As we read and view history now, there is much emphasis, attention and focus on the battles, the conquests and wars. We watch the historical docudramas and fantasies play out in books, movies and the small screen, and we make much of those warriors and their great or not so great feats. We give great attention, admiration and acclaim to those women throughout history who were involved in the battles- real or imagined. We are generally presented with an image of women of great beauty, tremendous courage or spirit, or we get a portrayal that puts the woman as down trodden, abused and of worthless status. Women are seldom depicted, portrayed or given attention/acclaim for the other status or contributions which the majority of them back them actually held or made.
We typically assume that a woman’s worth or value was set in stone. We have this impression that it was tied to the status she was born into, to her physical attributes, and to her ability to breed. In some ways, yes it was tied to those things, but there were other ways that she could be deemed of great value or asset to her family, her household, her village or her kingdom. These abilities would not necessarily bring her great fame or recognition in future generations but they would ensure that she survived and more important for us in those future generations, her family survived to create a next generation that probably benefited from her untold, unknown contributions.
I am not going to downplay the fact that a woman’s life was difficult in the past, no matter what rank or status she was. Then again, a man’s life was no less difficult during those times. Nobody had a truly easy time of it back then. What I want to talk about today though, is the thought or idea that there were ways for a woman to achieve some status, some value and some degree of upward mobility in those early medieval or dark ages. Ways that were not dependent upon her family status or wealth, her appearance, her fighting ability/ spirit or her breeding capacity… because realistically, looks faded quickly in those times and they would have faded in some direct proportion to her success at breeding! In order to make it through those times and create a next generation, every survivor whether man, woman or child had to have some fighting spirit to a certain extent so that asset that we deem so noble and great now would have been viewed in a context of the woman’s value being based not on her fighting spirit or ability but just on the fact that she was not weak of body or mind. Her breeding ability would not be apparent at first appraisal or trade negotiation but would be more based on her family history of breeding and on her health.
Of course for the wealthy noble families, a woman’s worth was directly based on her family’s wealth, bloodlines and connections to power bases. Her appearance had little to do with her value and neither did her fighting spirit other than she should have enough spirit in her to fight to survive and to keep her household intact and alive in event of a siege when her spouse was off fighting elsewhere. Every woman should have that attribute.
What I am looking at are those other attributes, abilities, talents or that a woman could use to her advantage whether she be high ranking nobility, a mid level family member of some noble household, low born serf, or even a slave child. No, I am not going to touch on that one “profession” or “skill” that women have used to their advantage probably since the beginning of time! I will leave that for some other discussion. There were any number of other ways and skills that a female could use to her benefit and advantage throughout time. Most of those abilities were learned skills that also involved some innate or gifted by God talent. These skills, as I’ve already mentioned, would not give them great fame or recognition other than in their personal sphere of influence. They were however, most often extremely necessary skills that would ensure the survival of the entire community in which they lived. These women possessed skills in areas that we give little thought or credit to now. They were the midwives, the healers, the cooks, the dairy maids, the spinners and weavers of cloth, and the needle workers. Every woman was expected to have some fundamental knowledge and ability of these skills, even those most noble and Royal women. These were skills essential to keeping a household or community alive and then of thriving and prospering. A woman who was talented or gifted in any of these skills was deemed of some high status or value to her community and as such was rewarded well for her skills so that she would remain within that community. These women were often well known through out their local areas and regions. Their skills were prized and their families, their Lords or owners and those above them would usually make effort to ensure that the women were well compensated or cared for, well treated, healthy and loyal to their benefactors. Much as a man might be prized or valued for his fighting abilities, his horsemanship, his metal working, woodworking or seamanship, these women were looked at as valued commodities. Their value was tied to their skill or their ability in a certain area that had nothing to do with Noble lineage, appearance or breeding capacity. Yet, while the men with certain skills could go on to make names and recognition for themselves, be rewarded with monetary wealth, land grants or positions that would eventually bring them to Noble status, the women were largely forgotten and became just a backdrop for the fabric and tapestry of history that they helped to create. They might become wives of those men, they might gain entry to some Noble status by being a part of a much coveted inner circle of women but for the most part their names, their lives and their contributions are long forgotten and generally passed off as unimportant in the great events of history. We will never know who they were, but we can see remnants and reminders of those unknown women, those untold stories even today as we view some of what they created and left as their communal identity.
