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Saturday, May 19, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22c - Book Appreciation with Jeannelle M. Ferreira - (no transcript available)

(Originally aired 2018/05/19 - listen here)

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode Jeannelle M. Ferreira recommends some favorite queer historical novels:

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Monday, May 14, 2018 - 07:00

The field of medieval "queer studies" has included a fascination with possible erotic and sexual interpretations of religious imagery and language. Some of the interpretations, I confess, have always felt a bit far-fetched to me. But here we look at the writings of one particular religious woman, Hadewijch of Brabant, whose language is undeniably erotic and passionate, addressing the image of "Lady Minne", whose name reflects erotic rather than platonic love. And there is just enough confusion and ambiguity in how the figure of Minne is intertwined with Christ and with Hadewijch's disciples and students, that one gets a clear impression of using ecstatic religious language as a medium for expressing romantic desire between women. This provides a different angle on the idea of women's religious networks and communities as creating the opportunity for same-sex love. Rather than images of sex-starved nuns seeking erotic fulfillment, or concerns about "special friendships" developing into inappropriate closeness, what if some religious women considered their same-sex attractions to be a positive embodiment of the devotion they also felt for God?

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Full citation: 

Wiethaus, Ulrike. 2003. “Female Homoerotic Discourse and Religion in Medieval Germanic Culture” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4

The author looks at texts that can be read as homoerotic  addressed between religious women in medieval Germany. She specifically rejects the approach of treating women’s homoerotic experiences as equivalent to, or subsumed under, men’s experiences. After examining this type of literature in general, she applies that understanding to the writings of a specific woman who helped develop the concept of Christian bridal mysticism: Hadewijch of Brabant (early 13th century).

In a medieval religious context, a search for texts that fit a contemporary model of homoeroticism will turn up very little. Instead one must examine the social relations and power structures within which the texts are created to identify constraints on how women are able to express homoeroticism and how these feelings can be encoded in acceptable forms both as expression and resistance.

Hildegard of Bingen’s writings about homoeroticism demonstrate this conflict. On the one hand, she repeats the official condemnatory views prevalent in theological texts of the time, while her liturgical songs and personal correspondence, which were aimed at an exclusively female audience, express strong same-sex attachments and a homoerotic aesthetic.

Elite male writings set out the accepted views and opinions on female homoeroticism that could be expressed in standard theological texts. But genres that were predominantly composed by and for women found ways to explore more positive expressions of homoerotic experience. At the same time, these texts represent only a small fraction of the more elite educated female religious community and it is difficult to tell whether they reflect the experiences of less privileged women.

These woman-centered texts supply evidence for same-sex attachments within German women’s religious communities, expressed within creative and imaginative spiritual expressions that were often wrapped in layers of metaphor. Wiethaus cautions that we have no direct evidence whether the women who created these textual expressions also engaged in homoerotic sexual acts. For that matter, we can’t always know what types of acts they would have considered to be sexual.

Much of the homoerotic expression focuses on imagined spiritual figures including the Virgin Mary and Minne or “Lady Love”, a personification of divine ecstatic love which Hadewijch used regularly in her writing. This use of a female personification of a spiritual abstraction can make it difficult to determine whether Hadewijch’s writings express a spiritual experience or passionate attraction for a fellow religious woman. The female personification of Minne is also mapped onto the figure of Christ in some contexts, resulting in the bridal language associated with Christ being transformed into expressions of one woman courting and marrying one another.

Hadewijch’s writings were primarily pedagogical, exhorting her students regarding forms of spiritual experience. In format and meter, her writing draws heavily on secular love lyrics. Manuscripts of her verses and letters were circulated widely among religious houses in northern Germany and the Low Countries, indicating her fame as an authority and teacher.

Wiethaus reviews the official Christian theological opinions about gender and sex, and how attitudes toward female same-sex eroticism were driven by patriarchal principles and a focus on condemnation of usurping male roles and prerogatives. Homoeroticism (female and male) could only be envisioned within a heteronormative structure, where one partner was identified as the active “male” role and the other as the passive “female” role. Because gender hierarchy (male above female) was viewed as a theological principle, violations of that hierarchy in the context of homoeroticism were treated as religious crimes.

The most common rationale for condemning homosexuality was that it was “against nature”--a category that also covered a variety of other sex acts. But some authors called out specific acts and behavior, either as examples or as arguments. Hincmar of Reims (9th century) cited women’s use of “certain instruments” for sexual activity. Peter Abelard (12th century) argued that sex between women was sinful because God had created women’s genitals for the “use of men”. Although the details of penances often differentiated between male and female homosexuality, writers such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas placed them in the same conceptual category.  Homosexuality became associated with religious heresy by various means, and vocabulary shifted between the two senses.

Despite the theoretical equivalence of male and female homosexuals, penitential literature often specified lighter penalties for women, with unmarried girls or widows being punished less harshly than married women, but acts involving an artificial penis were considered the most serious. Specific references to female homosexuality in penitentials can be found in Theodore (ca. 670) and Bede (ca. 734).

Due to the association of homosexuality with heresy, capital penalties often specified death by burning, though some of the rare recorded cases involving women were carried out by drowning, as for Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477).

Secular literature tended to be less explicit on homoerotic topics. Although courtly literature includes many intense same-sex friendships between women, including visions of all-female utopias, even the idea that these relationships could involve sexual activity was avoided, in contrast to the detailed descriptions of trial records from a somewhat later date.

Moving from texts produced by male hierarchies (both clerical and secular) to texts authored by women, we find that discussions of physical same-sex attraction focus on kissing and caressing, not on the genital activity that gets the focus in male-authored works. Expressions of strong emotional attraction are common, while appreciation of physical attributes is more rare. The celibacy required of religious women might be one pressure against genital imagery, but spiritual writing was rife with heterosexual erotic imagery focused on the image of Christ as lover. When female religious authors touched on male homosexuality, then followed the party line in condemning sodomy.

The texts that most clearly express homoerotic sentiment between religious women are two (possibly three) rhymed love letters apparently written by and to nuns, dating to the 12th century. In form, they follow the conventions of love lyrics, lamenting the absence of the beloved and making references to physical attributes and suggestions of physical intimacy.

