The Medieval Review 17.11.04


Hyer, Maren Glegg and Jill Frederick, eds. Textiles, Text, Intertext. Essays in Honour of Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016. pp. 265. ISBN: 978-1-78327-073-6 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Valerie Garver
Northern Illinois University
vgarver@niu.edu

This volume of essays serves to honor Gale Owen-Crocker, and indeed it is her long interests in the fields of textiles, Anglo-Saxon texts, and interdisciplinary study of early medieval England that bind this collection together. After a brief biographical sketch by Maren Clegg Hyer, a recollection of Owen-Crocker's key role in developing the academic field of medieval textile studies by Robin Netherton, and a list of her publications, the essays appear organized into three sections titled "Textile," Text," and "Intertext." Readers can consult the table of contents to see the arrangement of chapters in the volume (available here: https://boydellandbrewer.com/textiles-text-intertext-hb.html), but this review will highlight some other connections among them and the ways they build from Owen-Crocker's scholarship. Each chapter is quite short, and some still show their origins as conference papers, but their brevity is often an advantage for it allows many of them to make convincing but succinct points.

Two chapters draw from the lexical projects that Owen-Crocker has co-directed. In her chapter "The Language of Dress and Textiles in Wills of the Old English Period," Louise Sylvester demonstrates, via comparison of Old English textile and dress vocabulary to late medieval examples, that Anglo-Saxon wills contain a rich range of terms for specific garments and cloths. The variety of Old English words demonstrates a concern with specific types of textiles, and the near absence of those terms in post-Conquest English almost certainly stems from their replacement by Anglo-Norman vocabulary. In another contribution, "Threads and Needles: The Use of Textiles for Medical Purposes," which relies on information from one of the same lexical projects, Christina Lee demonstrates the ample evidence for the use of textiles in medical procedures as well as is in magical-medical and religious-medical efforts in Anglo-Saxon England. Through comparison to the archeological record, she is able to suggest new ways to interpret material evidence of some textiles found in early graves, including arguing for the possible presence of bandages, wound packing materials, and protective amulets.

A model of the kind of the grounded and intellectually rigorous investigation of textiles that Owen-Crocker has promoted is the contribution by Elizabeth Coatsworth, "Opus What? The Textual History of Medieval Embroidery Terms and Their Relationship to the Surviving Embroideries c. 800-1400." Coatsworth usefully examines the history of the terms that a number of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars used to describe types of medieval embroidery and which are based greatly on a 1295 inventory from St. Paul's Cathedral in London. She indicates which terms appear in classical and early medieval sources and those that do not, thereby alluding to their possible origins. Equally she outlines the probable nature and form of these stitches or techniques, but she rightly cautions that this unusual inventory (for few inventories focused so much on technique) was the work of clerics who probably knew little about embroidery. The terms may not therefore reflect the ways embroiderers themselves described their own work.

Two contributions focus on a piece of great interest to Owen-Crocker--the Bayeux Tapestry. In "Intertextuality in the Bayeux Tapestry: The Form and Function of Dress and Clothing," Michael John Lewis examines garments in the Bayeux Tapestry, noting their many close parallels to manuscript art, which, he argues, likely served as a model for the tapestry's designer. Equally he notes where the depictions of clothing deviate from what is known of dress from grave goods. High status women likely wore jewelry in real life but not in the tapestry. Small details were difficult to embroider, so Lewis points out how the designer used other elements of clothing to signal social status, thereby aiding viewers in understanding the embroidery's narrative. In what is arguably the richest piece in the volume, "Birds of a Feather: Magpies in the Bayeux Tapestry?", Carol Neumann de Vegvar traces a change in the meanings of magpies in medieval literature and art from the twelfth century on, noting that their negative symbolic status was so strong by c. 1100 that it cannot have been a recent development. Despite relatively positive views of magpies in antiquity and the early Middle Ages, she notes that these birds serve as "Greek chorus" that haunts Harold throughout the tapestry, potentially noting his arrogance and dishonest acquisition of the crown and acting as harbingers of his doom. Although she is appropriately cautious in explaining the possible presence of magpies and their meaning, this reader is convinced of her arguments.

A number of contributors use arguments or points that Owen-Crocker has made as jumping off points. In her chapter "Text, Textile, Context: Aldhelm and Wordweaving," Maren Clegg Hyer explores further Owen-Crocker's argument that Aldhelm heavily used textile-related metaphors, word play, and references to cloth- and garment-making by focusing on just one example: wordweaving. She traces the classical and late antique influences upon Aldhelm in this regard as well as his own influence upon contemporary and later writers in England and on the continent. Donald Scragg, drawing from Owen-Crocker's work on the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry, wends his way through many marginal notes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in his "Old English in the Margins." Scragg notes that the sheer quantity of such notes in English indicates a greater number of writers in English than heretofore appreciated as well as a relatively high number of individuals who were able to read.