The women that I want to give credit to and shed some light on are those women who so often receive little or no attention acclaim for their contributions. These are those women who, so early in history, picked up a needle and thread, and began to not just clothe the rest of us but to leave a piece of themselves and their story in everything they sewed. These are the women we give no thought to, that are relegated to the backdrop of history. These women and their creations in that hidden, protected and shrouded space of a women’s bower solar, or even the confines of a nunnery are considered or deemed of little interest or importance in a story. Their creations, their accomplishments and their life’s work are portrayed as insignificant, mundane, and of no real consequence or value… after all it was just women’s work? It was often just women’s work, skill and efforts that kept an injured bleeding man alive after an accident or a battle. Caring for the wounded was part of a woman’s work and quite often, a woman who had great skill with a needle would be called upon to stitch up wounds as well.
I want to look a bit at those unknown women, the history of their skill or art and give you a perspective on how such a talent might have allowed even the lowest born or captured slave girl an opportunity to rise above her circumstances. I am not going to delve into the entire history of sewing or stitching here. I want to put into some perspective or relation to the early medieval history of the Viking era and forward from that. The reason I put it in relation to the Viking era is that the type of stitching that the Anglo-Saxon women became so recognized and renowned for is their embroidery skills that may have had origins in early Danish needle work. I put it in relation to slave girls because many of the girls who were taken and sold into slavery by early Viking raiders were children of farmsteads and villages of many various places. They were not necessarily the poorest, untrained or unskilled lowest forms of humanity that we would imagine or picture them as. Girl children were generally taught the basics of stitchery from their earliest years and would have carried that knowledge or skill with them where ever they went in the future. Many children were sold as household slaves to families that could afford that luxury and not all of them were sorely abused but actually valued as some sort of asset by the household. Slaves were a costly investment, a valuable asset, and it would make little sense to abuse them and completely destroy their value. Even in the early Saxon times of England, slavery was a somewhat common circumstance.
Take for example, young Uhtred and his friend Brida… they were initially slave children but became part of the family…
Brida, however, was not a girl who showed much interest or talent in stitchery!
Rather than seeing the often worst case scenario of a slave child (I am in no way advocating or promoting slavery in any way!) Try to see the possibility or scenario in which a child sold or captured into a slave situation is not quite so misused or abused but becomes in some way, a part of that household- granted a lowest member but still, a valuable working asset to it… Imagine a girl child who has some rudimentary knowledge or skill and displays some interest and talent in that said skill. The art of stitchery was not one which everyone had skill, talent or patience for. It also took a great deal of time and many hands involved to create any finished product. A child who displayed any skill or talent for it would immediately rise in value to the person or family they were attached to. Any small girl slave who showed such talent would probably be looked on favorably, treated well and further trained in this art. In this way, depending on her skill and talent, she might eventually be rewarded for her services and her loyalty to the household. This young girl who started as slave in the household or community might feasibly be rewarded with her freedom and become a valued member of the larger community. She had a God given gift or talent that she used to her benefit and advantage, improving her circumstances. Perhaps she then married a skilled member of the community whose ability or skill was also valued. Her needle skills would have moved her to a status that allowed or enabled her to be worthy of such a man within that society and as such a valued couple, their children would be of better circumstance or status. They train their children in their skills and the children also inherit their talents, which makes them even more valuable in this system of society… and within a few generations, any slave status is for the most part forgotten other than in some dark family history or in some reference to lowly beginnings leading to good fortunes. Future generations might use these beginnings in order to make themselves look better to those might have some cause to rebel against them or resent their present status. It might be used also as a reminder to family members not to forget their own more humble beginnings when relating to the serfs, peasants or slaves now under them.