Wiethaus cautions that the letters may not literally indicate actual relationships (as opposed to being literary exercises) but neither should that interpretation be rejected. Even within some marginal theories that the poems were written by men in a female voice, there is an acknowledgement that they depict female same-sex love in a positive fashion.

The genres that women writers used most effectively to communicate with female audiences were letters, visionary writings, and devotional texts. These texts, as exemplified by the writings of Hadewijch, show a spectrum of women’s relationships, some featuring an exclusivity that is highlighted as suspicious in instructional manuals for nuns. But it is a recurring theme among elite female religious leaders to have a chosen confidante and companion whose chief attributes were faithfulness and a desire to be in close proximity to her friend. Within this context, there are blurred lines between mutual affection and same-sex desire.

Correspondence either between such confidantes or describing these relationships to others use heightened emotional language: “I would gladly have died for her”, “I never looked at her without experiencing true joy”, “I always went to her as if she were God Himself.”

Comparing these texts with the descriptions of female homoeroticism in male-authored literature, the conception of same-sex desire is radically different. Men discussed it in terms of abstract categories and genital acts, while women emphasize intense emotional experiences and attachments to a specific beloved individual.

The article concludes with an in-depth analysis of how Hadewijch’s writings develop an entirely new framework for expressing eroticized desire between women, adapting the bridal imagery of mysticism and blending explicit eroticism with spiritual imagery. Her life also illustrates a relationship-type seen for other religious women: the merging of an age-differentiated mentor-student bond into one involving an intense and eroticized bond.

One of the features of Hadewijch’s writings is the use of the allegorical figure of “Minne” (the word indicates romantic love--as in “Minnesinger”, the German equivalent of a troubadour--as contrasted with spiritual love). The figure of Minne appears in three roles: as a spiritual guide, as a symbol of love used to express female desire for another woman, and as an idealized alter ego for Hadewijch herself.

Hadewijch also employed heterosexual bridal imagery focused on Christ that was strongly erotic, and which sometimes shifts sideways into a more gender-ambiguous image, especially when emphasizing the equivalence and identity of the two lovers (worshipper and Christ). But “Lady Minne” is mentioned more often in Hadewijch’s writings than Christ and God combined, depicted as provoking an overwhelming and ecstatic emotion that was to be pursued and reveled in.

“...lightning is the light of order to show who Minne is and how she can receive and give--in the sweetness of clasping, in the fond embrace, in the sweet kiss, and in the heratfelt experience when Minne actually speaks. ‘I am the one who holds you in my embrace!’”  (There are many extensive quotations which continue this theme.)

Hadewijch’s letters to her female students provide evidence for certain specific attachments in language that evokes that of romantic love, in particular a woman named Sara. She exhorts them to “do everything with reliance on Minne” and expresses jealousy that they might turn away to other mentors. The blending of religious and personal emotions allowed Hadewijch to express same-sex desire “hidden in plain sight.” Sometimes shifts and ambiguity in reference blend Minne with her students, lending plausible deniability to passionate expressions:

I greet what I love
With my heart’s blood.
My senses wither
In the madness of Minne...
O dearly loved maiden
That I say so many things to you
Comes to me from fresh fidelity,
Under the deep touch of Minne...
I suffer, I strive after the height,
I suckle with my blood...
I tremble, I cling, I give...
Beloved, if I love a beloved,
Be you, Minne, my Beloved;
You gave yourself as Minne for your loved one’s sake...
O Minne, for Minne’s sake, grant that I,
Having become Minne, may know Minne wholly as Minne!

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Sunday, May 13, 2018 - 08:41

The Matter of Alchemy: Deciphering Medieval Practices

Organizer: Jennifer M. Rampling, Princeton Univ.

Presider: Peter M. Jones, King’s College, Univ. of Cambridge

Reading the Books of the Sages: Byzantine Hermeneutics of Ancient Alchemical Recipes Matteo Martelli, Univ. di Bologna

Byzantine alchemical texts present themselves as in a direct line from ancient sages, such as the 1st c treatise of Democritus containing works such as how to make gold, silver, and gemstones, or how to dye wool purple. Later texts often presented themselves as “rediscovering” or reinventing these techniques, usually accompanied by a citation of the “genealogy” of the text or techniques. Some alchemists such as 11th c Michael Psellus argued for the scientific, not magical, basis of their art, though the focus was still on creating gold. (He also discusses properties of gemstones.) Psellus collected 11 recipes for making gold and ascribed them to Democritus. Many collections of prior works were available to him, as a basis for his own experiments. Psellus was also interested in the making of precious stones and making pearls. E.g. Parisinus gr. 2325 13th c ms on “Deep Tincture of Stones, Emeralds, Rubies and Jacinths from the Book Taken from the Sancta Sanctorum of the Temples”. This work covered issues such as the identification of single ingredients, the interpretation of specific terminology, and discussions of methodological issues. We now look at a specific recipe.

”Take some komaris, which is difficult to find -- Persians and Egyptians give it the name of tálak, others the name of talák -- a half ounce; sulfer, a half ounce; water of untouched sulfur, 18 ounces; dilute the komaris and mix it with mercury; put the substance in a small glass vial and keep it.” The substance “komaris” appears in several different grammatical forms (or perhaps variants) and appears in several recipes. But what is it? Modern scholars point to the root of a plant Comarum palustre. But the Arabic equivalent suggested in the ms is “talc, talcum powder”, suggesting an entirely different substance. Elsewhere, komaron is glossed as “aphroselenon” (moon foam) as a cryptic identifier. The text now looks deeply into what the nature of this substance is. Does it come from multiple substances or is it a single species? Democritus says it is wine dregs and egg white and that you dilute it and rub it on a stone to turn it into a pearl. No specific textual citation for this is given, but it can be narrowed down based on the topic to a now lost volume surviving in Syriac translation. In this Syriac version, “komaris” (from Scythia) is a substance that is put into quicklime, mixed with wine dregs, and then rubbed on the stone you want to turn into a pearl. [Note that the actual nature of komaris is not indicated.] So is komaron the same thing as moon foam, or is it a separate substance that is combined with moon foam for the process? Or is the multiplicity of names and substances simply an accumulation of successive glosses and explanations?

“The Secret of Salt”: Salts and Their Use in Medieval Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Alchemy Gabriele Ferrario, Johns Hopkins Univ.

