. Some got the same payment for each day they worked, others got different wages on different days. Was this because costs spiralled out of control? Or were different tasks paid differently? I tend to think it is the latter. You were presumably assigned to a certain task and when that task was completed you got assigned the next one when you decided to stay on. Those who practice goldwork embroidery probably know that some techniques and designs require more skill than others.
Related to this is the payment of the female embroiderers. The Belgian authors state that the work of women was rewarded less. This conclusion is probably cut too short. Lievin van Bustail, Lyzebette Peytins and Yoncie Hevre all earn quite a bit above the average wage of 19,6 gr. It is true, however, that the top earners are men and that 14 of the 22 women earned wages below the average. Four women came with their husbands: Ernoul and Marguerite de Wesemale both became the same wage of 20 gr., the same is true for Alard and Katherine du Dam. Jaquet d'Utrecht earns 20 gr, his wife (not named) earns 16 gr. and his boy (not named) 14 gr. Pietre de Hond only earns 18 gr. and his wife (not named) earns even less at 14 gr. Young boys either earned 14 gr. or 11 gr. This seems only fair as these were probably still training with their masters (maybe their fathers?) and were thus not that skilled. I am therefore thinking that embroiderers were primarily paid according to skill and not according to their gender.
For those of you who like to play with the raw data below is the Excel list for you to download. If you can help sex any of the names now a '?' or if you see a mistake, please let me know!
Duverger, J., Versyp, J., 1955. Schilders en borduurwerkers aan de arbeid voor een vorstenduel te Brugge in 1425. Artes Textiles II, 3–17.
Some of you will know that I don't have a tv. Instead, I watch interesting documentaries (and highly necessary series like 'The Great British Bake Off`) directly on my laptop. One of my favourite channels is 'Arte' a French-German co-production. During this weekend's browse, I found a five-part series on the artisan production of fabric in Asia. Very beautiful and informative! The one on India zooms in on an embroidery atelier in Mumbai directed by the Italian professional embroiderer Maximiliano Modesti. He employs 600 embroiderers. All male, 98% muslim. Women do embroider, but not in a professional setting. This made me wonder how things were done in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Low Countries? After all, my favourite style of goldwork embroidery that I use as a basis for my artwork was made during this time. Would master embroiderer Jacob van Malborch have employed me if I had also lived in Utrecht in the first quarter of the 16th century?
Someone who has done extensive research during the '80s and '90s into the organisation of professional embroiderers during the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Times in the Low Countries is Prof. Dr. Saskia de Bodt. She extended and corrected the earlier attempts of Dr. Beatrice Jansen executed some 40 years earlier. In more recent years, art historian Dr. Marike van Roon researched the Dutch embroidery ateliers active between 1830-1965 extensively. As far as I know, more recent research into the role and organisation of medieval embroiderers is not available for the Low Countries. Note: It seems that the above-named scholars started their careers researching embroidery, but soon gave up in favour of more 'real' art history like 19th-century paintings or ceramics. Even in research, embroidery seems to have an image problem ...
After going through many written sources such as the financial records of churches and towns, baptism records, marriage registers and death records from the 15th- 17th century located in the Northern Netherlands, Saskia de Bodt concludes that the professional embroiderer was a man. Only the men, like Jacob van Malborch and many others, are named. If a woman does show up in the records it is not under her own name but only as huysvrou van (housewife of) followed by the name of the master embroiderer. However, women were not explicitly excluded from the guild either. On the contrary. When the embroiderers of Utrecht formed their own guild in 1610, the guild ordinance speaks of meestersschen (female masters). The guild of embroiderers in Leeuwarden probably only consisted of men as the ordinance only mentions meesters and inwoonderssonen (masters and sons of poorters). But in Dordrecht, the embroiderers split from the St. Luke guild in 1487 as a result of a feud between the women ...
So would master Jacob van Malborch have taken me on as an apprentice? Possibly. Would someone have written down my name? Certainly not in the Low Countries. Female embroiderers are known from the written sources in other European countries. So I could have learned the ropes with master Jacob and then, after fretting over not making it into the written record, emigrate to Cologne or over the seas to England. But that's stuff for a further blog post.
Bodt, S.F.M. de, 1991. Borduurwerkers aan het werk voor de Utrechtse kapittel- en parochiekerken 1500-1580, Oud Holland 105, pp. 1-31.
Bodt, S.F.M. de, 1987. De professionele borduurwerkers. In: S.F.M. de Bodt, M.L. Caron et al, Schilderen met gouddraad en zijde, Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht.
Jansen, B., 1948. Laat Gotisch borduurwerk in Nederland, Boucher.
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