I mentioned earlier the connection between the Anglo-Saxon needle work and art and that of Scandinavia. The history of needle work goes back to the earliest beginnings of time and every culture or society had knowledge and skill of it. From those earliest beginnings of just sewing a seam together to create a functional piece of clothing became an art form that even those earliest of people used to decorate and embellish their clothing. The basics of those hand sewn stitches have remained unchanged to this day. The art of embroidery has been found worldwide and several early examples have been found. Works in China have been dated to the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC). In a garment from Migration period Sweden, roughly 300–700 AD, the edges of bands of trimming are reinforced with running stitch, back stitch, stem stitch, tailor’s buttonhole stitch, and whipstitching, but it is uncertain whether this work simply reinforced the seams or should be interpreted as decorative embroidery. It is during the mid 9th century with the intermixing of Scandinavian or Viking culture and the Anglo-Saxon culture that we see the beginnings of the needle work art that the Anglo-Saxons would become so recognized for. The Anglo-Saxons may have had already begun this process and progress in the artwork but it after the arrival of the Scandinavians that we see tangible evidence of their work. It was probably during these times too that the variations in stitching from Scandinavia, Francia and other places all began to merge together in the sewing rooms of once more isolated English kingdoms. It was during this time period that the women of Anglo-Saxon England- the ones who did the majority of any sewing back in this time- began to be more exposed to so many other variations of patterns, materials, textiles and threads of other far off places and cultures. The Vikings brought with them all of those other varied exposures to the world and when they began to settle in Anglo-Saxon, so did all of those cultural experiences.
I am going to focus on the needle art of embroidery here, which is what the Anglo-Saxons became most renowned for.Normally we tend to think of embroidery as smaller stitched designs on clothing, pillows, towels. We don’t envision this work on a large wall hanging scale. When we think of large scale designs and stitching we think of tapestries. There is a difference between the tapestry art and the hand sewn needle work known as embroidery. The term tapestry generally refers to weaving on a loom and is most often thought of in terms of heavier wall hangings or rugs. The tapestry did not reach a level of high point, widespread availability or use in Europe until about the 13th century. Prior to this, the wall hangings would have been the hand stitched embroidered creations that women would work together on as a group, often requiring years to complete.
During these dark daunting early centuries that were filled with fear, bloodshed, battle, death and destruction all around them, women would take solace or possibly find some sort of peace in one activity that allowed them to escape for a time into a realm of another place… one where they could create their own world. In a world so controlled and dominated by men, this activity became one of the few things that they could have complete control over. The women took a necessary, mundane chore of sewing and turned it into a creative art form that we remain in awe of to this day. When we look at examples left of their work today, we seldom think of the process that went into their creations back then. We seldom give thought to the conditions they worked in to create these pieces of art that often they considered as just an adornment or embellishment to add some color or variety to their otherwise plain and similar garments.
This type of hand stitching required a great deal of skill as well as keen eyesight, fine motor abilities, hand to eye coordination, extreme patience along with such abilities as being able to differentiate between colors and patterns. In addition to these skills, there must be one involved who was talented and skilled at drawing out a pattern with a piece of charcoal on to a piece of material because that is where the entire process began. Before a woman or group of them could begin the stitching process, the background material had to be prepared for them. In our current day, we can easily find almost any pattern and transfer it to a background. In their day, the transfer process was just as involved and detailed as the sewing process. It required a finely skilled and talented artist to draw out the idea with the charcoal which was then sewn over and expanded upon by the sewers.
If the woman in charge of the project, or whose idea the project was could not draw, and most of them could not- just as most of can not now- she would have to find someone who could put her idea or concept on cloth for her. This would take some of the control out of her hands and put her at a slight disadvantage but she could generally regain artistic control once the initial pattern or design was set for her. If it was a small project such embellishing a personal gown or a tunic, she could and would most likely work on it alone. If were something larger, say a wall hanging, bed covering or draperies, it would probably be worked on by a group of women. Often these larger projects would be a group involvement from beginning to end. The women would decide together what image or design they wanted to create, they would all be included in overseeing the drawing of the design and they would stitch it as a group effort… much like in future generations women would work on a quilt together. These group projects might be designed for a wall of a great hall that they were all familiar with as visitors or residents. It could be a done as a special gift from the group of women in honor of a Wedding, or some other celebration or commemoration, or in many cases it might be created as a gift or donation to the Church. Of the few remaining pieces of work, the majority are church finery or vestments.
