Dank, dark and medieval?
I often wonder how I got myself so deeply entrenched in the twelfth century. If one takes the TV or movie image of that era, it’s represented by mud, damp and ell upon ell of brown or taupe cloth which has been hastily cut and roughly sewn together to make tunics.
There’s also an abundance of tawdry and very heavy wool from which cloaks are made.
The occasional noble will be dressed in a figured brocade with a handsome leather girdle, but by and large, the timeframe is riddled with plain and unembellished poverty.
Well the poverty aspect at least is fact, backed up by any number of academic viewpoints.
But back to cloth and decoration…
Outside of writing, one of my own interests is embroidery and whilst these days I’m trying my hand at crewelwork, one of my favourite techniques is silk-on-silk embroidery, be it stumpwork or just creative thread-work.
The feeling of silk under one’s hands is a thing of immense tactile beauty. It’s cool to the touch, it whispers and hisses and tells one a story as one stitches, and as the needle pricks the weave, the thread sings as it finds its position on the fabric.
There are two eras that most exemplify this for me, the amateur embroiderer.
One is the Elizabethan era with its wonderful blackwork and pearl embroidery, with spidery ruffs and cuffs and the use of delicious napped velvets and heavy silks. The other is the era of the dandy – the era when men powdered and primped and probably their underwear was embroidered with grub roses. This is the eighteenth century – when the Crowd finally rebelled against excess.
Oddly, I don’t read Tudor (except for Ann Swinfen ) or Georgian fiction but I do heave a sigh when I see this
This is not to say that embroidery had no place in the world of the twelfth century. Silks from the Byzantine empire were rich with metallic thread and highly sought after and…
… Opus Anglicanum was lusted after by Europe.
Certainly the Church enjoyed its beauty. But its liturgical message, whilst relevant to those who valued it, does nothing for my own creative spirit. I can admire it and greatly respect the hands that accomplished the work. But then I see this…
and stitchy thumbs start to twitch.
I blame Guy of Gisborne for entrenching me in the twelfth century, of course. A fascination with Robin Hood moved very swiftly to Gisborne, thanks to the BBC.
Followed then (in my own interpretation) by affection for his fictional son, William of Gisborne and for Ariella Ben Simon and Guillaume of Anjou.
Now there is Tobias the minstrel (and I have fallen completely in love with that brave music-man). I’ve just met an enigmatic spice merchant from Constantinople called Michael Sarapion, and an embroiderer called Dana who is from Lyon and may just have to return there for a future book.
Thus I find I don’t mind the twelfth century at all. Thanks to the Crusades, and surely the only benefit of religious fervour (if there is any at all), the delights of the east are becoming known.
Lately I’ve journeyed to Constantinople to find fabrics from the Silk Road are in abundance, as well as spices whose names stir every fibre of my being, and treasure chests of gems spark avarice and envy in those who want to make money.
The commodities arrive from across the desert, through Palmyra on great camel trains, and on to the Gate to the West. Trade is burgeoning and one can feel the excitement of merchants in Europe as they send out galleys to the east. One can smell the change in the air – cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, cumin, turmeric, frankincense and more. This is the time when Venice and Genoa will begin to build fleets that will be the envy of the trading world in another hundred years.
Mud only happens when it rains and I prefer to see how trade is changing the social fabric of this society because it’s a time of flux and one can see the Renaissance moving ever closer and with speed.
It’s that immense change and the pace of it that draws me away from envying Tudor and Georgian embroidery and being vastly content within the twelfth and thirteenth century timeframes.
If only my quill can keep up with it…
I am also spending a lot time in the twelfth century thanks to Guy of Gisborne/Richard Armitage. *sigh*
I try not to think about how dirty, smelly, and bleak that time would have been.
I share your passion for needlework and embroidery. Sadly, my TMB eye condition has limited my ability to pursue this wonderful hobby. (TMB = Too Many Birthdays).
Hi Jennie. I know what you mean about the ‘TMB’ condition. It’s why I’m spending more time doing crewel than stump work these days. Less of a strain on the eyes, although there’s a new Jane Nicholas design I’m desperate to try and I found another wonderful stump work design on Pinterest last night.
The thing about the Middle Ages is that people did bathe and were conscious of the need for a modicum of cleanliness, and a good castle chatelaine would be very conscious of the need to scatter fresh rushes or have carpets beaten. And in the later Middle Ages one can read in research of noblewomen who wouldn’t allow dogs into their halls.
The feudal system certainly supported a bleak existence – and I think that’s why I’m enjoying my research so much, currently. Because I’m seeing the rise in status of the artisan and merchant classes as trade creates ripples across the world.
Thanks so much for visiting and for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it!
As a former costumer, I’m all too familiar with the all-brown crowd scene convention for the Long Ago. Once I designed a set of costumes for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ set in 1450, in all the great strong colors of heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, and the director asked, at the first dress rehearsal, if I was going to distress (age) the clothes. No, I said, they’re not old clothes, they’re new. I think he was under the common belief that all clothing older than about 1900 was dyed with dandelions and horse dung.
Hi Pat. The problem with the peasants is that they probably did dye their clothes in nature’s bounty which then did produce muted shades. But anyone who knows anything about natural dyes knows it’s not all brown! The nobility however had the wherewithal to purchase the new fabrics arriving from further east and they were beautifully dyed. There were rich reds, blues, greens and golds. Let alone the purple!
Which of course brings me to a shameless ad for my next book, Tobias, which is about a journey to Constantinople to pilfer the famous Tyrian purple – possessed by the emperor and guarded by the Byzantine guards and for imperial use only. The exact thing that created the saying – ‘Born to the purple.’