Stitching Together Past and Present: Nuntastic Textiles and Victorian Medievalism

Anyone who has strolled through Oxford and paused to look up at a college window or church tower will have noticed that the city abounds in medievalist architecture. Oxford’s Gothic Revival buildings are not the only material witnesses testifying to nineteenth-century fascination with medieval-inspired styles and with debates harking back to the medieval period. Textile arts also evince how the Victorians read their own age through past ages, and vice versa. Few textiles exemplify this knitting together of past and present as attractively as the textile treasures in the archive of Pusey House, which was established to commemorate Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church.

(The Oxford Movement was a mid-nineteenth century movement within the Church of England that sought to revive an interest in patristics, the sacraments, and ritual, and generally to restore what they saw as pre-Reformation ideals (another instance of medievalism!)).

(One of the altar cloths we discovered, embroidered by Mother Marian Hughes (1817-1912)

Several months ago, the librarian of Pusey House, Jessica Woodward, and Godelinde Gertrude Perk, a researcher at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, were discussing textiles, both of us being interested in historical embroidery and other fibre arts. Jessica pointed out that the Pusey House archive holds many textiles, several of which are connected to the Pusey family, but also associated with some of the first Anglican nuns. We agreed that it was a pity these textiles were so little known, not only because they were quite expertly made, but also in the light of their historical importance: the Sisters of St Margaret (who owned the book with the sample) and the Sisters of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (one of whom made the corporal) were among the first nuns in the Church of England since the Reformation. Central figures in the Oxford Movement supported this Anglican revival of monasticism.

The spookiest object in the House: a nun doll dressed in the habit of the Sisters of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, dressed by Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817-1912)

Jessica and Godelinde brainstormed a little about an exhibition and reached out to a fellow academic at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Natascha Domeisen for a first look at the textiles, and finally to the textile conservators of the Ashmolean Museum, who generously offered conservation advice and help displaying the objects. The exhibition would never have been possible without the expertise of Clare Hills-Nova, Sue Stanton, and Sebastian Blue Pin; Sebastian came over several times, analysed the fibres, and displayed the objects beautifully.

While we (Jessica, Sebastian, and Godelinde) studied the textiles in order to select the ones to display (the display case being rather moderate in size), we made several unexpected discoveries: we found a handwritten note sewn onto a cloth, which stated that the set of altar linens had been made by Mother Marian Hughes in 1846, the first Englishwoman since the Reformation to become an Anglican professed religious. According to the note, Dr Pusey had used the set when celebrating mass at home. We then discovered an altar cloth from the same set was still in daily use in the Pusey House chapel, despite it being 175 years old. The letters were also quite illuminating, shedding light upon attitudes about embroidery at that time. Godelinde, for one, was also quite delighted to find that a familiarity with medieval religious iconography will stand you in good stead when deciphering Victorian religious art. However, we were most impressed by the skill of the textile artists and their thematic complexity, as emblematized by the corporal and the sermon case.


This blogpost serves as the online version of the exhibition, but if possible, you are warmly invited to visit the exhibition “Threads of Devotion: Textile Treasures from the Pusey House Archive” which can be seen from the 17th of June to the 9th of July 2021. The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, 9:30-17:25 – you can book a viewing slot at https://tinyurl DOT com/puseyhouselib .

1. Wedding veil

Pusey House Archive, PUS/Veil

Date unknown

Vertical maximum 117 cm, horizontal maximum 122 cm

Lace veil of a cream mercerised cotton ground featuring scalloped edges that frame an embroidered border of repeat pattern wheat and floral motifs. The central field displays clusters of larger floral motifs and singular embroidered flowers. This veil is believed to have been worn by Dr Pusey’s wife, Maria Catherine née Barker (1801–1839), at her wedding in 1828, although the tulle seems more characteristic of the early 20th century. It was presented to Pusey House in 1947 by Mrs Edith McCausland née Brine, Dr Pusey’s last surviving grandchild, who claimed it to be Mrs Pusey’s possession.