There was another crucial requirement and note of importance as well… the cost involved in the materials. The materials, threads and needles were dearly expensive back then. Great caution and care were taken to ensure that none of these items would be wasted, misused or otherwise damaged by one who was not proven to be capable, experienced or talented in this skill. Most any woman, be she lowly peasant serf woman, warrior shieldmaiden, or common farm wife could sew a basic seam together, manage to mend a rip or tear, or even place a few simple decorative stitches upon a garment but few women had the time, the skill or creative talent to do much more than that.
Imagine for a few moments, one of your favorite small screen shieldmaidens, Lagertha of Vikings Saga… Look at her and her family. When she was a young farm wife and Mother, she managed to adequately clothe them all but realistically she did not have time to spend on decorating their garments lavishly, nor did she probably have the creative skill necessary or the keen interest in it. She accomplished the basics and that was about it.
In more recent years, she has spent most of her time in warrior mode but she does show that she appreciates the finery of much more intricately and well detailed sewing. Somewhere in Hedeby, in England or in Francia, there have been women involved in the hand stitching of her dresses. Those women have most probably been well compensated in some way for their efforts. If they did not receive some benefit or reward for this time consuming work, they most likely would not continue to do it. You will never know anything about these women but when you see their work, you will appreciate it and remark upon it’s quality and fineness. What is important for you to keep in mind when you look around you in the various settings of the time is that every single piece of clothing, every wall hanging, table cover, blanket or drapery hanging was sewn by hand!
Another example would be the Lady Judith and the ladies of her small court… Judith may have some skill, talent and inclination towards this activity but it is highly doubtful that she has time to devote towards this effort, what with other responsibilities she might have. What Judith would do is have this group of ladies in her service devote time to these endeavors. In choosing her ladies, she would of course first have to choose women of high rank and noble status but should she come across a young girl or woman with exceptional skill but not status, she could always find ways to fit such a talented one into her circle- even if it is on the edge of it and all of the household members know that the woman is there only for her skills. For the woman to be included in any way would be a step up for her, one that if she has any common sense or reasoning at all, she will understand the benefits and advantages of. This young woman may have begun her life in the village and found ways to display her innate talent in the decoration of her own clothes, those of her family. Seeing her talent, neighbors and others in the village might have bartered or traded with her to adorn their garments as well… her skills would eventually come to the notice of those of importance and thus she would gain the entry or footing within or around the nobility for herself and her family. Will she ever reach far enough up to attain some form of noble status? Probably not, but she will have raised her family to another level up, achieved some added level of comfort and security for them so she has proven her worth and value just by that accomplishment.
During the 800s the Church was becoming a much more powerful force to be reckoned within England, people were becoming increasingly devout and the Church would take advantage of this religious devotion. Noblewomen would begin to concentrate much of their creative talents in the needle work art to show their religious devotion to the Church. The women would spend vast amounts of time and energy on creating master pieces of hand stitched artwork for the adornment of the Church, and it’s priests. These gifts were not just donations to show the family’s devotion. It is during this time that the quality and skills of these devout Anglo-Saxon women began to be recognized throughout the Church’s broad sphere of influence. The Church and Priests praised these works, appreciated them and set a great deal of worth or value on them. The families- the women were well aware of the value and would use the gifts as bargaining tools to garner favor with the Priests. A donation of such a finely worked altar cloth, wall hanging or even clothing item to the Priest or Bishop could go a long way in being pardoned or forgiven for some transgression or in a favor/request being approved.
A great many women during this time also sought solace and sanctuary within the Church’s cloistered walls. As the wars and battles took over their lands and their lives, many women found refuge in the cloistered and protected walls of the Nunneries and Convents. Some of course were sent there as punishments by husbands or families.
Other young girls were given to the Church by their families as a show of the family’s devotion or patronage of the Church. And, yet other young girls and women sought out the sanctuary willingly for varying reasons ranging from true devotion and commitment to having no where else to go. If one had no where else to go, the Church was usually willing to take them in, provide for them and hopefully train them for a life devoted to God’s calling. Many of these young women were taught the needle work skills and if they showed talent for it, they would continue their training in the art. The most talented of these women would go on to spend their lives devoted not so much to the Church but more in some devotion to their craft, their art. These women benefited from the seclusion of the Church sanctuary that allowed and enabled them to completely focus on their creativity without having to concern themselves with outside distractions such as husbands or breeding a new generation. They were still faced with the battles that would often end up taking place within their confines, the destruction and decimation that took place all around them, but in many ways they were safer and better off within the holy walls than they would have been outside of them.