A number of the chapters read texts and their manuscript transmission closely. Marilina Cesario, in her chapter "Fyrenne Dracan in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" makes the case that the 793 entry on the sack of Lindisfarne that discusses highly unusual celestial phenomenon refers to the aurora borealis and may be an eleventh-century interpolation. Although she acknowledges that northern monasteries left textual records of the Northern Lights that year, she suggests that the connection between them and the disaster at Lindisfarne may date to the eleventh century when English writers took a strong interest in prognostics and when recent Scandinavian incursions in England made such a connection especially appealing. Much of her argument is based on analysis of the manuscript evidence for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but this chapter contains an error in relation to a different text, the Annals of St. Bertin (158). It was Charles the Bald, not his grandfather Charlemagne, who in 845 paid the Northmen 7000 pounds of silver to leave the Seine basin. In her chapter "Weaving and Interweaving: The Textual Traditions of Two of Ælfric's Supplementary Homilies," Joyce Hill unravels (pun intended) the textual weaving (her term) in two of Ælfric's sermons, demonstrating the depth and richness of the late antique and early medieval tradition on which he depended by determining the sources from which he drew directly. In some cases, these differ from the ultimate sources of interpretations that he included because he often relied on the writings of Bede, Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel, and Haimo of Auxerre who drew from earlier authorities themselves. This consideration builds effectively upon the arguments of those who have been advocating for the originality of the many early medieval writers who borrowed ideas and points from a range of authoritative sources.

Another chapter to study manuscripts closely is Elaine Treharne's "Invisible Things in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv." She examines the so-called Southwick Codex, a manuscript that was bound together with the Nowell Codex to comprise London BL Cotton Vitellius A.xv and which seems the poorer cousin of the two, for the Nowell Codex contained Beowulf. Treharne brings the Southwick Codex to bear on twelfth-century English manuscript production and literary interests and re-dates it to the second half of the twelfth century. In so doing, she indicates reasons why these two manuscripts seemed to go together. She argues that one purpose of the Southwick Codex appears to have been to create a practical record of England's literary past by including texts that were of interest to a twelfth-century audience.

Two pieces take up the issue of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon art and poetry. In "Weaving Words on the Ruthwell Cross," Catherine Karkov examines the ways individuals may have experienced the Ruthwell Cross, noting differences among vantage points, the ways the seasons may have affected the perception of the monumental stone cross which stood outdoors, and variations in understanding depending on the viewer. In sum, she situates the cross in its past context and considers it as woven into other experiences. Her approach draws explicitly from that of the anthropologist Tim Ingold and brings out new considerations of a well-studied object. Paul Szarmach suggests in "Fates of the Apostles and Tituli" that Cynewulf wrote the Fates of the Apostles on the basis of a series of panel paintings with tituli. Although he admits that he cannot prove such a connection, he makes a strong case for such a possibility and notes that it conforms to the way successful poems reflect and participate in a broad cultural milieu.

Two essays aim to offer new readings of familiar English texts. In "The Weft of War in the Exeter Book Riddles," Jill Frederick notes that Owen-Crocker's extensive work on textiles in the Anglo-Saxon world allows for a new reading of the four textile-related Anglo-Saxon riddles that suggests a fluidity between masculine and feminine roles. In the last chapter, "Redacting Harold Godwineson: the Vita Haroldi and William of Malmesbury," Martin Foys offers insightful readings of both the Harold in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum and the one in the anonymous early thirteenth-century Vita Haroldi. Although William's account of Harold Godwineson's death at Hastings became widely accepted and his history as a whole came to receive accolades for its balance and reliability, Foys shows that William may have included details of William's death for thematic and rhetorical reasons, offering some credence to the criticism of William's veracity by the author of the Vita Haroldi. Yet Foys notes that both texts, as well as virtually all post-Conquest accounts of Harold, conform to Anglo-Norman expectations and desires regardless of the differences among those depictions.

In sum, these essays offer a worthy and interconnected tribute to an influential scholar of Anglo-Saxon culture, reminding readers of the range of her interests and expertise. What unites these essays most clearly are the ways they draw from Gale Owen-Crocker's scholarship and mentorship and demonstrate how she brought together different source types, methods, and disciplinary questions to further the field of medieval studies more broadly. Anglo-Saxonists and scholars of medieval textiles will be especially interested in this volume, but many medievalists, especially art historians and literary specialists, will find the range of methodological concerns addressed in this volume useful.



Copyright (c) 2017 Valerie Garver



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