Interpreting the nature of the substances referenced in alchemical texts is hampered by the use of obscuring alias as well as a different conception of the nature of substances between the writers of the texts and modern chemical theory. Substances such as sulfer and mercury had a symbolic importance that went beyond their chemical substance, and alchemy treated them as creating other substances by means of manipulating the proportions. this paper looks at the category of salts as used in alchemical processes. Despite being less important symbolically, the proper understanding and manipulation of salts was essential to successful alchemical processes. Looking specifically at the writings of Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi. [Sorry for omitting the diacritics.] Al-Razi is said to have complied his text when reaching the end of his life when he wanted to preserve his knowledge. The contents first cover substances, then equipment, then operations. These operations are described in reference to the primary substances defined and described in the first section. Al-Razi describes 11 salts: weet (kitchen) salt, bitter salt, Andarani salt, Tabarzad salt, Nifti salt, Indian salt, egg salt, alkali salt, urine salt, lime salt, Oak ashes salt. Several of these names refer to the geographic origin but give no indication of the nature. E.g. Andarani salt, which is described as coming from a specific location, but the name is a corruption of a simple description. “Nifti salt” seems to refer to the act of splitting with an axe, suggesting a large crystal structure, but is also called “black salt”. The difficulty alchemists had in obtaining the correct ingredients derives from discontinuity in the knowledge of what these terms referred to. Later interpreters often worked backwards experimentally from the described results to identify which ingredients would produce those effects. In a later Arabic treatise “On alums and salts” we see many brief recipes that follow the same linguistic formulas as Al-Razi, hence the tendency of some translators to ascribe it to him. Latin translations of “On Alums and Salts” appear in the 14-15th centuries, as well as an Italian Hebrew translation from teh 16th century. All these point to the importance and fame of the Arabic text. The Hebrew translation has many translator’s interjections “this means” or “it seems to me” suggesting an experimenter’s commentary attempting to add value to the translation.

So what does this text say about salts? In a long discussion of the nature and varieties of salts, much of the description implies ordinary “kitchen salt”, though varieties are described as Indian, red, lime, bitter, compact, and references to geographic origin. Salt is treated as a purifying agent. The author has been trying to trace references to salt in alchemical fragments in the Cairo geniza. Most of them are recipes that can probably be traced back to translations of Al-Razi.

Getting Blood from the Stone: Alchemy as Decipherment in Medieval England Jennifer M. Rampling

In 1403-4 the alchemical production of precious metals was outlawed in England to prevent adulteration of the money supply. But at this time, an alchemist named Morton set up a workshop at Hatfield Peverel for practical production of precious metals, illustrating the conflict between alchemy as philosophical practice versus alchemy as craft. The unfortunate Morton ended up in court in violation of the aforementioned statue. This paper looks at who English alchemists talked about their ingredients. These included not only chemical substances, but also biological substances as well as salts and alums. The philosophy/craft distinction became manifested in a differential focus on metallic substances versus a broader range of natural ingredients. That is pure Aristotelian philosophy could be expressed in the pure “souls” of metals and their transformations. But this metal-based process was problematic in that it began with precious metals and therefore was expensive [and presumably, less attractive to patrons]. There was also a problem in the long manuscript tradition that included the wider descriptions of biological/natural substances. The philosophical tradition now begins to argue that references to ingredients like “eggs” or “blood” were meant only allegorically or to conceal the truth from the unlearned, and actually referred to the pure metals. The philosophical alchemists might distance themselves from the (illegal) craft-based approach, but the latter continued in popularity, focusing on “cookbook” style recipes with material goals. Getting back to Morton, although he allied himself with the philosophical alchemists, his own experimental writings included the broader non-metallic ingredient set. This is not the only example of conflict between alchemical philosophy and alchemical practice. As in the Pseudo-Ramon Llull Practica Testamenti which begins with a philosophical framing that uses an alphabetic mnemonic for ingredients but then includes not only the metallic mercury, but vitriol azoqueus, saltpeter, which then combine to form a “sticking menstruum”. [We now see the result of the paper author’s own experiments to reproduce some of these recipes.] The obscurity of texts such as this in a real sense drive experimentation, as the words themselves were insufficient for clear identification. This type of “translation” of supposedly allegorical terms, can be seen full circle in “practical” alchemists concluding that references to gold and silver as alchemical ingredients were themselves allegorical rather than literal references. This then drove further experimentation to identify what ingredients those “allegorical metals” were actually referring to. Philosophy might dictate alchemical discourse, but rarely succeeded in limiting practice.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 17:06

This year's book haul isn't as extensive as the usual. Just like for papers, the topics coming out of publishers run in cycles, and I guess we're just at a low cycle for the topics I'm currently interested in. Due to the weird interface issues I'm having with the website, I'm not going to try to post cover images this time. So here's what I bought:

Ferguson, Gary. 2016. Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. ISBN 9778-1-5017-0237-2

Obviously this is at least tangentially related to the LHMP, though the content is overwhelmingly male-oriented. The book primarily focuses on one particular marriage ceremony and the community of men involved in it, but there is a more extensive consideration of the social and conceptual context. I've been aware of this book since it was published but when there was more competition for my shopping dollars last year it didn't make the cut.

Netherton, Robin and Gale R. Owen-Crocker eds. 2018. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 14. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-308-9

This is a regular purchase every year. Assorted articles on clothing and textile related topics. This year's volume includes a catalog of Byzantine and Oriental silk textiles found in early medieval Denmark, a look at late medieval female hairstyles that appear to involve depillitation, and yet one more assault on the question of exactly what the conceptual structure of the French Hood is.

Morgan, Faith Pennick. 2018. Dress and Personal Appearance in Late Antiquity Brill, Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-34395-5

I'm still a sucker for a new book on surviving garments from the Roman empire, even though I've more or less moved on from my deep focus on surviving garments. But surviving garments can still tug my heartstrings sufficiently that I'll also shell out for...

Coatsworth, Elizabeth and Gale Owen-Crocker. 2018. Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. Brill, Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-35216-2

This is an in-depth look at 100 specific garments or accessories that illustrate interesting features not only of the clothing themselves but of the circumstances of survival.

Skinner, Patricia ed. 2018. The Welsh and the Medieval World: Travel, Migration and Exile. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-78683-188-0

A fascinating study of medieval Welsh interactions with the larger European world. One of these days I really will do something creative again with my Welsh interests.

