Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles

Welcome to the first Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles Blog post. This is an exciting time! I’ve been thinking about an early medieval textiles blog that welcomed everyone for a while. It’s important that the blog is accessible; I want everyone to know how great early medieval textiles (and early medieval embroidery, of course) are and how important they were to early medieval societies and to us today. I also want it to include posts about textiles from around the world (its all-inclusive), so you will find textiles from other periods making an appearance as well.

So, thank you to everyone who supported the idea. You pushed me into actually doing something about it! And thank you to Gale Owen-Crocker who agreed to be my guinea pig. She didn’t even hesitate.

An important final note. This blog will engage with textiles and their cultural history from a period that we today commonly describe by using terms such as Anglo-Saxon and Viking. This is an inclusive site and does not misappropriate these or any other terms in order to promote racist ideologies. The administrator reserves the right to remove offensive content.

Gale R. Owen-Crocker: researching medieval clothing and textiles, and the Bayeux Tapestry, of course

Gale R. Owen-Crocker is Professor Emerita of the University of Manchester, UK. She was formerly Professor of Anglo-Saxon Culture and Director of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Although she studied Middle English and Old English literature at undergraduate level, it was her PhD on Anglo-Saxon costume that defined her future area of study. Today she is known for her work on clothing and textiles from across the medieval period (AD 450 – 1400) and throughout Western Europe. She is also an expert on the Bayeux Tapestry. Gale is a champion of interdisciplinary research and collaborative working, has always been an enthusiastic mentor to the next generation of early medieval cultural scholars.

Hi Gale, thank you for agreeing to be my guinea pig for Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles. There are so many things that we could discuss but I thought it would be interesting if we concentrated on your methods for researching medieval dress and textiles.

Dress in Anglo-Saxon England was the result of your PhD research at Newcastle University. How did you become interested in this field of research?

I had been in love with Middle English literature (specifically Chaucer) before I even went to University, but once there I discovered earlier literature, Old English, and found my natural place. In my final undergraduate year, a course on Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology introduced me to wider Anglo-Saxon culture. I wanted to do PhD research on something that brought together archaeology and text and my supervisor suggested what we then called ‘costume’, as he knew nothing about it. (He still claims he knows nothing about it 52 years later, but SOMETHING must have brushed off!) It was the perfect subject for me. I always notice what people are wearing, and remember their wardrobe.

Can you explain your focus and research methods for this project? How were they new?

I began by looking at the positions of clothing fasteners in furnished graves to identify patterns. Not only were there regular positions, there were sometimes textile fragments attached to metalwork. To do this I read every volume of every county and national archaeological journal since their inception and made my notes by hand (no photocopiers or computers then). That took a year. I ploughed through German books for evidence of Roman sculptures of barbarian peoples in their national dress. I read right through the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary and followed up every citation to see its context. I found that, though dress/textiles were rarely mentioned in literary texts, there was a wealth of information in non-literary texts: wills, medical recipes, glossary lists. I handled every Anglo-Saxon manuscript with human figures in the British Library and the University and college libraries in Oxford and Cambridge. I dug as a volunteer at Mucking, where they had Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and also grubenhauser – sunk featured buildings. The cross-disciplinary approach and the whole range of evidence I accumulated was a new approach. Fortunately, though I only had a scholarship for 3 years, there was no time limit or word limit on my thesis, so I was able to take all this time to do the research, and I also improved my Old English skills greatly when I moved to a job at Manchester University, which had marvellous library holdings and a group of people all teaching Old and Middle English and English Language, who were always available for discussion. It also gave me the opportunity to make visits to museums in Scandinavia. Nobody would be allowed to take this amount of time these days. I hope my publications have made short cuts for scholars coming along so they don’t have to re-invent the wheel for every thesis.

Now you study dress and textiles from across the medieval period (AD 450 – 1400) and greater geographical territories (Western Europe), why?