You might ask or wonder how the women who resided within the cloistered walls of a nunnery, devoted their lives to God and to their art form would be considered of value or worth to their family’s future. Granted, these women would not have been responsible for creating a next generation but often times they were directly responsible for a next generation benefiting from their efforts or contributions. Within these holy walls, these women were often looked upon with great favor and praise from those in higher levels of power such as Bishops and Cardinals. Their talents were highly valued and they often rose in status or position of their own type of power within the constraints of the convent. As a result of their talents and creations, their order or Nunnery would rise in acclaim and fame… the women may not have needed or desired any material wealth or gain, but they might find themselves in positions to ask for some boon or favor for family outside those walls. These women were not above or beyond bartering, bargaining and negotiating for rewards that might help their families… in fact they were often quite good at it. In some ways it was expected of them by their families- it was part of the reason for giving a child to God. This child was often given to the Church with some expectation that the child would rise in status there and become the family’s inside connection to the Church’s power base. During the early medieval times, the women of the Nunneries were a power base that was extremely important and influential.
During the dangerous centuries, the consecrated life became identified more exclusively with monasticism. Nuns and monks clustered in large houses organized according to a variety of rules that emphasized discipline and routine. The day was divided into segments for sleeping, eating together, performing manual labor, and always, chanting the office in a perennial outpouring of praise to God. Women responded in great numbers to the attraction of this life. They planted new communities on the frontiers of the Christian world, contributing to the process of converting barbarian tribes.
Queens and noble women who inherited great wealth, and could, according to the laws of the Germanic peoples, deploy that wealth as they saw fit, established houses for as many as two hundred women. Managing land and legally presiding over the inhabitants, these great abbesses were intrinsic components of the new feudal ruling class. They sent troops to war, held court, and enjoyed all the rights of noble men. Each monastery stood autonomous (though increasingly these became standardized under the Benedictine Rule). From the sixth through the tenth centuries, abbesses generally came from local ruling families, and they educated young women and helped to preserve the intellectual heritage of the ancient world. The original literary work of some of these nuns survives, most notably the histories, poetry, and drama of Hroswitha, a tenth-century Saxon nun whose learning may even have extended to some knowledge of Greek.
Sewing for a household or a community was time consuming chore that required a number of women and hands to complete the task. Those who owned large landholdings were responsible for a great many people under them. Part of this responsibility including feeding and clothing all of those workers that were part of the extended household or holding. A responsible Lord would provide sets of basic clothing for his underlings at least once a year. The way one’s workers looked directly reflected on the Lord… a poorly clothed or fed worker showed a lacking on the part of the Lord. If you were to visit a holding where the workers were dirty, poorly dressed and fed, and thus unhappy, you would take notice of that and remember it… If you were of equal or higher standing, you might not be inclined to visit this holding again and you might also be somewhat less than favorable in your dealings with this land holder. If one of these poor workers were for some reason leave this holding (could you blame them?) and end up seeking service at your holding, you might take them in and use them to your advantage- in finding out more about what is going on at that place.
Because the chore of sewing was such a major effort and undertaking, entire rooms or floor of a residence might be set aside for it’s purpose. This space may have been in close proximity to the Lady’s personal chambers or even connected to it. It did need to be a space of good lighting though and as much as possible would have been situated with windows to help with the lighting.
