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


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


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


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

Sending Letters and a Unicorn: How Medieval Nuns Coped with Social Distancing

by Lena Vosding

Three nuns hand a letter to a messenger. Illumination in the Matutinale of Scheyern, Germany, 13th century. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 17401 (1), fol. 16r (61r) (BSB).

The current pandemic, as horrible as it is, seems to have heightened public awareness of pre-modern solutions to modern problems. Blog posts have looked, for example, at St Corona, the Black Death and precedent lock downs, or the strategies medieval anchoresses used to cope with the loneliness of their cells.

Medieval anchoresses and nuns in enclosure also provide a good example of how to maintain relationships without meeting in person. Despite digital communication tools we all have experienced that it can be quite difficult to feel a real sense of community without in-person encounters. So which strategies for coping with social distancing can nuns who only had pen and paper at hand teach us?

Symbolic communication

Conversation also was considered a risk for enclosure: A window, once probably covered with fabric, that allows visitors to speak to the nuns (speaking window). Convent of the Poor Clares in Pfullingen, Germany (Wikipedia commons).

Medieval nuns who chose enclosure to approach the divine through contemplation, developed ways to ensure that families and friends would not forget them – and to show that their prayers benefited society. One of the most effective ways was to develop letter writing to an art form, and overcome distance by imbuing the words with transcendent symbolic meaning. This involved a balancing act: Theologians frequently warned that letters could be disruptive and let the loud, mundane world into the convent. After all, letters were always associated with secrecy, individuality, physical presence, and material goods. St Jerome, for example, carried letters with him and talked to them like to his friend,[1] and St Augustine considered letters to enable greater intimacy than would be possible when the person was physically present but silent.[2]

Many sources reveal how nuns crafted letters in conformity with their rules. Important evidence can be found in the letter books from the Benedictine nuns of Lüne, the largest cache of female writing from late medieval northern Germany.

First Strategy: Virtual Encounters
The passage about gold and silver in letter book Hs 15, Convents Archive Lüne, quire 27, fol. 8r (Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel / Kloster Lüne)

The nuns drew on the imaginative potential of letters to overcome distance and to build a sense of community with their families, friends, and other convents, for example, by sending saints as envoys: “Since we are related, it would be appropriate to come to your wedding feast. […] Yet God has chosen me to my own wedding, and he planted me in this earthly garden of paradise. […] So, I wandered around the heavenly fortress of Jerusalem and asked all the dear saints to come out for you.”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 2v). Depending on the recipient, these can be different saints: Mother Mary shall be the merciful host; St Michael shall ensure that only the best things happen to bride, groom, and their guests; St Matthew shall help them to keep their worldly wealth without striving for it too much; St John shall bring their offspring blessing; and St Anne, St Catherine and St Ursula with her 11.000 handmaidens shall always be companions in time of need (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27, fol. 6r-8r). These imaginary envoys could also carry elaborately described symbolic gifts: e.g. pearls and gemstones of a golden necklace, described and interpreted as the virtues and blessings that shall adorn the recipient’s soul (Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 14r-quire 29, fol. 1v). The nuns argue that, because of their vow of poverty, they cannot afford those expensive gifts, but send a letter instead: “We wish to ask from you that you receive it with the same love as that with which we have written it. If we could have written it in gold and silver, we would certainly have done so. Therefore accept our goodwill as a token” (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27,fol. 8r).

Second Strategy: Sending Gifts (and Unicorns!)
A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

In other letters, real gifts became metaphors as the nuns interpreted and explained the details. Such gifts ranged from books and devotional pictures to little jugs, dresses, or even two young unicorns. The sender advices the recipient to build a fence around the pasture and to heighten it soon, because “the unicorns jump around so merrily” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 82r). While it remains unclear what the real gift might have been, the unicorn was a symbol of purity, virtue, and of chaste love, which could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus it became an allegory of the incarnation, in which the virgin was equated with Mary and the unicorn with Christ. The gift for the nun could have been toys, an animal shaped gingerbread, a pastry model, or an embroidery of the creatures.

Third Strategy: Showing Empathy

The empathy palpable in those exchanges is also expressed directly whenever the nuns ask about the wellbeing of a friend in another convent: “I would like you to tell me that you are feeling better. Otherwise I cannot find peace”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 9, fol. 5v). This is also manifest in their deep sympathy for a mourning mother: “I understand that you are in pain and distress, because love is always deep between mother and Child.” The recipient shall soothe her heart to prevent “falling ill with excessive melancholy and tears”, and think of Mother Mary, who had to witness the cruel death of her son. To her she may confide her suffering, for Mary “knows from experience how a grieving mother feels” and will comfort her (Lüne Hs 30, fol. 39v). The nuns also do not hide yearning for their fellow sisters in neighbouring convents: “Give my greetings to the crows and ravens. When I sit here in my cell and hear the crows sing and see the ravens hopping in the snow, I think of my beloved sisters in Lüne” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 158r). By verbalizing their empathy, the nuns connected emotionally to their social network, and this connectedness enabled them to resist in times of crisis. The nuns survived the Black Death as a community – and the Reformation, for them an even deadlier threat, alive and kicking now in the 21st century.