I was already familiar with later medieval English literature. Attending the major annual International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo and organizing sessions there, I heard papers on all aspects of medieval dress and textiles and saw the value of bringing them together. Historians would tell me they had had no idea of the literary evidence, literature scholars had no idea the archaeology existed, people who like to make things copying pictures might have no idea about text.  When, with Robin Netherton, I founded the journal Medieval Clothing and Textiles,we deliberately pursued an eclectic approach. Together we edited it for 15 years. From our authors and our peer reviewers I learned a lot. An invitation to spend a few weeks as visiting professor in Munich gave me the opportunity to see collections in a number of regional museums. Professor Han Sauer, who invited me, was most generous: I was only required to give three lectures/seminars, I was taken to the ballet, opera and countless lunches and dinners. I had lots of spare time and I got masses of editing done on my laptop in my hotel room; but I also had lots of time for going out and about. I had decided to specialise for the occasion on gold-brocaded tablet-woven bands (taking my material from Nancy Spies’ Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance), and Professor Sauer arranged for me to be taken (variously by himself, his secretary, postgrad students), to all the museums I listed. Not only did I find a wonderful collection of recently excavated, early (sixth-century) gold brocading in the museum a short walk from the University, I discovered that many of the bands listed by Nancy Spies were still attached to complete vestments. There were stunning collections in the Museums, notably in Bamburg, the vestments from the burial of Pope Clement II, who died in 1047. It was fun always having a companion to discuss things with. I remember Professor Sauer standing in front of a showcase observing very seriously that today it is women who wear high boots; in those days it was men. This Bavarian experience was the foundation for the book Clothing the Past.

Does it give a better and / or different understanding of dress and textiles when they are studied over longer time-frames and wider geographical areas?

You must never be ‘blinkered’ to the wider time and geographical areas. The clue to interpreting the positions of brooches in Anglo-Saxon female graves lies in the Roman sculptures of barbarian women in what was continental Germania. With an almost complete absence of male dress evidence from graves, we NEED those Roman sculptures of barbarian men, and the later Anglo-Saxon manuscript depictions of men to suggest what they might have been wearing in the more obscure centuries of their era. The wider time range can, however be misleading. Before I published my Dress book, the Anglo-Saxon period (all 6 centuries of it) had never been studied for itself, with its chronological developments, and, in costume books was often lumped together with later European dress.

What are the pros and cons compared to studying one period and / or a smaller geographical area?

You have space for regional differences and major changes. There was, for example, a transformation in women’s dress in the late sixth- to seventh century, and it had changed again by the late tenth/eleventh. On the other hand, you mustn’t ignore foreign influences. I once did a research trip to the Netherlands, going to all the major archaeological collections in museums from north to south. It was fascinating to see the changes in culture, which are so reflected in the regional differences in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology.

Gale and Dr Anna Henderson at the launch of ‘Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: readings and re-workings‘ at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2016

Obviously, we know that you’re a big Bayeux Tapestry fan. How did you become interested in this mammoth wall hanging? What is it about the Tapestry that keeps drawing you to it?

I started to look at it for my PhD research as art evidence of dress. I returned to it when Elizabeth Coatsworth and I were compiling our database on surviving medieval textiles of the British Isles (yes it is probably English, not French). My colleague and friend Reg Dodwell, Professor of Art History at Manchester, had written an influential article on the BT and told me he had read everything written on it. I thought ‘If he can, I can’ (but no, I haven’t). It gradually got ‘under my skin’ and every time I look at it I see something new. 

You’ve published quite a number of papers about different aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry, can you give us some insight into your working methods? What grabs your eye, how do you identify these ‘new’ stories, and how do you go about researching it?

I have unusual eyesight. My right eye was very short-sighted, but if I got close enough I could read anything, however small. I found that, looking at facsimiles of the BT I was noticing details that nobody else had seen. Relatively recent eye surgery has made my life in general easier, but I have to some extent sacrificed this ‘special view’ for it. I will never lose the habit of looking at details, though. Each ‘story’ needs its own research. The Latin inscription, for example, is a linguistic matter, and that research had been done (though it was a bit conflicting). It also led me into finding a Canterbury grave-stone with similar script. Though the sculpture was published, I think comparing it to the script of the BT was an original contribution.

Over the last few years, you have used Object Biography Theory to support your research, what makes this approach so good for studying medieval dress and textiles?

Textiles are generally published either in terms of their decorative art, or in technical terms by describing their fibre, spinning and weaving. The latter is the beginning of Object Biography. Textiles are also particularly prone to repair, and recycling. For me of course the story is always about people: makers, wearers, repairers …

You often use interdisciplinary methods; collaborating with people from different working backgrounds: makers, scholars from different research areas etc. How did this begin and why?

The interdisciplinary methods go right back to my PhD research. The collaborations happen because I am a friendly person. I like talking to people. I get invited to give talks at all sorts of places, re-enactment societies, Universities, historical and art societies, conferences. I listen as well as talk. I am well aware of my own inadequacies. I can’t draw, for example. I will tackle any Romance language (written) but German is hard for me and I don’t know Welsh or Irish. I don’t have a science background. I like to find a collaborator whose expertise compliments mine.

Gale at the launch of ‘Textiles, Text, Intertext’, a book published in her honour. The book’s two editors are Jill Frederick and Maren Clegg Hyer (Kalamazoo, 2015)

What makes this a good / better way of working, especially for studying medieval dress and textiles?