A kind of hierarchy also developed within this domain of women. Less skilled or capable women would be assigned more menial tasks as cutting and sewing basic garments for the underlings- although at times, every woman would participate in this task in order to get it done in time to hand out the garments. Women with a bit more skill were allowed involvement in sewing for higher ranking family members and such… and finally the most skilled and talented women would form the most highly prized and coveted inner group that did the fine stitching under the direct supervision of the Lady or Matron of the holding. Even if such a woman was not so talented in this area, she was still in charge and although she did not have talent, she would have a keen eye for the finished product and it’s quality. She might appoint one of her ladies that were more talented in the art to be her supervisor in this area. We have already discussed how a young girl or woman might gain entry to this rather hidden space. Once she gained her entry based on her talent and hand skills, she must also be intelligent enough to maneuver her way through this hierarchy of women. She would not be well accepted, and she would find resentments against her from some of these women. This inner circle was a highly coveted place to be because it put them in close proximity and ear of the Lady. They could use this position to influence the Lady and possibly her husband. If they could gain much favor with the Lady, they could reap added benefits for their own families. No matter how talented a young woman was, she would not go far or succeed in this space if she did not have some wits about her! This inner sewing sanctuary was far more than just women sewing- it was about women vying for their own power and it probably would have been just as dangerous in that secluded sanctuary as it was out on the battle field. At least on the battle field, the fighting was out in the open and you could determine your enemies… in this women’s battle field, the enemies could be well hidden and disguised as your friend- a friend who might be willing to stab you in the back if it meant favor or advantage for her over you. Make no mistake, a woman intent on power can be far more of a threat than a man with a sword!
We have looked at the history, the importance, the Church’s involvement in this art form and I hope that I have shown how a woman’s innate God gifted talent for this handiwork or craft of stitchery could be considered as her worth or value. I think that I have shown too, that besides her talent or skill, she must also have a keen intelligent and creative mind in order to use this skill or talent to her advantage and benefit. Without the fortitude to think ahead, think on her feet, use the common sense and reasoning that God also gave her, this woman’s talent means little or nothing. It would take the talent and the keen mind working together for a woman to use this gift as her value, her worth and move her family upwards to some better position in life.
I have also mentioned the fact that while these women will ever remain unknown and most of their accomplishment are long destroyed and forgotten about, there are still remnants and reminders of their creative talents with us today. These unknown women were the creators of such historically important works as this…
This piece of embroidered stitching is one of the most important remnants left to us. It is the Bayeux Tapestry which details the events of William the Conqueror and the battle of Hasting.
There is a great deal of mystery and controversy over it’s origins and creation but there is a general consensus that it was made in England and created in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Some theories and trains of thought propose that is was commissioned by Bishop Odo.
Scholarly analysis in the 20th century concluded it was probably commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, who, after the Conquest, became Earl of Kent and, when William was absent in Normandy, regent of England.
The reasons for the Odo commission theory include: 1) three of the bishop’s followers mentioned in the Domesday Book appear on the tapestry; 2) it was found in Bayeux Cathedral, built by Odo; and 3) it may have been commissioned at the same time as the cathedral’s construction in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077 in time for display on the cathedral’s dedication.
Assuming Odo commissioned the tapestry, it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo’s main power base being by then in Kent); the Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time; and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there. Howard B. Clarke has proposed that the designer of the tapestry was Scolland, the abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, because of his previous position as head of the scriptorium at Mont Saint-Michel (famed for its illumination), his travels to Trajan’s Column, and his connections to Wadard and Vital, two individuals identified in the tapestry. The actual physical work of stitching was most likely undertaken by female seamsters. Anglo-Saxon needlework of the more detailed type known as Opus Anglicanum was famous across Europe. It was perhaps commissioned for display in the hall of his palace and then bequeathed to the cathedral he built, following the pattern of the documented but lost hanging of Byrhtnoth.
Another thought or speculation is that King Edward’s wife Edith of Wessex had some involvement in it’s creation. After the events at Hastings, Edith was the sole remaining senior member of the Godwin family to survive the Norman conquest on English soil, the sons of Harold having fled to Ireland. She remained alive until 1075 and lived in seclusion but was paid all due respect by William. She died at Winchester on 18 December 1075. Matthew Parisrecords a tradition that her death brought an end to an illness from which she had been suffering at some length. She was buried together with her husband in Westminster Abbey and her funeral was arranged by William. The northern author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript D, reports:
Edith the Lady died seven nights before Christmas in Winchester, she was King Edward’s wife, and the king had her brought to Westminster with great honour and laid her near King Edward, her lord.
Edith was brought up at Wilton Abbey. She was an educated woman who spoke several languages, skills she probably acquired at Wilton. She remained attached to it, and in later years rebuilt its church. Her niece, Gunhild of Wessex, would also be educated at Wilton.