Fonte, Moderata (Virginia Cox, ed.). 2018. The Merits of Women Whereis is Revealed their Nobility and their Superiority to Men. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 9780226550633

An edition of a late 16th century Italian feminist treatise. The bookseller said it was a very popular purchase and I can see that it will be a fun read. (Alas, it's being shipped so I can't use it as my plane reading on my return trip.)

And that's it for this year. Not my usual super-abundance, but maybe that means I'll get caught up with reading some of the book I've brought home in previous years.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 13:44

Last year there were a number of fascinating sessions on magic and occultism in the Islamicate medieval world. I’m still gathering up deep background on this topic for future fiction projects, and this one really caught my eye.

Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World II: Arabic and Persian

Sponsor: Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; Societas Magica

Organizer: Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Univ. of South Carolina

Presider: Liana Saif, Univ. of Oxford

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Hidden Secret and Islamic Occult Soteriology Michael Noble, Warburg Institute

Speaking about an early 13th century scholar. His studies included astrological themes and the creation of talismanic objects that synthesized three disciplines of natural philosophy: astrology, medicine, and spiritual discipline? [I missed the third--I’m having a little trouble hearing the speaker]. The practitioner must first establish a balanced spiritual discipline to create a connection with [???] then the following of a number of rituals to establish a connection with the desired astrological entity, then a talisman is created from materials attuned to the particular heavenly bodies being invoked. The completion of the ritual represents perfection of the soul. In theory, this discipline was not tied to any particular theology. Razi was interested in the basis for human psychic connections with the celestial spheres that enabled this process to achieve magical outcomes. This understanding draws on Avicennian philosophy regarding mystical visions. Access to these sorts of visions or abilities can be innate or can be achieved through spiritual training.

A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Al-Sakkaki’s Thirteenth-Century Complete Book Emily Selove, Univ. of Exeter

The speaker suggests a modified title for the book is “The book of the Complete One.” Al-Sakkhaki is better known as a grammarian, but this handbook ties together magical aspects of language to his better known reputation. There are questions about authorship as the book is in Middle Arabic rather than scholarly Arabic, though this could be explained by its nature as an informal handbook. The contents are an assortment of spells to create effects or control supernatural beings, including the summoning of demons. An example is shown of a spell that is functionally a cookbook recipe for a stuffed chicken, but with added requirements: a black chicken and signs included to create the magical effect (I missed the details but something like achieving a desire?).The text includes diagrams for talismanic spells -- such as one to cause hatred between friends. In three manuscripts specific talismanic diagrams are reproduced with extreme faithfulness. [This paper seems to be something of an informal guided tour through the manuscript rather than a specific thesis about it.] We get a digression about how excerpts from these spells are circulating on the internet, evidently describing current folk-magic use. The avoidance of Al-Sakkaki’s magical pursuits when discussing his work, it is suggested, is due to embarrassment about the magical field in general. We now digress into imagery about paradisical banquets in the afterlife and rituals involving cups and beautiful young boys. [I’m losing the thread here.] A discussion of how the omission of Arabic diacritics (the vowel marks -- not sure about the technical term) renders a book of spells difficult to decipher, but may also be to render them “safe” on the page? More on connections between historic magical texts and modern magical practice found in online contexts. [The manuscript sounds fascinating, but I felt the presentation was more in the mode of “look at all this weird medieval stuff”.]

“If you don’t learn alchemy, you’ll learn eloquence”: The Golden Slivers by Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s Nicholas G. Harris, Univ. of Pennsylvania

This is a lengthy poetry collection that was considered both an example of poetic excellence as well as a collection of alchemical wisdom. 43 odes, successively using every letter of the Arabic alphabet as a rhyme letter. The meter is formal, one typically used for epics. Alchemical poetry was an established poetic genre, crossing multiple themes and forms. Commentaries and expansions on the work speak to its reception, and a repeated theme is that even if you fail to learn alchemy from the poem, you will definitely learn eloquence and poetry. In the 14th century, the works of al-Jildaki created a “bottleneck” in the Arabic alchemical tradition, whereby most writing subsequent to him is based on his work., including his commentaries on earlier works such as the one considered here, which Jildaki praised highly. Currently a critical edition of this text is being prepared and will be available soon. We conclude with some questions about the author of the work. He seems to have been mentioned and praised by a number of contemporaries as a preacher and Quranic expert, but his poetic works seem to be mentioned only after his death. (?) But the early 15th century historian Ibn Khaldun, known for his anti-occult opinions, muddies the waters by deriding Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s as an alchemist, while praising him under another name for his religious scholarship, leading to theories that they were two different people.

Kāshifī’s Qasimian Secrets: The Safavid Imperialization of a Timurid Manual of Magic Matthew Melvin-Koushki

We’re concerned here with two of the “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical world in the 15-1th century. With a brief digression on modern political magic movements to bind and block the actions of certain contemporary figures, we come to the topic of what “political magic” means in a medieval context. For example a spell “to remove any ruler you wish.” You inscribe a verse on one side of an object, a picture of the target on the other side, then bury it. But the verse is oddly non-Quranic but is rather anti-Trinitarian in form, using the rejection of Christian theology as the medium of rejecting the ruler. In the relevant historic period, Islamic sovereigns were seeing a unified way to control the world, while scholars sought means for controlling the sovereigns. At the same time, Western cultures turned to the task of rooting out and eliminating occult forces in politics, in contrast to a more aligned east/west approach in previous eras. Another distinction is the shift to printed occult treatises in the west, whereas the Islamic world viewed manuscript as an essential aspect of the social role of books. [A slide lists eight titles which were “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical literary world.] The texts considered here concern numerology and lettrisim (the alphabetic equivalent of numerology). These texts transcended conflicts between Islamic sects, being written by Sufi Sunni authors, but used by Shi’a rulers as the basis for imperial political occultism. [I think we’re going to get more details of Islamic historical political conflict than I’ll be able to follow.] The political nature of these texts include spells to control and influence rulers, controlling the emotions and reactions of kings, and elevating the reputation and influence of the practitioner within the political sphere, with an expectation that the practitioner will be a courtier or member of the bureaucracy.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 08:15

Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies

Sponsor: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS)

Organizer: M. W. Bychowski, Case Western Reserve Univ.

