Illustration: Jean Froissart. Coronation of Henry IV, c1470.
Truly, medieval textiles, rather than those in the style of, are not nearly as numerous as we would wish them to be. There are a number of reasons why this should be so. Apart from the obvious length of time between the medieval period and our own, there is also the fact that until recent times the idea of throwing away anything that could not be reused and recycled was not even a consideration. The same was certainly true for textiles, particularly those used domestically.
Medieval wall hangings for example, were often used until obviously threadbare. They were then cut up into smaller segments and used for various other domestic tasks including upholstery, the better kept pieces taking a more prominent position. The original large hangings would, over the years, become increasingly smaller and smaller until they literally disintegrated. So in some ways we should be grateful that we don't have many examples as it meant that our ancestors in many ways understood the valuable lessons regarding sustainable wealth and certainly of sustainable textiles.
Illustration: Jean Froissart. Death of Evan de Foix, c1470.
To be fair, a number of good examples of medieval textile design do survive. However, a ready supply of imagery, giving a plethora of textile pattern work, or at least a strong indication as to how much of the rich textile design work was available and how it looked, both as a design and within a setting, can be seen through the use of illustrations in medieval manuscripts. Many contain interior scenes, admittedly of a wealthy kind, often at Court, but as much of the medieval textile pattern work was produced for this particular social class, that is where we must look for the finest in textile work produced during this era.
Many medieval pattern ideas and influences can be traced to previous sources, whether classical, Byzantine or Islamic. However, others are very much rooted in the medieval world of Europe with its crests and coats of arms being particularly important in the art of underlining and reiterating power within the framework of allegiance that formed such an important network across Europe, long before the days of the nation state.
Illustration: Jean Froissart. The King of Hungary in Council with his Lords and those of France, c1470.
Another important element and some would say the preeminent one, was nature. The often localised natural world filtered through to all aspects of the medieval world and certainly through that of its decorative arts. The first four illustrations for this article are taken from the fourteenth century work of Jean Froissart. They show a variety of large textile pieces that were very often used as a means of ceremonial theatricality, rather than private domesticity. However, we must remember that the medieval Court was very often a place of public ceremony and affirmation of allegiance, with little in the way of privacy.
Although Froissart reproduced a number of different textile pattern pieces for his illustrations, I have chosen four pieces with pattern work that are closely aligned with each other. All the pieces have singular motifs as their main ingredient, often with an alternate colour scheme in order to vary the pattern. The bunches of flowers, which were always portrayed as growing out of the ground, rather than in a vase, were a popular theme in medieval textile work and turned up frequently in tapestry work, particularly to fill in large empty areas of composition. These proved so successful and so enduring that they were maintained throughout the medieval period and into the Renaissance led classically derived period.
Illustration: Jean Froissart. The Ransom paid to Bajazet for the Count de Nevers, etc, c1470.
Interestingly, these self-same motifs were again revived by Victorian medievalists such as William Morris. The last illustration in this article shows an early Morris textile piece from the 1860s. Daisy shows a similar penchant for the use of the flower bunch motif. He also used alternate colours and flower types to vary the pattern work. It is known that Morris derived this pattern scheme from tapestry work that was produced later than the medieval period. However, the same techniques, as stated earlier, were used long after the medieval period had ended.
It is interesting to see the same motif styles being used after Morris and can probably be seen, at least in some context, within pattern work of our own contemporary era. Rather than believing that we are merely indulging in a constant journey of reimagining the past through textiles, I would like to think more in the vein of themes portrayed in the medieval world being just as relevant and dynamic to succeeding generations as they were to the originals. Morris pattern work for example, is not a pastiche of the medieval; he merely used the original theme as a starting point. However, in many respects he came from the same belief system as the medieval designer, portraying the immediate and localised natural world around them, and in that respect, the connection between the medieval, Victorian and contemporary world, can certainly find common ground.
Illustration: William Morris. Daisy textile design, 1864.
Medieval pattern work should not, ideally, be contained within its time frame. It has the capacity to appeal to later generations, as it clearly did through its pattern longevity. This decorative work was vibrant, colourful and imaginative. It appealed to our ancestors who used it both publicly and privately, domestically and within a religious context. It was one of the most important elements of medieval decorative life and was served by a huge industry. It has only lost its place through an obvious lack of large scale survival, compared to architectural remains, textile remains are woefully inadequate. There has also been the fairly recent movement away from highlighting craft-based disciplines, which are often seen as female-based and therefore both secondary and amateur, towards architecture which is often seen as male-based and therefore professional. Although this is perhaps an over simplification, many will be aware of the emphasis placed on different areas of the creative medieval world by the contemporary one. But that is a discussion for another day.
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