2. Letter from Edward Bouverie Pusey to his goddaughter, Clara Maria Hole (later Sr Clara Maria), transcribed by Henry Parry Liddon

Pusey House Archive, LBV 125

Originally written on 3 February 1875 at Christ Church, Oxford

 The first page reads:

“There is a large proportion of embroidery in your distribution of time … but, I suppose, that, after the illness which you had some time ago, the quietness of needle work would be very good for the brain. I would only say on this, ‘Do not work against time,’ for this would produce an excitement and hurry which would undo the good of a quiet employment.”

Dr Pusey then goes on to recommend reciting psalms or hymns to prevent overtaxing the brain, but concludes his letter with a more optimistic conceptualization of art, presenting God as carving the artwork of the soul by way of trials: “a block of rough stone would not … mind the blows which indented, in view of the beauty of form which it was to acquire hereafter. And the form which we are to have traced in us, is the image of God.” The goddaughter’s crafting should be as deliberate and careful as God’s is.

Dr Pusey’s letter

Dr Pusey’s anxieties about too much embroidery contrast strikingly with Maria Pusey sending a workbox to her goddaughter and wholeheartedly recommending embroidery. This workbox and its accompanying letter can be seen in the cabinet outside the Pusey House Chapel.

According to the caption, the second page of the letter, now hidden by the first page, recounts how Mrs Pusey ‘had learnt to value needlework when she was ill and was pleased that her goddaughter had asked for the workbox as a present’.

Maria Pusey’s letter

 3. Sermon case made for Dr Pusey by an anonymous embroiderer

Pusey House Archive, Object 15

1847

32.5 cm by 25.5 cm

Obverse cover: folded card covered in burgundy silk velvet, edged with twisted braid of metal threads and secured with a whip stitch. The centre of each face bears a cross motif, possibly of palm wood, that is overworked with basket weave type embroidery (replicating cross repetitions) in metal threads, creating a raised emblem. Interior: ground fabric of cream dyed silk embroidered with polychrome silk threads in a floral, foliate and fruit design. The Lord’s Prayer, the blessing and the dedication have been worked in embroidered stitches.

With its raised cross with metal embellishment, the sermon case recalls opus anglicanum, medieval religious embroidery produced in England. Victorians believed these medieval embroideries to be the handiwork of nuns, although they were actually predominantly produced in professional workshops in London. We do not know who made this particular gift for Dr Pusey, but Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817–1912), the first Anglican Sister to take vows since the Reformation, is one likely candidate. She was a friend of Dr Pusey’s who made several embroideries for him during the 1840s (see item 4). If she is the artist, the medieval echoes in this embroidery present her as part of a long lineage of female monastics: she restores a tradition disrupted during the Reformation.

(Note the misspelling of “Christ Church” as “Christ’s Church”)
(Obverse cover)

4. Corporal made by Mother Marian Rebecca Hughes (1817–1912) for Dr Pusey

Pusey House Archive, PUS/Lin/1

1846

25 cm by 25 cm

Ground of plain weave mercerised cotton embroidered with red and blue silks. The outer border exhibits Neo-Gothic text and large Greek crosses worked in raised stumpwork to create a dimensional effect. The central field dedicates patterning to fleurs-de-lis and small Greek crosses executed in a chain stitch which frame the monogram of the Holy Name (IHC, Jesus Christ), again in raised stumpwork technique.

A corporal is a square linen cloth onto which the chalice with wine, the paten (silver plate) with bread, and the ciborium (a container for additional hosts) are placed during the consecration of the bread and wine. This particular corporal gives material expression to Tractarian understandings of the Real Presence in the sacrament. The border reads Hoc est corpus meum quod pro vobis traditur (“This is my body, which is given for you”), the words of the consecration of the Eucharist as given in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (11:24) and recited by the celebrant. The circle surrounding the monogram recalls the host, and the monogram itself also draws attention to the presence of the Incarnate Christ in the sacrament. The fleurs-de-lis (lilies) in Marian blue are a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, likewise alluding to the mystery of the Incarnation; the red circles signify Christ’s five wounds and, by extension, his Passion.