Presider: Micah Goodrich, Univ. of Connecticut

That Detestable, Unmentionable, and Ignominious Vice: Trans Women and Sex Work in Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Perspectives Alina Boyden, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison

The paper will be centering around the case of John Rykener (which the speaker explicitly notes she doesn’t feel the need to review for this audience - but for my readers who may need background try this). The historic examples will be compared with modern anthropological studies of groups like Hijras in India, with a consideration of how self-identity may shift within a stable group, either creating or erasing particular concepts of gender identity. Consider viewing gender identity as a community of practice rather than a community of self-identity. As Hijras shift to identifying as trans women, does that reflect a different identity or simply a different framing a stable identity? If we look for self-identification as “trans women” in history, we look in vain, but if we look for individuals or groups that share a community of practice with modern trans women, then the search is more fruitful. Is this a valid approach? John/Eleanor Rykener shares a number of “practices” with certain modern communities of trans women, such as the self-selection of a relatively unusual name of high status. Rykener lived as a woman for at least a portion of the time and worked in a profession (embroiderer) that is strongly female-identified, in addition to being a sex worker. From Rykener’s court record we can interpret that she embodied other aspects of female behavior than these. But in contrast to modern communities of trans women, Rykener expressed other differences, such as bisexuality. [Note: the paper was presented very rapidly, so I wasn’t able to note down many of the details.]

Trans Knights, Then and Now Ced Block, Independent Scholar

A pop culture look at the representation of transgender knights in medieval and pseudo-medieval contexts. It is only the beginnings of an exploration of the topic. Criteria for including modern stories: must have trans-coded character, “knightly” or more broadly “good-aligned melee fighter”, widely available in American media primarily comics but including video games. Texts include the medieval Le Roman de Silence and Yde et Olive and two modern texts Rat Queens (graphic novel) and Dragon Age Inquisition (game). These characters share the properties of being supremely competent fighters, over-compensation of gender in terms both of performance of gender and of the strongly gendered reaction of other characters to the knight, most of the stories deal with a magical transition, whether of physiological sex (as for Yde) or of gendered physical attributes (as for Silence). This last distracts away from a generally accessible performance of gender to a focus on an impossible standard of physical transformation. The characters also mostly have an anxiety around sexuality and sexual performance, even in a context (Dragon Age) where variety of sexual preference itself is taken for granted. Transgressive elements that are maintained through out the four texts include a joy in living a trans life and choosing one’s own path. So what’s the connection of knighthood? Is it because of being the epitome of masculinity? Only for the trans-masculine characters, whereas in modern pop culture it’s more common for the trans knights to be women. What about knighthood as a high standard of social norms? In this context successful performance of knighthood validates trans identity as a positive non-threatening contribution to the social order. Future directions: want to expand to images of Silence and Yde and add more secondary sources.

Radical Pedagogy and New Medievalisms: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and the Medieval Imaginary Nicholas Hoffman, Ohio State Univ.; J* E*, Ohio State Univ.

[Note: one of the presenters has requested that I not include their name.] The paper focuses on two modern transgender activists in the context of a hagiographic approach. Both women were activists in and after the Stonewall riots, moving on from Stonewall to further trans-related activism. Both have been celebrated by the culture in ways reminiscent of a medieval approach to sainthood. Both women were renowned for the material as well as psychological support given to their communities. Johnson was described in her lifetime in the language of hagiography, drawing from the concepts a variety of religious traditions. Johnson participated in public religious practices, in several different traditions (both Christian and non-Christian). Often she participated in ecstatic performance which was treated as mental illness, resulting in involuntary treatments. Rivera participated in a synthetic liturgy drawing from Santeria and Catholic traditions, with rituals often focused on the everyday protective needs of trans women. The way that iconic saint-like figures strongly echoes a medieval dynamic of folk veneration, as contrasted with the formal liturgy of Catholic hagiography. In summary, the paper calls for using an understanding of a medievalist approach to life narratives as a framework for understanding medievalism in the modern world. As contrasted, for example, with the pop culture framing of medievalism as violent primativism (as in Game of Thrones) that contributes to reactionary and fascist understandings of the past.

The Future of Medieval Transgender Studies M. W. Bychowski

The story of the Loathly Lady (from the Wife of Bath’s tale) provides an allegory for the future of transgender studies: will the relationship between trans studies and the academy go for the loathly or lovely lady, for begrudging truth or superficial entertainment? Must transgender studies be “un-transed” in order to be included in medieval studies? How are transgender studies affected by being primarily filtered through cis researchers? How is the topic affected by the tension between homosexual and transgender readings of the same historical data? A call to action for trans researchers to identify trans readings and trans understandings of the past that may be overlooked or outright denied and erased by cisgender scholars. In support of this, cis members of the academy must support the presence, agency, and security of their trans compatriots. We must embrace multiplicity and diversity because just as there is no one way to be trans in the presence, we must accept that there was no one way to be trans in the past.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22b - Interview with Jeannelle M. Ferreira - (transcript not available)

(Originally aired 2018/05/12 - listen here)

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about

  • The attractions of the Regency romance
  • Jeannelle’s earlier works, especially a novel set in the Vilna ghetto during WWII
  • Jewish influences in her writing
  • Jeannelle’s background as a student of history
  • Sexuality and PTSD in the Regency era
  • The National Trust’s website on queer history in the UK
  • Finding queer-coded characters in childhood favorite books
  • Researching war in Waterloo diaries of British soldiers
  • The path through British historical YA fiction that leads to a study of imperial and colonial history
  • Horses and swords--it always comes back to horses and swords
  • Future projects: more about Nora and Harriet, gender-bending Kit Marlowe, World War I flying aces, and lesbian pirates

Publications mentioned:

More info



  • @JeannelleWrites
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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 13:53

Dress and Textiles III: New Analyses of Old Evidence

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion)

Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF

Presider: Robin Netherton

Scarlet Blue: Elite versus Peasantish Clothing in Nordic Ballads Sandra B. Straubhaar, Univ. of Texas–Austin