Fourth Strategy: Crafting words
A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

The nuns in Lüne valued their letters to such a degree that they copied and kept them in their convent’s archive. In this way, they served for continuous edification, to encourage remembering the social network, and to provide examples for teaching the novices how to write. The skill of conveying not only information but also emotion is one that can only be acquired by continuous practice; it was, and still is, an art to write letters that are clear and do not allow for misunderstanding. When communicating through written words alone, appropriate wording is of vital importance. Not surprisingly, the twelfth century saw the invention of letter writing manuals, when societal structures were becoming increasingly complex and demanded expert networking skills. These manuals offer  examples of wording for all sorts of situations, so that the message is understood as expected and a close relationship can be established, even if you do not see or hear each other.

Therefore, when we feel lonely in the enclosure of our homes, a carefully written letter can comfort us. The search for the right words can bring order to one’s thoughts. It sends the mind on a journey to another person in a different place, and also provides the recipient with an individual, physical sign of company. So, why not make the effort for a friend and go on a journey of the mind yourself?

Dr Lena Vosding is a postdoctoral researcher working at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford. In her book, she examined the Lüne letter books in terms of form and function. To learn more about the project, the letters, the nuns and their current counterparts in the convent, see the six L.I.S.A. episodes about Lüne Abbey:

Episode 1: Lüne Abbey (the history of the convent and its current inhabitants), 08/19/2020

dark portrait of 1500s woman

Founded in 1172, Lüne Abbey developed into a prosperous religious centre for the Lüneburg region. The Benedictine nuns formed a strong network with other convents in Northern Germany and joined an influential reform movement in 1481. In the 16th century, they transformed into a Protestant community after a prolonged struggle with the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The project ‘The Nuns’ Network’ explores this phase of change and reform in the 15th and 16th centuries, examining the significance of the Abbey and the communication strategies of the nuns based on letter books. These contain almost 1800 letters providing information about pastoral care, debating devotion and theology, and giving insight into daily life in the convent. The letters also highlight the role of rhetoric and learning for women living in strict enclosure.

Episode 2: The Letter Books (the materiality and content of the manuscripts), 08/26/2020

person paging through an old book about A5 sized

Among the numerous treasures of Lüne Abbey, the three letter-books are one of the most significant holdings. Into the three hefty tomes, the nuns copied nearly 1,800 letters and accounts from their correspondence during the 15th and 16th centuries. They offer an insight into the nuns’ lives from their own perspective. Particularly revealing are the arguments surrounding the Lutheran Reformation; the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg finally succeeded in nominally turning the convent into a Protestant community – but the women documented their arguments and preserved the record of it to this day in their Abbey.

Episode 3: The Role of Women (on the high esteem in which nuns were held), 09/02/2020

tapestry showing lions with wigs

The Lüne letters give in-depth insight into the special role of women in religious orders. In medieval society, women were subordinate to men, being in the munt (under the guardianship) of their fathers and then of their husbands, only as widows gaining full control over their legal affairs. This was different in female religious houses. The prioress and other office holders took on a variety of significant roles for the community, and it was a high responsibility to lead the monastic community consisting of several hundred people. The esteem for religious women was based particularly on their status as brides of Christ (sponsae Christi), at the side of the highest king, leading to a elevated rank in the medieval hierarchy. This position was an obligation but also a source of pride for the women as many of the letters show.

Episode 4: The Editing (on the complex process of making the letters accessible), 09/09/2020

close up of black manuscript writing

Editing the letter books from Lüne Abbey is a complex process which relies on the regular exchange between the team members in Düsseldorf, Oxford and Wolfenbüttel: the letters need to be deciphered, structured, commented upon and encoded to make the networks of the nuns accessible again. The edition allows full and fascinating insights into the knowledge structure, the communication and the rhetoric of the nuns. But the letters reach beyond that: private and personal aspects of the life of the women in the convent become visible and relatable, 500 years after they were first written down.

Episode 5: A Key Finding (on the learning of the nuns), 09/16/2020

person reading notes ad looking at a manuscript in soft lamp light

An important part of the editing process is the commentary contextualising the style and content of the letters. A key finding is how scholarly learning and oral culture meet and mix in the letters, showing how the nuns operated on an equal footing with the learned male clergy. In a letter accompanying a gift of wine for the Provost, the young nuns for example show off their Latin learning – with more than a bit of self-deprecating humour. Such a letter could be read out aloud e.g. at a convent feast and thus re-enter the oral sphere of the monastic setting.

Episode 6: The General Interview (on the international collaboration), 09/23/2020

book pages yellowed, book opened half way

The last part of the series the two Principal Investigators, Eva Schlotheuber (Düsseldorf, History) und Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford, German Literature), in form of an interview talk about the genesis, challenges and perspectives of the Lüne letters project. What is the knowledge basis required to work with medieval letters and what challenges does the interdisciplinary collaboration between history and German Studies face; how is the project charting new territory? The exchange between the two investigators also focuses on new methodological approaches, the fascination of the letter books and the important question whether the letters could be considered private. And above all – what is the message of the letters for us today?