Can We Ignore the Contribution of Female Artists?

From the Lecture Series: The Medieval Legacy

By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The ease with which women’s artistry can be dismissed, forgotten, or erased is not just a function of time and fashion, or even deliberate damnatio memoriae. Often, it is the simple fact that most women did not have access to the opulent and durable artistic supplies that could create lasting monuments to their work. But that was not completely true.

Tapestry created in the style of mille-fleurs
The very ubiquity and necessity of textiles meant that they are persistently taken for granted. (Image: Dima Moroz/Shutterstock)

No Acknowledgment

And even when they did have access, this fact is almost never called out; witness that most of the textiles surviving from the Middle Ages are gorgeous and elaborate ceremonial vestments made of silk and gold embroidery, almost invariably made by women.

How often, if ever, is that even acknowledged in museum catalogues and display cases?

There is also the perennial problem that the very ubiquity and necessity of textiles means that they are persistently taken for granted.

In the later Middle Ages, the tapestries that made the cloth towns of Burgundy and Flanders so wealthy were made by men. The lace made in those same places by women, whose labor was still more skilled, was profitable only to the men who sold it.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Bayeux Tapestry

We can see this trend toward oblivion exemplified in the most famous medieval textile still in existence—the so-called Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry—at least the part that remains—is a strip of woven linen embroidered with colored woolen yarns, measuring just over 224 feet long and just over 18 inches in width. It was certainly at least a few feet longer, since it currently breaks off in the midst of the Battle of Hastings and would almost certainly have ended with the coronation of its victor, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy, as King of the English.

Work of a Woman?

As the British art historian Carola Hicks has persuasively argued, the most logical candidate for its patronage and design is not Odo of Bayeux, the Norman bishop of that city and the half brother of William the Conqueror. Instead, she makes a strong case for its design by Queen Edith of Wessex, who would have been able to oversee its production by the women of her own household.

For apart from having the royal resources to execute such a project, Edith was in a unique position to tell the story of the Norman Conquest’s: She was simultaneously the sister of Harold, wife of Edward, and protegee of William.

Missing Patron

As noted above, the presumed patron of this work is still officially identified as William’s half brother, Odo of Bayeux.

But there is no known connection between Odo and a large convent or court of skilled female artists who could have executed the work. Nor is Odo’s person or political agenda given the kind of prominence we would expect if he had been the mastermind behind this work.

Queen Edith

Detail from Bayeux Tapestry showing Bishop Odo rallying William the Conqueror's troops at the Battle of Hasting
Historians opine that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by a woman, Queen Edith. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

The prominence and dignity accorded to Harold in this visual epic align with the agenda of his powerful sister, Edith, daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Godwin, and widow of its sainted King Edward. Unlike Odo, Edith would have been to assemble the best needlewomen in England and Normandy to execute her design—which would explain why the style of the embroidery cannot be fixed to any one locale.

And, as Carola Hicks observes, it would have benefited the unpopular William to promote a version of events that made him a legitimate king, not only by conquest but by the acquiescence of the dowager queen and her powerful family. That would make this work the artistic analog of the many acts of reconciliation and reparation that William attempted after the ruthlessness of the Conquest, including his initial efforts to issue royal writs in Old English as well as Latin, his later inquests into the abuses of power by his own officials, and his many honorable gifts to Edith.

It would also have made Edith indispensable to William, and safeguarded her and her family from any later change of heart on the part of the king or his heirs, as keeper of this positive narrative that left just enough room for interpretation to propitiate both the subjugated English and the new Norman colonists.

Woman’s Sensibility

I would also like to argue that we can read a woman’s sensibility, if not a feminist message, in the fact that there are only three strategically placed female figures in this long tale of masculine weakness, ambition, error, heroism, and cruelty: the mourning queen herself, the terrified and nameless mother, and the mysterious Ælfgiva—a veiled woman, perhaps a nun, enclosed in a small cell whose walls are penetrated by the reaching, caressing hand of a certain unnamed cleric. This scene, placed just after the first meeting between Harold and William, is ambiguous to us but was clearly full of pregnant meaning for its original audience.

Is this Ælfgiva the younger sister of Edith and Harold, who died before 1066 and who may have been repudiated by William as a potential bride, on the grounds of her compromised reputation? Is this the Ælfgiva who had been married to Edward’s predecessor, Cnut the Great, and accused of scandalous collusion with Normandy in the decades before the conquest? We don’t know.

New Perspective Needed

But in all three cases, we see women depicted as being forced to reckon with their subordinate and sorrowful role in the story: details that the arts of women have certainly captured here in poignant, three-dimensional detail.

We are currently entering an exciting new phase in the history of artistic production during the Middle Ages. Innovative collaborations among humanist scholars and their STEM colleagues are combining archaeological findings with the evidence of ancient DNA to reveal the long, long genealogy of medieval artistic creation that lies behind and beneath the surviving artworks that have been preserved. At the same time, a feminist reading of that revealed record is going to continually challenge the heroic narrative of male artistic achievement that has long dominated and impoverished our understanding of medieval arts and artists.

Common Questions about Female Artists in the Middle Ages

Q: What is the Bayeux Tapestry?

The Bayeux Tapestry is a strip of woven linen embroidered with colored woolen yarns, and depicts the story of the Norman Conquest.

Q: Who was Queen Edith?

Edith was the daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Godwin, and widow of its sainted King Edward. She may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry.

Q: Which three female figures are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry?

The three female figures are: the mourning queen, the terrified and nameless mother, and the mysterious Ælfgiva.

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