Not talking about sagas here but sung ballads, usually used for dancing. They often have connections to rhymed metrical romances. Today’s example is the ballad about Ramund the Young. Ramund is a hero of lowly origins. Before he can go out on an adventure, he must gain a set of clothing from a female figure (mother, girlfriend, queen, etc.). His clothes are depicted as ridiculously large. The general outline of his adventures is: Ramund comes form the countryside to court in “peasantish clothing” and bust be properly outfitted to go out and battle giants or trolls. There are dozens of variants of the Ramund ballad. We now get a catalog and classification of the ballad variants. [We get a Danish rock band illustration of one stanza.] The opening motif is that Ramund must be given better clothes than he has to beome a better man. He is offered rough clothes of “blue bast and leather” and rejects them and asks for better, then he’s offered better clothes (silk and samite). The various sets of clothing are desribed in terms of material and color, though evidently not cut/type. Collating the descriptions, we seem to get the impression that peasants wear coarse blue clothing, while nobles wear scarlet/red. But looking at a variant, “blue” (from “blågarn” blue yarn) may be an adaptation of “blorgarn” meaning “bast yarn” that is, a coarse plant fiber. Other versions specify the poor clothing as “ugly weaving” made of nettles and root fibers, compared to the better clothing of scarlet. Another specifies nettle cloth which is rejected in favor of the king’s daughter making him clothing of silk. In one version, the “scarlet” cloth is expanded to “scarlet red”, for “scarlet” comes in a number of different colors, including blue. (Scarlet blue occurs in other unrelated ballads as a noble fabric.) We also get “scarlet green” for a cloak. And “scarlet white” for a page’s or servant’s clothing. But in general, a combination of scarlet green and scarlet red indicates rich clothing (or maybe they just provide useful rhymes). Or you can add in also scarlet blue with yet another rhyme option. Behind all this, of course, is the origin of “scarlet” as a type of luxury fabric, not a color. The word as used in the Scandinavian languages may have more than one origin, either from Arabic siklat (for a decorated fabric) or for OHG scarlachen for a shaved/shorn fabric. Ramund’s final acquisition after the main clothes are sorted out is appropriate trousers, where he needs fifty ells or more of cloth to cover his frame. So how much information on medieval clothing cut can be retrieved from these ballads? Very little, though possibly some information on color symbolism.

Hemp and Hemp Cloth in the Medieval Rus Lands Heidi Sherman, Univ. of Wisconsin–Green Bay

This speaker was not able to attend due to her department getting a major state award.

The Tree of Jesse and the Royal Adulterers: An Examination of Two Fourteenth-Century German Appliqued Hangings Lisa Evans, Independent Scholar

Late 14th c appliquéd tapestry of the Tree of Jesse, similar to a tapestry in the V&A similar in technique but depicting Tristan. This paper will compare the two to determine if they are connected in origin. Appliqué is well suited to large public display textiles as the labor is much less than for embroidery. The tree of Jesse motif shows the genealogy of Christ depicted as a literal “family tree” springing from the sleeping figure of Jesse. There is a large central rectangle in deep blue with the tree motif itself surrounded by a border in red with floral motifs. The central panel is a single piece of fabric while the border is crudely pieced of multiple pieces. The designs are of multiple colors of wool couched down with thin strips of gilded leather and are lightly padded. The human figures show no signs of embroidered facial features. Among the floral motifs filling in the background there are also captions in blackletter, also done with appliqué. Many of the figures have gold crowns also made of gilt leather. The depicted prophets wear clothing contemporary to the work. The border has enthroned kings associated with the letter S and unicorn head motifs. Except for a section of wear that may represent a fold, the work is in excellent condition and the colors are little faced. The V&A Tristan hanging is cut down from its original size (maybe a quarter of the original size). Despite many stylistic similarities, the author argues that the two works are only coincidentally similar and unrelated. The human figures are shown in arcades, with the scenes distinguished by different color background fabrics. The materials are similar to the Jesse piece (wool with appliqué done using gilded leather strips). The stitching, however, is not quite as fine. The clothing is in a different style, being more fitted. The work is more damaged than the Jesse piece, being faded and worn. Unlike the Jesse piece, very little is known about the Tristan piece due to its ownership history. The previous owner, Franz Bock, was an antiquarian collector rather than a conservator and notorious for modifying or separating pieces for distribution or display. The Tristan piece may have had a twin in different materials but a similar technique and with similar layout, that was described in the 1930s but is now lost.

Teletta: Discovering the Origins of This Late Renaissance Italian Textile Dawn A. Maneval, Independent Scholar

”Teletta” is a type of cloth of gold. This paper is intended to identify the structure and origin of textiles described with this term. Due to trade, silk textiles were often known by “international” names that don’t always indicate origin clearly. Various types of records may provide evidence: account books, inventories, guild regulations. Dictionaries define teletta as a cloth woven primarily with gold or silver. Textile scholarship defines it as a tabby weave of silk with pattern wefts of metal threads. But its unclear how the scholars came up with this definition. Etymologically, the word is a diminutive of “tela”. But “tela” is a general term for cloth. It can mean a tabby weave, but has other meanings. It can mean a lightweight silk, a drawn-wife silk, or a type of a griccia velvet (referring to a type of design). A griccia velvets were extreme luxury fabrics associated with the wealthy and powerful. A griccia refers to an asymmetric design in the weave. There was no symmetric repetition therefore they were more laborious to create. Usually created as a figured or voided velvet. Surviving examples of these have pile and a taffeta (tabby) ground in the “voided” areas. These velvets were also enriched with metal threads (metal lamina spun around a silk core). The metal thread could either be used in loops among the pile, or as brocading wefts. The paper now analyzes how the historical record for the use of the word teletta aligns with the various proposed features/definitions in the academic definition. This analysis eliminates the proposed “ground of the a griccia velvet” definition as not matching the word’s use. The definition as a “lightweight silk”. But again, this does not align with the term’s use. Another possible definition is “cloth using drawn-wire for cloth of gold. This technique can be used in combination with other techniques such as loops and brocading and pile. If teletta refers only to the use of drawn wire in a silk fabric, then it does align with the uses of the word in historic sources. The problem is that we don’t have enough clear correspondences of surviving items and a contemporary description of the fabric as teletta that could confirm the conclusion.

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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 11:57

Dress and Textiles II: Metaphor and Materiality

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion); Pearl-Poet Society<?p>

Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF<?p>

Presider: Monica L. Wright, Univ. of Louisiana–Lafayette

Seeing Beyond the Color: The Green Knight’s Attire Kimberly Jack, Athens State Univ.

