The contemporary practice of distinguishing between the fine arts and the crafts originated in the reclassifying of painting, sculpture, and architecture as liberal arts during the Renaissance. The general exclusion of women from highly professionalized forms of art production like painting and sculpture, and the involvement of large numbers of women in craft production since the Renaissance, have solidified a hierarchical ordering of the visual arts. Feminism in the arts has protested against the distinction between “art” and “craft” grounded in their different materials, technical training, and education (see Chapter 12
). It has also rejected inscriptions of “feminine” sensibility on craft processes and materials, while pointing out the dangers of sanctifying an artisanal tradition by renaming it “art.” A contemporary return to pre-Renaissance values and a feudal division of labor is not possible, but we can look to the Middle Ages for models of artistic production that are not based on modern notions of artistic individuality.
Our knowledge about the daily lives and customs of women in the Middle Ages owes much to representations emphasizing their labor, as in a thirteenth-century manuscript illumination of a woman milking a cow.[13
] Similar scenes—carved onto the capitals of Romanesque and Gothic churches, embroidered into tapestries, and painted with jewel-like precision in the borders of manuscripts—offer a diurnal counterpart to the sacred imagery of the Virgin Mary and Child that dominates medieval visual culture. Whether laboring in the service of God or for daily subsistence, the lives of most medieval men and women were organized around work. Although the names of a number of powerful women who were the patrons and benefactors of such representations are known today, we know little of the authors, for few of them signed their names and the preservation of their individual biographies had no role to play in their productions.
The Christian Church, as the dominant force in Western medieval life, organized communication and culture, as well as religion and education. Assuming what Foucault called “the privileges of knowledge,” the Church exercised the religious and moral power which gave shape to human expression: “The need to take a direct part in spiritual life, in the work of salvation, in the truth which lies in the Book—all that was a struggle for a new subjectivity.” The Church’s hierarchical organization reinforced the class distinctions in society; its patriarchal dogma included a full set of theories on the natural inferiority of women which can be traced back to ancient Greece and the Old Testament. While medieval writers and thinkers discussed at length issues concerning women and their proper status in society, Christian representation was focused on the opposition of Eve and Mary, seducer and saint.
Recent careful work by social historians has illuminated the ambiguous situation of women between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries. Scholars have demonstrated significant differences in men’s and women’s rights to possess and inherit property, in their duties to pay homage and taxes, their civil and legal rights, and their rights to present evidence or serve as judges or priests. The confusion of sovereignty with personal property (the fief) contributed to the emergence of a number of powerful upper-class women at a time when most other women were restricted to the home and economically dependent on fathers, husbands, brothers, or sovereigns. The rigidity of social divisions, and the gulf that separated upper and lower classes, meant that upper-class women had more in common with the men of their class than with peasant women.
While women’s social roles remained circumscribed by a Christian ethic that stressed obedience and chastity, by the demands of maternal and domestic responsibility, and by the feudal legal system organized around the control of property, there is evidence that their lives, as those of men, were also shaped by economic and social forces outside ecclesiastic control, at least during the period of the early Middle Ages. Women’s lives do not appear to have been privatized and their social functions subordinated to, or defined by, their sexual capacities. Symbiotic modes of production and reproduction, no clearly defined physical boundaries between domestic life and public and economic activity, and the physical rigors of medieval life, encouraged women to take significant part in the management of family property and in general economic life. And there is evidence that they participated in all forms of cultural production from masonry and building to manuscript illuminating and embroidery.
Most art during this period was produced in monasteries. Access to education and the convent, the center of women’s intellectual and artistic life from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, was often determined by noble birth. Historians of the medieval Church divide its history into two periods separated by the late eleventh-century reforms of Pope Gregory VII (1073–85). The division is important: not only did the Gregorian Reform, which coincided with the development of feudal society, lead to a dramatically restricted role for women in the church and to the emergence of a new tradition of female mysticism, it also emphasized an ideology of divine womanhood which reached its apogee in the twelfth-century cult of the Virgin Mary. As most medieval painter nuns discussed in feminist art histories belong, in fact, to twelfth-century Germany and the particular political and social forces that defined an expanded place for educated women in that culture, it is necessary to distinguish between early and late medieval production.
The origins of female monasticism can be traced to the solitary ascetic Christian lives first led by male and female hermits in the third century. Antony is usually credited as the first of these hermits, but before he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, he placed his sister with a community of nuns in Alexandria. In AD 512 Bishop Caesarius of Aries founded a convent to be headed by his sister, Caesaria, and ordered that “Between psalms and fasts, vigils and readings, let the virgins of Christ copy holy books beautifully.” The foundation initiated a tradition of nuns as learned women, even as monasticism continued to convey in its writings a repugnance for sexuality and a distaste for women.
13 Illustration in a Bodleian Library manuscript, Ms 764, f. 41v.
Within the convent women had access to learning even though they were prohibited from teaching by St. Paul’s caution that “a woman must be a learner, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must a woman domineer over a man; she should be quiet.” From the sixth century on, Benedictine Rule (written by Benedict of Nursia [c. 480–547] shaped the community life of both men and women with two contradictory attitudes defining gender in religious life. While on the one hand, women were suspect as sexual threats to male chastity, on the other, spiritual commonality rather than gender differentiation was the ideal of the Benedictine Rule and hence of monasticism. During the Middle Ages the convent provided an alternative to marriage, offering a haven for nonconformists and female intellectuals. Although women shared equally with men in conversion to the faith and the learning that accompanied it, they were barred from the forms of power by which the Church exercised control: preaching, officiating in church, and becoming priests. Nevertheless, the Rule of Saint Benedict, sanctioned the founding of double monasteries in which monks and nuns lived communal lives and often worked side by side. Before their abolition by the Second Council of Nice in 787, many of these monasteries were run by abbesses famous for their learning, among them Anstrude of Laon, Gertrude of Nivelle, Bertille of Chelles, and Hilda of Hartlepool.