The Vita Edwardi emphasised her piety. She helped Giso, the Bishop of Wells, secure the endowments of his see, and gave lands to Abingdon Abbey, but the monks of Evesham alleged that she had the relics of many monasteries brought to Gloucester so that she could select the best for herself. When Gervin, abbot of Saint-Riquier, who was visiting the English court, rejected her kiss of greeting, she took offence. Edward reproved her, and she accepted the rebuff, even going on to urge English churchmen not to kiss women, although they did not object to the custom.
Some of the mysteries surrounding the tapestry would point to the idea or thought that Edith could have had some connection to it’s creation. First of all, Edith maintained close connections to the Church and it’s power base throughout her life. She was well known as a pious and devout woman loyal to the Church and it’s leaders. She probably did have some connection or knowing of Bishop Odo and perhaps this creation was a sort of co-sponsored project. Harold is shown as brave and his soldiers are not belittled. Throughout, William is described as “dux” (duke) whereas Harold, also called dux up to his coronation, is subsequently called “rex” (king). The fact that the narrative extensively covers Harold’s activities in Normandy (in 1064) indicates that the intention was to show a strong relationship between that expedition and the Norman Conquest starting two years later. It is for this reason that the tapestry is generally seen by modern scholars as an apologia for the Norman Conquest. Certainly no one was going to come out and renounce William’s actions, not even the Church was willing to do that. But, this project or creation could have been seen or meant in an underlying way to make some appeasement for the events.
Edith would have maintained some strong connections and influences with the various convents and may have been responsible for setting up and arranging for the stitchery do be done at certain selected ones. This would have been looked at as a great favor and honor to a convent selected to do such work. Only convents with the most skilled and talented sewers would have been selected for this honor.
The artistic context of the work could also lead back to Edith. Edith was a child of some Danish heritage and would have most likely learned some Danish variations of stitchery during her youth. Many of the Convents made use of these variations as well, showing the Danish influences in Anglo-Saxon sewing. Tapestry fragments have been found in Scandinavia dating from the ninth century and it is thought that Norman and Anglo-Saxon embroidery developed from this sort of work. Examples are to be found in the grave goods of the Oseberg ship and the Överhogdal tapestries.
A monastic text from Ely, the Liber Eliensis, mentions a woven narrative wall-hanging commemorating the deeds of Byrhtnoth, killed in 991. Wall-hangings were common by the tenth century with English and Norman texts particularly commending the skill of Anglo-Saxon seamstresses. Mural paintings imitating draperies still exist in France and Italy and there are twelfth century mentions of other wall-hangings in Normandy and France. A poem by Baldric of Dol might even be describing the Bayeux Tapestry itself. Therefore, the Bayeux Tapestry was not unique at the time it was created—rather it is remarkable for being the sole surviving example of Middle Ages’ narrative needlework.
On a final note to this discussion, I just want to leave you with some examples of what these Anglo-Saxon women locked away in their bowers and their nunneries were responsible for eventually creating. Opus Anglicanum or English work is fine needlework of Medieval England done for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothing, hangings or other textiles, often using gold and silver threads on rich velvet or linen grounds. Such English embroidery was in great demand across Europe, particularly from the late 12th to mid-14th centuries and was a luxury product often used for diplomatic gifts. Their beginning of the art form in the 800s culminated in the more famous stitched master pieces of later years.
Some earliest remains of Anglo-Saxon needle work during 8th and 9th centuries
An example of Viking era needle work in 10th century. The original clothing items were found in the Mammen graves.
The so called Mammen finds date from the late 10th Century. The main find was the grave of what appears to be a high ranking man. He was dressed in several layers of woollen fabric (2/1 twill), most of which was decorated in some way.
The fragments contained several motifs worked in stem stitch. It is impossible to tell the original colours of the fabrics and the threads used to embroider them, as they are all now a dark brown colour (altered by elements in the soil in which they were found). However, it is possible that they were once brightly coloured.
This example shows the use of beadwork within the needle art
This is an example of the needle work art as it progressed into the later 13th and 14th centuries.
Finally, this is an example of the size of some of the creations and present day efforts to maintain and repair the works as much as possible without interfering with the original design.
After reading all of this, I only hope that you come to have a better appreciation and understanding of the idea that a Woman’s worth and value could indeed be in her hands and her mind!