This corporal forms part of a set that is now 175 years old. A hand-written note, possibly by Henry Parry Liddon (1829–1890), sewn onto an altar cloth states that the entire set was given by Mother Marian Hughes to Dr Pusey, who would use it when celebrating mass privately. A second, larger cloth is still in use in the Pusey House Chapel, literally threading together Dr Pusey’s devotion and that of the House.

5. Sample card from Liberty’s, inserted (by publisher) into Designs for Church Embroidery by A.R and Alathea Wiel. Chapman and Hall, 1894.

Pusey House Archive, SSM 40/298

1894

Samples of polychrome silk floss embroidery thread (Liberty’s) wound around card. This book was the property of the convent of the Society of Saint Margaret, an Anglican order, in East Grinstead, Sussex. The convent also ran a School of Ecclesiastical Embroidery in London, but the library stamp indicates that this copy of the book was kept in the convent. The Victorian era saw an upsurge of interest in the creation of medievalist vestments and church hangings, which women particularly were encouraged to create. These textiles furnished Gothic Revival churches (omnipresent in Oxford!). The faint pencil markings and numbers signal that the nuns were particularly interested in various shades of gold, frequently found in Victorian church embroideries. This use of colour also harks back to opus anglicanum, once again suggesting that the nuns perceive themselves as stitching together past and present.

Photos by Jessica Woodward, Sebastian Blue Pin, and Godelinde Gertrude Perk.
Blog introduction by Godelinde Gertrude Perk, captions by Sebastian Blue Pin and Godelinde Gertrude Perk.

Exhibition credits:
Conservation Advice: Sue Stanton, Sebastian Blue Pin, and Clare Hills-Nova
Captions: Godelinde Gertrude Perk and Sebastian Blue Pin
Display & Publicity: Jessica Woodward

Pre-Modern Conversations: Introducing our WIP Group

The Evangelist St. Matthew writing, with his symbol the angel.
‘The Evangelist St. Matthew writing, with his symbol the angel’, Book of Hours from the southern Low Countries (f. 18r; detail). Early sixteenth century. Now in Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, The Hague, RMWW MS 10 E 3. Image: Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag. Source: manuscripts.kb.nl; https://manuscripts.kb.nl/show/manuscript/10+E+3; CC0 1.0)

Introduction
On a chilly Autumn day, two postdoctoral fellows (Lena Vosding and Godelinde Gertrude Perk) were conversing in their shared office. They were very fond of their group of fellow supervisees, its camaraderie, and the support it provided. Nevertheless, the two early-career researchers still struggled on occasion to improve the argument of the articles they were working on and wanted additional peer feedback and an additional space for sharing ideas. “How about we start a WIP (work in progress) group ourselves?” A pen was seized from a nearby desk, and, after a little brainstorming and scribbling on a scrap of paper, the first outline for Pre-Modern Conversations emerged. Joined shortly thereafter by Lewis Webb from Classics, the duumvirate of convenors became a triumvirate, who quickly submitted a description to the OMS booklet.

What is Pre-Modern Conversations?
Pre-Modern Conversations is an interdisciplinary group of early-career pre-modernists, offering an informal, supportive environment for helping each other revise, refine, and complete a work in progress. In the past, we’ve found that whether one works on medieval religion or Republican Rome, one tends to encounter similar theoretical and methodological questions. What is more, the challenges one encounters when writing or revising tend to be similar across fields. We, therefore, defined “pre-modern” very broadly and included any period up to 1800. Since the convenors’ research shared a focus on pre-modern gender, we were particularly interested in hearing from other scholars with a similar or adjacent focus. We had initially decided that the format for the one-hour session would alternate between a presentation to the entire group (for conference contributions) and a discussion of a pre-circulated written text. For Hilary Term, however, the WIPs submitted were mostly written texts, which we discussed in detail, focusing mostly on content and argument.

