Leeds 2013 report 2: Female pleasure and social approval

I’m slowly working my way through discussing the sessions I attended at this year’s International Medieval Congress, but I want in this post to focus on some particularly interesting questions that one paper raised: Val Garver talking about “Material Culture, Pleasure, and Early Medieval Queenship”. This focused on Val’s current project on early medieval textile work, building on some of the material in her earlier book Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World. She was discussing the textile working carried out personally by Carolingian queens, which we know about both from texts and also sometimes from the original objects themselves, such as the Witgar Belt. And her question was a deceptively simple one: did queens take pleasure in such textile work?

Val started from a poem attributed to John Scotus Eriugena in which the empress Judith is described as “perfelix” when making a robe for Louis the Pious. In another poem, John praises Charles the Bald’s wife Ermentrude for her skills at textile work, describing her as like Athena or Arachne and saying that she thus “left no time empty for vices”. Val discussed several other texts and examples of such handiwork done personally by queens, but admitted that none talked unequivocally of pleasure: perfelix could mean “blessed” rather than “happy”. But she went on to argue for the possible pleasure queens and other elite women might have got from such needlework, both from the materials themselves (the feel of silk, the look of gold thread) and from the “flow” of practicing a skill they had mastered. They may not simply have been carrying out such work from a sense of duty.

Val was saying afterwards how she had sometimes met resistance from other scholars to the suggestion of queens taking pleasure in their work and I wanted to unpack some of the many levels of that. At one level, there’s the issue that what we’re reading in the sources is written by men, and we’re now rightly suspicious of what men tell us women are thinking or feeling. But I can also see Val’s point that women who were skilled in needlework would almost certainly have enjoyed practicing that skill.

However, the pleasure they took in such work was probably also affected by other factors. In particular, fine textile work was clearly a socially approved activity for elite Carolingian women and we can’t ignore that social approval is itself a source of pleasure for the vast majority of us: we want other people to appreciate what we’re doing, to win praise from them. Textile work was also one of the most gendered activities in the Middle Ages (and beyond): it is always women at all social levels, shown as doing it, not men. So the other face of social approval was almost certainly social disapproval. The second of John Scotus Eriugena’s poems that I mentioned above hints at this shadow side: the “bad” women who were too lazy to do needlework or who weren’t skilled at it. I don’t think that the Carolingian noblewomen who were skilled at textile work necessarily took conscious pleasure in the fact that they were better than others, that they needed other women to do less well in order for them to shine more brightly, but such implicit competition and self-glorification is very hard to avoid in any social group where a particular skill is valued. The writing groups and academic disciplines that I’ve been in are certainly prone to this more complex pleasure (and pain).

And since the influence of patriarchy in turn means that a particular skill (or lack of it) places women into a more general hierarchy of good/successful versus bad/failed, then pleasure gets implicated in that system. Maybe Judith and Ermentrude did simply take pleasure in their own skill, but it’s also likely that they enjoyed being “good women”, and at some (possibly subconscious) level that requires the existence of less good women or even “bad women”. It’s this entanglement of skill with approved femininity, I suspect, that still makes it difficult for female scholars to discuss the pleasure of crafts such as textile work. Those of us, like me, who aren’t skilled with a needle were often raised in cultures where that inability is taken as a wider failure of our womanhood. It’s hard to separate out our reactions to pleasure in craftwork from the wider social expectations that surround it.

Finally, Val’s paper raised another question in my mind about the changing nature of patriarchy, which is one of my current research interests. Was it easier for an elite woman in past times to be “perfelix” (very blessed/very happy) than it is now? Do modern Western forms of patriarchy increase discontent among elite women as well as those at lower social levels? Specifically, has the happiness of the skilled amateur needleworker changed over time?

It’s an intriguing question because of the unusually high levels of continuity in the practice of needlework by elite women over millennia. First of all, it’s an area of domestic life that hasn’t been substantially de-skilled by modern technology. And secondly, embroidery by privileged women has never been economically necessary. Luxury textiles have always been objects of trade: Charlemagne’s shroud was a patterned silk cloth from Byzantium. Medieval queens and modern hobbyists don’t need to sew in order to obtain beautiful cloths. So if the economic conditions of production haven’t much changed and nor has the underlying technique, what has altered?


Charlemagne’s shroud: woven rather than embroidered, but still very impressive

Capitalism has clearly brought some advances for the would-be happy embroiderer. More women have the money and leisure to do needlework as a hobby, if they choose to, and some of the materials available are clearly better than in medieval times, such as steel needles. More indirectly, good quality artificial light, spectacles and better nutrition and healthcare generally make skilled needlework physically easier for longer periods of time.

But against these gains, modern capitalism brings more psychic pressures. Firstly, there’s more of a conflict over socially approved values. I’ve talked before about the existence of two patriarchal systems in the modern West, and there’s also more public resistance both to patriarchy and to luxury consumption (at least in some circles). Enthusiastic needleworkers now potentially have to face criticism both that their craft is a reactionary waste of time and that their money could be better used for other purposes. (The latter is especially the case because Christian liturgical vestments remain an important outlet for textile skills).

I think there are also two other aspects of modern capitalism that may diminish the pleasure in needlecraft, as compared to earlier periods. One is the greater possibility of comparison, if not outright competition. The products of Queen Ermentrude’s needle would have been compared mainly with that produced by a relatively small circle of other women at court and perhaps a few well-connected nuns. Comparisons from further afield would have been impressionistic at best: a traveller’s opinion or the rare piece of work arriving from beyond the kingdom. In contrast, the advent of high-quality photography and particularly internet connections make instant and detailed comparison possible with the possibly superior skills of women around the world. It’s easy to see what we might aspire to creating with another time and talent, a vision that can be either inspiring or off-putting.

As well as such potentially global comparison of work, there is also the marketing impulse inherent in modern turbo-capitalism. I presume that embroiderers, as with every other interest group, are repeatedly assured that if they just buy this gadget and these new silks, or go on this course their work will look so much better. A lack must be created in consumers which producers can then fill.

Discontent with one’s own achievements is therefore baked into the modern world, just as flattery of aristocratic women’s needlework skills was inherent to early medieval courts. Needlework has always given genuine pleasure to some women, but the complexity of that pleasure is hard to separate from particular social environments.


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