Scholarship on the Green Knight’s appearance tends to focus solely on the color itself. This paper looks at other descriptions of the knight’s appearance, clothing, and horse. (This paper and the following one work together to look at this topic.) There is a conventional head-to-toe description when the knight enters the hall, focusing on physique, clothing, hair, horse, and then a “negative’ description or armor, focusing on what he doesn’t wear. At first the description focuses on the knight’s immensity, but then backs off an clearly identifies him as a man. Not disfigured but well-formed. The only “monstrous” aspect is the green color. Then we get the clothing description: a tailored cote, well-fitted hose (all of green). This is high fashion, tight and fitted tot he body and revealing the legs. A fur-lined mantle and hood, Gold spurs on silk, richly barred (unclear if striped or with metal bars), and “shoeless” not meaning with no shoes at all, but not wearing boots, indicating peaceful intention. A barred belt with rich stones. His array on himself and his saddle was worked and embroidered with birds and (butter)flies of green and gold. Butterflies are a symbol of distraction, aimless wandering, and unimportance. The horse’s equipment include pendants, green enamel work on his bridle and stirrups. The horse is green and is enormous like his rider, perfectly suited to him. Now we move to hair, both of the rider and horse. Their hair match: fair, fanned locks over his shoulders, his beard like a bush, both trimmed to just above his elbows. But this is not the description of a wild man: there is an emphasis on how it is well-trimmed and luxurious, falling like a royal “capados” (hood/mail coif). The horse’s mane is then compared back to the knight’s hair, curled, combed and adorned with green bands with precious stones, his docked tail is similarly adorned. Then we have a description of absent armor: no helm, hauberk, plate, spear, nor shield. This is used to emphasize his peaceful intention. All he carries is a holly branch and an ax adorned with ornaments. We now move on to Part 2.

Greening the Knight: Costumes and Defying Social Context in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Kara Larson Maloney, Canisius College

She refers to a previous paper in which she looked at how Gawain’s disrobing depicted the removal of his virtues. Now she looks at the humanity of the Green Knight, while the green color frees him from ordinary limits of humanity. The Knight is also Sir Bertilak who is the tool of Morgaine in a ruse against Guinevere. The Green Knight is not himself a transformer, but has been chosen by Morgaine for her purpose. Green symbolized a variety of perilous concepts. We get a catalog of various supernatural green characters such as the greenman, the holly king, etc. etc. But again the Green Knight does not have the features of a “wild man”, diverging from the usual greenman representation. In this bridging function, he defies the usual rules of representation and exists in a liminal space between the court and the wild. This ties in with the use of the embroidered birds and butterflies. The extended elaborate description scenes overwhelm the senses with contradictory input., not only for the reader, but for Gawain within the narrative, who also represents a dual world of court and wild. We now get a catalog of various theories of what the Green Knight may be intended to symbolize in this context. Much of it contradictory. But overall the knight is meant to be a rebuke to Arthur’s court. There is a digression into the relationship between silk work and prostitutes, that may have some connection with the featured embroidery on the Knight’s garb? Or more neutrally, embroidery as women’s work and women’s authorship (relating tack to Morgaine’s authorship of the Green Knight’s adventure). Many pop culture digressions on green figures.

The Clothing of the Uncorruptible: Examining the Wardrobe of the Pearl-Poet Jessica Troy, Univ. of New Mexico

The various purposes and symbolism of clothing (vs nakedness). Example from Bisclavret wehre clothing is the essence of humanity for the werewolf. In the Pearl, Green Knight, and Erkenwald clothing is used strategically to communicate a variety of characteristics about the characters. Color had symbolic, economic, and personal meaning. Clothing situates the wearer within society. The most outstanding property of the Green Knight is his ability to stay alive after being decapitated, tying in with the symbolism of green for rebirth, life, etc. The green girdle given to Gawain is meant to be a symbol of the same property, except for Gawain’s behavioral failure. Clothing is supposed to match inner reality. St. Erkenwald involves the incorruptible corpse of a pagan judge discovered during building. The corpse animates and tells his tale. Before St. Erkenwald gets involved, we get a description of the corpse: beautiful rich gold, with pearls and gold, a mantle trimmed with miniver, a crown and scepter, his clothes were clean and spotless with no mold or moth holes, the colors are bright as if just dyed and his flesh is still fine and ruddy. St. Erkenwald elicits from him his life showing a just and pure (incorruptible) life, despite being a pagan. This is reflected in the incorruptible state of his body and clothing. But he is in limbo as he died without knowing Christ. St. Erkenwald baptizes him and hi turns to dust, along with his clothing. The clothing would now “hinder him” from moving on to life everlasting. The figure of the pearl maiden in The Pearl is another example of clothing instantiating inner truth, with all the pearls reflecting her purity. But here we have a conflict between earthly rich clothing representing purity of the soul also representing worldliness.

The Spinner in the Macclesfield Psalter Paula Mae Carns, Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign

The key image is a female spinner with a spindle in a foliated initial in the border of the Macclesfield Psalter. This paper looks at why she is there and what she represents. She might simply represent a common craft. Even after weaving shifted to a male-dominated craft, women still dominated spinning. Other stages in textile production are also represented. Saints are among those depicted producing thread, including the Virgin and St. Margaret. This suggests a possible interpretation of a lone female spinner as a symbol of virtue. Eve is also commonly shown spinning. And spinning can also have negative resonances (as with Eve). But Eve’s spinning is interpreted in multiple ways. Spinning also shows up in images representing sloth, when the spindle is idle. The larger context of the Macclesfield spinner involves the text of the “gradual psalms”. In this MS the psalms often have an elaborate pictorial presentation. Many of the images in this sequence involve musicians including King David, dancers, but also an image of a naked man backward on a donkey, which was used as a punishment for certain crimes or offences including adultery or cuckoldry. We get another example of an ivory writing tablet with courtly images showing a seduction and then a cuckolded man riding backwards while his wife and her lover watch. Going back to the Macclesfield images, there is a woman dressed in red (like the spinner) in several other images, possibly illustrating a narrative of the attempted seduction of the woman, in a musical and dancing scene, but she is turning away from the seducer and toward a well-dressed woman. So perhaps the spinner represents a virtuous woman, the rejects the seducer, but her husband is the one who strays and is punished for adultery with the backwards ride. In later psalms, the illustrations are more generic courtly scenes, but often show women rejecting the temptations of lust. Overall, these women may be intended to speak to a female owner/viewer to encourage her in virtue. Speculation on the commissioning of the book by Isabel Despenser for her son Edmund Fitzalan. Isabel had personal reasons for warning against the dangers of lust and seduction. The spinner may have been intended as a representation of Isabel herself as symbol of the virtuous woman.