Tondo of woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”).
Tondo of woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”), VI.Ins.Occ., Pompeii. First century CE. Now in National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. no. 9084). (Image: Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Experiences so far
To our delight, the four available slots filled up very quickly. Both medievalists and Classicists joined the group, which led to lively interdisciplinary synergy. Topics varied widely, from Roman law and urban space in Asia Minor in the late Antique period through medieval recluses to early-modern refugees and twentieth-century poets, yet similar themes emerged. We also decided to spend the last twenty minutes discussing more general concerns, for instance writing grant applications, and sharing our experiences as ECRs. The phase following one’s DPhil or PhD can potentially feel stressful, precarious, and directionless, and many ECRs feel lost at sea, a problem our friends in the ECR Network of Medieval and Modern Languages also seek to alleviate. A forum for sharing ideas, knowledge, experiences and alternative perspectives can help ECRs find their bearings and navigate this uncertain stage of their career.

Plans for next term
We’re thrilled to continue in Trinity Term! We will again convene in weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8 on TEAMS. The programme looks very promising already, but there are still slots left. Interested in joining? Send an abstract (up to 300 words) of your WIP, accompanied by a short biography to lena.vosdingATmod-langs.ox.ac.uk by Friday 30 April. You are also very welcome to participate without contributing a paper.

Study of a woman's right hand (said to be that of Artemesia Gentileschi) holding a brush’.
‘Study of a woman’s right hand (said to be that of Artemesia Gentileschi) holding a brush’, by Pierre Dumonstier II. 1625. Now in London, British Museum (Museum no. NN,7.51.3). (Image: British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Introducing the MSCA-IF project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”.

19 September 2019 Godelinde Perk

“Weren’t intelligent women in the Middle Ages seen as witches?” one of my theology undergrads once asked “Could they even read and write?”. These questions illustrate how many still think of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” (an epithet long rejected by scholars), a time in which women lacked opportunities for education, reflection, and agency. Numerous texts by medieval women writers testify to reality being far more complex. What is more, many of these texts are religious in character: often, the earliest known text by a woman writer in the vernacular is a mystical, visionary or devotional text. These works suggest that life as a nun, devout laywoman, a “semi-religious”, or lay-sister (a kind of free-lance nun), allowed women to find “a room of one’s own”, to Virginia Woolf’s phrase. My name is Godelinde Gertrude Perk, and I am a Marie Skłdowska Curie Fellow at the faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages (supervised by Professor Henrike Lhnemann) and am delighted to introduce my two-year project “Women Making Memories: Liturgy and the Remembering Female Body in Medieval Holy Women’s Texts”, which started on the first of September 2019. (This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 842443.)
 

initial of nun
“Historiated initial of a nun”. Detail from London, British Library, Sloane 2468, fol. 227v. England, c. 1420.

Medieval women writers responded to and transformed the religious ideas of their times; my project investigates how they did so. Considering both well-known figures (Julian of Norwich), and lesser-known ones (the Sisters of the Modern Devout), it situates their texts in a particularly omnipresent but often understudied context, the liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office. It should be kept in mind that devout women from medieval Europe frequently took part in the Divine Office (the monastic hours), nuns and lay-sisters, even several times a day, and strove to attend Mass as frequently as possible. They therefore knew the words, sounds, sights, and movements of the liturgy by heart: we find numerous references to these sensations and words in their texts.

senior sister
Bronze sculpture by Samuel Crommelin on the site of the Diepenveen convent, depicting a senior sister encouraging a novice. Photo: JanB46 (Wikimedia)

Using thick description and close reading, I will investigate the role of memories of the liturgy in their works, analysing these texts through the prism of memoria, the medieval art of remembering. Medieval culture saw memoria as essential for moral behaviour and literary invention; medieval devout women deployed memory arts daily when meditating. The liturgy indirectly taught an art of memory as well. Because of the many sensations and movements the liturgy entailed, this art of memory involved both body and mind. Exploring the function of memoria therefore illuminates the role of the body in these women’s writings. The project, then, will unveil what and how medieval women’s texts want us to remember.

https://www.digitaleetalages.nl/dam/moderne-devotie/zusters-van-het-gemene-leven/Zwedera%20van%20Rechteren%20in%20Zusterboek%20Diepenveen.jpg/_jcr_content/renditions/cq5dam.web.200.320.jpeg
The Middle Dutch Sister-Book under discussion, compiled by Griet Essinghes. Deventer, Deventer Library, MS 101 E 26 KL, fol. 111v-112r. The Low Countries, 1524.