Although traditional art history has omitted women from discussions of the productions of the double monasteries, there is considerable evidence that by the eighth century powerful and learned abbesses from noble families ran scriptoria in which manuscripts were copied and illuminated. Little evidence remains as to how they were produced and it is impossible to identify whether the authors or scribes were male or female, yet we can assume from the existence of the double monasteries that both monks and nuns were involved in composing, copying, and illuminating manuscripts. Documents from the period reveal impressive lists of women’s names attached to manuscripts after AD 800 when the Convent of Chelles, under the direction of Charlemagne’s sister Gisela, produced thirteen volumes of manuscripts including a three-volume commentary on the Psalms signed by nine women scribes. Early medieval saints’ lives contain references to female illuminators and a letter written in 735 by St. Boniface to Eadberg, the abbess of Minster in Thanet, thanks her for sending him gifts of spiritual books, and requests that she “copy out for me in gold the epistles of my Lord Saint Peter....”
Despite the evidence of women active in British and Carolingian scriptoria, the first documented example of an extended cycle of miniatures worked on by a woman is Spanish. The most remarkable visionary manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries depict the Apocalyptic vision of St. John the Divine in the Book of Revelation. They include a group of manuscripts (there are about twenty-four known copies with illustrations) containing Commentaries on the Apocalypse compiled around 786 by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liebana (c
. 730–798). Their paintings are executed in the distinctive Mozarabic style of Spanish illumination produced by Christian artists strongly influenced by the Moslem formal and decorative tradition. The monk Emetrius worked on the so-called Beatus Apocalypse of Gerona
] This manuscript was written and illuminated in a monastery in the mountains of Léon in northwest Spain by a priest called Senior, who may have been assisted in the painting by Emetrius, whose hand has been identified from an earlier manuscript, and by a woman called Ende. Ende titles herself DEPINTRIX (paintress) and DEI AIUTRIX (helper of God), following the custom of noblewomen of the time. She has been identified with a school of illuminators and limners in medieval Spain which also included the poetess Leodegundia.
The Beatus Apocalypse mingles the fierce visionary and fantastic imagery of St. John’s vision with pure ornament and a careful attention to naturalistic detail. Most of the illustrations are in the flat decorative style characteristic of Mozarabic illumination with stylized figures set against broad bands of colors. In other places, rich colors and ornamented grounds are set off by delicate tones and subtle plays of line.
Although we shall perhaps never know the precise role played by Ende and her contemporaries in early medieval illuminations, the modern assumption that only monks worked in the scriptoria is clearly erroneous. By the tenth and eleventh centuries the development of feudalism and the effects of Church reform had begun to deprive women of powers they had exercised during the earlier Middle Ages. Only in Germany, where the Ottoman Empire fostered an unprecedented flowering of female intellectual and artistic culture, are we able to trace the work of individual women.
Despite the liabilities of feudalism elsewhere, under it women did not lose all legal rights, status, and economic power. Often they managed large estates while men were at war or occupied elsewhere on business; by the thirteenth century the rapid growth of commerce and city life had even produced a class of urban working women.
The decline of the monastery as a place of female culture and learning in the British Isles can be traced directly to the monastic reforms of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Tenth-century reform in England placed the king as guardian of the rule in monasteries and his queen as guardian and protector of the nunneries. No new abbacies for women were created. Instead, prioresses were placed in charge of smaller and less important priories subordinated to male abbots. The disappearance of the double monastery, often under the rule of a powerful abbess, gradually led to a diminished tradition of learning for women and a subsidiary role for the convent.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 introduced the feudal system into England. The events leading up to the Norman invasion, culminating in the defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings are the subject of the Bayeux Tapestry. Produced around 1086, it is not a tapestry at all but a silk on linen embroidery twenty inches high and more than two hundred feet long. The “tapestry” contains a sequence of separate scenes, each of them dominated by a few images organized to be read horizontally and identified by a running text in simple Latin. The friezelike figures are stiff and simplified, but there is drama and energy in the story of the journey across the sea, the preparations for battle and, finally, Harold’s defeat. It is dominated by three figures—Edward the Confessor, Harold who succeeded him, and William Duke of Normandy. The emphasis is on battles, bloodshed, and feasting. A wealth of naturalistic detail in the picturing of carts, boats, costumes, armor, and everyday life infuses the work with a convincing energy and has made the tapestry a rich source of information about the military aspects of medieval life.
The only surviving example of Romanesque political embroidery of the eleventh century, the Bayeux Tapestry has been called the “most important monument of secular art of the Middle Ages.” Yet its origins remain obscure, and the history of its production has been distorted by modern assumptions that medieval embroidery was an exclusively female occupation. A tradition identifying Queen Mathilda as the work’s main embroiderer can be traced at least to the early eighteenth century, even though there is absolutely no evidence for identifying her with the tapestry. In the nineteenth century, as Roszika Parker has shown, the legend of Queen Mathilda’s labor became the cornerstone of attempts by writers to confer aristocratic status on the art of needlework practiced by thousands of middle-class women. Recasting embroidery as an aristocratic pursuit, they presented Mathilda as a source of inspiration for women isolated in the home by nineteenth-century ideologies of bourgeois femininity. Parker is alone, however, in suggesting that the tapestry was produced in a professional embroidery workshop by male and female labor; most other historians believe that it was made at an estate or nunnery, possibly in Canterbury or Winchester where embroiderers had long enjoyed royal patronage, and probably by women, as contemporary documents include no mention of male needleworkers.
The Bayeux Tapestry’s narrative structure is close to that of the chansons de geste. Its actors are military heroes, its ...