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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 08:21

Dress and Textiles I: Representing Textiles and Dress

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion) Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF

Presider: Robin Netherton

The Banners in Beowulf M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State Univ.

Among the treasures described in detail in Beowulf are swords, but also three banners: Scyld’s funereal banner, Heorogar’s boarhead banner, the banner in the dragon hoard. Given the unusual detail given to them, banners clearly held a significant symbolic importance. Anglo-Saxon banners do not figure significantly in archaeological finds and are mentioned only in passing in studies of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Other banners are mentioned in Beowulf but without description and in passing. “Segn” or “segen” is the usual AS term for banner, glassed in Latin as vexilla, while “cumbor or “cumbol” is a more poetic reference. Another term not found in Beowulf is “thuf” indicating a feather-decorated banner, as well as “fana” or “fanu” (borrowing?). The variety of words is another indicator of cultural importance. A standard trope for the appearance of banners is for them to be “golden” and even shining. They are typically decorated and may have magical attributes. The “boar’s head banner” is part of a tradition of banners with animal motifs. Banners are consistently described as textiles, an interpretation supported by other textual sources. Banners in Beowulf are always associated with kings. [I have missed a little of the notes while I helped troubleshoot the computer projection.] I think there was something about references to banners in texts being a foreshadowing of victory in battle. We now get a slideshow of depictions of banners in AS art. 11th c MS with square, three-tailed banners with square motifs very similar to a banner shown in the Bayeaux tapestry (panel 68). The BT also shows animal/monster-motif banners that may relate to the textual references.

Meaningful Folds: Reading Christ’s Grave Cloths at the Visitatio Sepulchri Nancy Thebaut, Univ. of Chicago

Ca. 1000 ms from St. Gall shows the Holy Sepulcher, empty except for a draped cloth and a small cloth bundle. The Gospels describe two cloths in the context of this scene. The two cloths in the image are clearly meant to correspond to these two mentions but elaborate on them. This type-scene with grave cloths appears in a number of representations during a short-lived period around this time, in contrast with depictions of a plain empty tomb in other eras. These depictions may be related to a tradition of theatrical reenactments of the event as part of liturgical rituals. The author suggests that the artistic depictions of the cloths relate to the use of actual physical cloths in church rituals relating to the Eucharist. E.g., a description of how the ?host? should be wrapped in a cloth that “shows no beginning or end” matching the “bundled” cloth in the manuscript art. We are shown a variety of MS depictions of exactly this sort of wrapped cloth. The second cloth--the draped one--can be related to descriptions of the symbolic meaning of unfolded cloth as representing faith. In the images, though, the cloth is not a shape corresponding to any specific liturgical cloth. It often hands suspended in mid air, hollowed around a non-present form or body. Both the draped and the bundled cloths may appear in art individually as well as in paired depictions. The draped cloth speaks to the incarnate body of Christ in depicting a presence in absence, representing his humanity. The “endless” bundled cloth represents Christ’s eternal divinity.

The Prime Mover: Translated Textiles in the Architecture of the Global Middle Ages Mikael Muehlbauer, Columbia Univ.

Architecture and textiles are usually diametrically opposed: textile is portable and ephemeral while architecture is monumental and permanent. Islamic architectural ornamentation is characteristically related to textile decoration, while Western ornament more often used actual textiles as decoration. In Christian spaces, textiles represent revelation and transformation. [We are having a comedy of errors with the computer projection where the connection keeps blinking out requiring an assistant to re-set up the ppt display. ] Textile treasures were often a major part of church holdings, and the iconography is often reflected across the textile-architecture divide in both directions. [The AV tech has solved the display problem with a new cord.] We now move from the Hagia Sophia to an Ethiopian church in Tigray that he argues uses decoration drawn from Indian textiles traded along the Red Sea. Examples of other possible sources for Ethiopian architectural decoration in Armenian herringbone brickwork patterns, Indian flower/tree motifs. These designs demonstrate the integration of Ethiopia in extensive trade routes. Moving to a cathedral in Reims, France, we see examples of draped cloth depicted in carved stone. This use of draped cloth in decoration corresponded to other changes in church organization, including the introduction of the rood screen, including the use of textile curtains (actual ones) as part of the division of space.

Medieval Morality and the Paradigms of Redemption John Slefinger, Ohio State Univ.

Considering a formulaic morality plot: common man achieves success, becomes greedy, over-reaches, falls, and discovers redemption through simplicity. The paper looks at the representations of the stages of this plot in clothing in one particular morality play from East Anglia in the 15th century. How does the play’s costuming reflect the realities of common people’s access to various types of clothing in that time/place. The play emphasizes social hierarchy, including in how it addresses the audience. Characters representing vices wear flamboyant high-fashion clothing and torment the character of Mankind, representing an ordinary laborer. As Mankind succumbs to their temptation, his clothing becomes shorter and more fashionable. Reference to sumptuary laws that legislate against coats/jackets that aren’t long enough to cover the “privy members and buttocks.” There is an interplay between the class aspects of fashion and the general moral judgments applied to the clothing. In general high-fashion was only available to/used by the upper classes, but there was a middle ground of wealthy peasants who aspired to more fashionable styles. Thus, the “mankind” character in the play, even as he “falls”, is seen to rise in the social hierarchy through his clothing. How well would an anti-greed, anti-fashion message play to a crowd filled with merchants making their fortunes from the cloth and clothing trade? Furthermore, how would it play to the town leaders whose status was reflected in high fashion clothing? The region was undergoing an economic shift involving a labor shortage: low rents and high wages as landowners scrambled to shift to enclosed pasture rather than cultivated fields. Villages were being abandoned due to enclosures while town elites turned to foreign luxury clothing. This makes the character of the laborer Mankind in the play a bit more complicated. Returning to the quoted sumptuary rule about short clothing, it only applied to those below a certain rank. Therefore the accusation of immorality is not for the clothing itself, but for the claiming of status through clothing. Thus the characters of the Vices are not tempting Mankind to luxury and pride, but to social climbing--something that all ranks could be comfortable in mocking.

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