The project is uniquely international and multilingual; it is the first to juxtapose female-authored texts in different north-western European vernaculars, reflecting how medieval women’s devotion was not bound by national borders. I will compare six vernacular (auto)biographies and visionary texts in Middle Dutch, Middle English, and Middle High and Low German. They date from 1300 to 1500 and originate from the European regions now known as the Netherlands (the Diepenveen Sister-book, in Middle Dutch), Belgium (Mechtild van Rieviren’s visions), Germany (the Medingen prayerbook), Switzerland (the Katarinentaler Sister-book), and The United Kingdom (Julian of Norwich’ A Revelation of Love, and The Book of Margery Kempe). At the end of the project, I will have revealed European parallels and interactions between texts and writers. Ultimately, I endeavour to amplify medieval women’s voices and illuminate their significance to Europe’s cultural and spiritual heritage. This European quality is my reason for applying to the MSCA-IF, and for it being based at the Faculty for Medieval and Modern Languages and the University of Oxford, which hosts many academics considering medieval European religious and literary culture.

st matt
“The symbol of the Evangelist St. Matthew: the angel, writing.” Detail from a thirteenth-century French Book of Hours.  The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum & Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS KB 132 F 21, fol. 484v.  

I will inform the general public and academic audiences of the project findings in a variety of ways, including several TORCH outputs. I am particularly passionate about appealing to non-academic audiences and helping them discover the wisdom, humour, and the fascinating lives of medieval women: in addition to publishing several academic articles, I will write a number of popular articles (available online), give popular lectures in museums and churches, possibly direct or contribute to a play, and tweet regularly from the project twitter account (@WMM_Oxford). Open Access is central to MSCA-IF projects, and I will make all outputs as freely accessible as possible.

You may be curious to know a little more about the post-doctoral researcher performing this project. I’m originally from the Netherlands, and have a background in English Literature. While doing my PhD in northern Sweden working on a dissertation tracing the evolution of Julian of Norwich’ narrative and theological thought, I developed an interest in the parallels between Middle English and Middle Dutch texts by women; my research has since shifted to a more comparative, European focus. (The texts that particularly caught my interest were the Middle Dutch Sister-books (collections of short biographies by nuns or laysisters of the sisters in the community). Some of you may be familiar with The Book of Margery Kempe; the Sister-books are similar in how they brim with with dramatic vignettes, vivid detail, pithy sayings and local colour). I also lived in Oxford during my PhD: in 2015, I spent four months here, immersing myself in its vibrant seminar culture and unique knowledge base. It was then that I met Professor Lähnnemann, whom I have since envisaged as the ideal supervisor for this project. After my PhD, I was employed as an associate professor at another Swedish university, that of Sundsvall, and looked for postdoc opportunities in order to broaden my knowledge of medieval women’s literature from north-western Europe and become one of the leading scholars in the nascent field of pan-European literary and devotional culture. (One of the academic endeavors from that time is a play produced together with two friends, which was based on the Middle Dutch Sister-Books; I hope to organize something similar in Oxford.). This year, I was awarded the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship, as well as a Fulford Junior Research Fellowship at Somerville College, home to a dynamic medievalist community.

The project and the Fellowships contribute significantly to my academic and professional development, and I could not be more grateful for this wonderful opportunity and for being given the chance to return to Oxford. However, I am equally grateful to be working with many highly knowledgeable and generous scholars and to shed light upon medieval women’s minds, ultimately making their voices better heard. 


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Dr Godelinde Gertrude Perk, PhD
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
University of Oxford
 

Front page image credit: “Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral, by David Holgate FSDC. Photo: Rocketjohn (Wikimedia).