It saves time. It avoids the laziness of saying that is too hard for me, I’ll ignore it. It also makes work fun to share with somebody. For our 5 year, grant-funded lexis-project we had a team of 3 directors, 2 research assistants, one administrative assistant, two specialists on Irish and Welsh and a PhD students; and we attracted other post-graduate students to work on associated areas as well as ‘interns’, undergraduates who came from Smith College, USA and Hamburg, Germany, as Honorary Research Fellows for work experience in my Faculty under my supervision.  For the Encyclopedia Project – also about 5 years – we had 4 editors and numerous authors, as well as 2 people at the publishers in Leiden very much involved who we met personally from time to time. Working that way is stimulating and exciting. I do like smaller collaborations too. It is nice just to be able ‘to talk about it’.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just published a Bayeux Tapestry article in collaboration with my former MA student Maggie Kneen who is a professional artist. We hope it will cause a bit of a stir. We hope to go on to complete together the book that has been in bits on my computer for years. A book called Sense and Feeling in Daily Living in early Medieval England which I edited with Maren Clegg Hyer, the 4th in a series on Daily Living in Anglo-Saxon England, is at press. I have just checked the proofs of the index and it should be published next month. I am editing a collection in honour of Elizabeth Coatsworth, again with Maren Clegg Hyer.  A collection in honour of Shirley Ann Brown is at the early stages. I am editing that with Sylvette Lemagnen, formerly Curator of the Bayeux Tapestry. A book about Animals in early medieval England is at the discussion stage.

You’ve always mentored and encouraged the next generation (including me), if someone reading this blog was thinking about a career studying medieval dress and textiles, what advice would you give them?

I am not a career expert, and I have been retired some years, but I would suggest that if you want to make a PAID career out of it, get a good degree in an established academic subject. That might be a Science degree or one in Textile Technology or one in History, Archaeology, Art History or a language with a big emphasis on the medieval – choose the course carefully as a lot of places have reduced their medieval element in recent years. There are degrees in Fashion and Textiles and there are a few Medieval Studies degrees but generally the latter have a small intake. If you go the Arts way, make sure you also have a good grounding in science, because that is the future. If you want to do a prestige postgraduate qualification in Textiles (like in Glasgow or Copenhagen) you will very probably need to have the science. Isotope analysis, DNA analysis, ultra violet and raking light photography, multispectral imaging (MSI) and high-performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) are just a few of the techniques now in operation. You may like to learn to hand sew, to spin and weave and embroider. Find a good re-enactment society and they will be glad to advise you. I think you will find it hard to make a full time job out of medieval clothing and textiles. You have to carve a niche for that out of wherever you land. You have to have skills that you can apply to other things.

Conclusion

I would like to thank Gale for taking the time to give us some insights into her working methods and research practices. Next month we will be travelling further back in time, when Ronja Lau discusses her experimental archaeological research with textiles from Slovenian cemeteries of the early Iron Age/Hallstatt period.

Gale giving her retirement speech in 2015. Dr Chris Monk can be seen in the background

Useful Resources: http://lexisproject.arts.manchester.ac.uk

Publications / Further reading:

Here are a list of dress and textiles book only publications by Gale.

2018 With Elizabeth Coatsworth Clothing the Past: surviving garments from early medieval to early modern western Europe, Leiden and Boston: Brill.

2016 with Sylvette Lemagnen and Shirley Ann Brown, L’Invention de la Tapisserie de Bayeux: Naissance, composition et style d’un chef-d’oeuvre medieval. Colloque international, Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, 22-25 septembre 2016.  Bayeux: Point de Vues / Ville de Bayeux.

2016 With Anna Henderson Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings, Manchester University Press.

2014 With Louise M. Sylvester and Mark C. Chambers, Medieval Dress and Textiles in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook, Woodbridge, Boydell.

2012 The Bayeux Tapestry: Collected Papers, Variorum Collected Studies Series, Farnham, Ashgate.

2012 with Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles­ of the British Isles c. 450-1450, Leiden and Boston, Brill.

2011 The Bayeux Tapestry: new approaches, ed. Michael J. Lewis, Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Dan Terkla, Oxford, Oxbow.

2007 (With Elizabeth Coatsworth) Medieval Textiles of the British Isles AD 450-1100: an Annotated Bibliography, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 445, Oxford, Archaeopress.

2005 King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell,

2004 Dress in Anglo-Saxon England: revised and enlarged edition, Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer.

Contact: If you would to contact Gale about her work please email her on: gale.owencrocker@ntlworld.com