Saturday, December 11, 2010


Christmas is a wonderful conglomeration of Roman, Viking, Germanic, and Victorian English traditions.  The early Christian church assimilated many of these traditions from old midwinter sun festivals, such as the Roman Saturnalia, and our use of Christmas greens reflects these early practices.

"Evergreens such as holly, ivy and mistletoe decked the medieval house in the bleak days of midwinter, bringing hope of renewed life to the darkest days of the year," says Sophie Jackson in her wonderful book, The Medieval Christmas

The holly has ancient associations with good luck and protecting homes from thunderstorms.  With its red berries, it also offered protection against witches and could detect evil spirits.

Ivy, for unknown reasons, has always been thought of as "female", whereas holly was mainly considered "male".  It was not as welcome in medieval homes, possibly because ivy was worn as a crown by Bacchus in the old sybaritic Roman cult.  His chosen group of female companions, the Bacchae, drank the juice made from ivy leaves which was supposedly intoxicating. 

Mistletoe is the most dramatically "pagan" of the holiday greens.  The Celtic Druids had great reverence for it, especially if it was found growing on an oak tree from which it would be cut with a golden sickle.  Mistletoe is the plant that killed the Norse god Balder.  Frigg, his mother, wept for her son, and it was her tears that became the white berries.  She instructed that anyone meeting under the mistletoe should do no harm to one another and to exchange a kiss, something we still do today.

The decorated, indoor Christmas tree was not a tradition during the medieval period, although it is likely that various outside trees were decorated during the season, particularly fir trees.

Christmas traditions are rich and fascinating.  Please visit these web sites for much more information on Christmas during the Middle Ages.

Medieval Christmas Traditions

Tales of the Middle Ages - Christmas

A Medieval Christmas

Christmas Traditions In England During the Middle Ages

How to Cook Medieval - Christmas Feasts

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Courtly love, an ideal whereby a man of impeccable taste and behavior could love an unattainable lady of equal impeccability -- chastely, passionately, truly -- developed in France in the 12th century, particularly under the patronage of the indefatigable Eleanor of Aquitane (queen to two kings, mother of two kings). 

Courtly love was expressed most strongly in the love songs of the troubadors and minnesangers.  The Manesse Codex, written 1300-1315  in Zurich and housed in Heidelberg University, is the most famous collection of these songs.  It is a representation of work by 140 poets writing in the Middle High German lyric tradition.  Its reknown is based largely on the 138 colored illuminations which show the songs' authors doing courtly activities.

You can see all 138 of these pictures on the first web page listed below.  Go to the button that says "Table of Contents" to access them.  The second site describes an upcoming exhibition in Heidelberg of the manuscript.

Manesse: Die Mansesseche Liederhandschrift, 1300-1315

The Codex Manesse and the Discovery of Love - Communications and Marketing - H

(You can see, on the second web page, the original of my adaptation above which shows the minnesanger Konrad von Altstetten.)

The illustrations have a slightly cartoonish feel to them which has made it interesting to adapt them to cross-stitch patterns.  I have done this with 4 of the pictures, adding some Latin and creating, for the most part, my own color schemes, although the originals use primary colors, too. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The Mozarabic influence on Spanish illumination continued well into the 12th century.  Wonderful architectural details of obvious Arabic origin can be found in manuscripts.  This graceful double arch is adapted from the 12th-century "Cardena Beatus" (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art).  To see pictures from this manuscript, go to CardeƱa Beatus.

And here are two of my favorite characters from the 12th-century "Silos Beatus" (London, British Library).  Very early disco indeed!  At least their clothing was not made out of polyester.  To see pictures from this manuscript, go to Silos Beatus.

(Why this fellow is playing a bird is beyond me!)

By the 13th century, however, Spain had seen a political and cultural change that brought it into the fold of continental Christiandom.  This is vividly depicted in manuscript pictures where drolleries, knights, minstrels, and other well-known medieval motifs now appear.  Here are two sweet drolleries from the 13th/14th-century "Vidal Mayor", a collection of Spanish law texts (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum).

Alphonso X "El Sabio" (1221-1284), King of Leon and Castile, commissioned several well-known, stunning-illustrated manuscripts on such topics as songs and games which give us a brilliant view into 13th-century Spain.  To see pictures from these manuscripts, go to The Cantigas de Santa Maria and Alphonso X Book of Games Home Page.

And finally, full-blown continental medieval Christianity appears in the form of the knight.  But even this knight, from the 14th-century "Libro de la Confradia de Caballeros de La Luente" (Burgos, Archivo Municipal), still retains some of that exotic Mozarabic style we originally saw from six centuries earlier.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I love medieval Spanish illuminations.  They are unlike any other book illuminations: ultra graphic, brilliantly colored, often oddly designed.  They can be divided into two fairly distinct time periods: the Mozarabic style of the late 8th to 11th century and those from the 12the century on.  The term "Mozarab" refers to the Christians who lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) after the Arab invasion of 711.  The art of this time period appears to be a mix of established Christian, invading Arab, much older Visigoth, Asturian, and possibly early North African art.  Cordoba and Toledo were the most important centers for Mozarabic art.

I have charted many of the illuminations from several Mozarbic texts.  This is my adaptation of Adam and Eve from the Morgan Beatus (property of the J. Pierpont Morgan Library).

A "beatus" was an illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse.  A " dense series of Apocalypse illustrations was produced in North Africa.  We know this from its spectacular traces in the Iberian Peninsula, where the series was taken over in the eighth century by a monk names Beatus as an integral part of his Commentary on the Apocalypse. ... The history of the Morgan Beatus began around the middle of the tenth century, when a Spanish monk and painter named Maius received from the abbot of the Leonese monastery of St. Michael a commission for a copy of Beatus's Commentary."  (John Williams)  (I fondly call this design "Big Hair In The Garden"!)

The subject of the Apocalypse allowed free rein to the illustrators of the texts.  Strange animals, odd angels, and wild happenings are all depicted in strikingly bold colors.  This marvelous leopard from the Morgan Beatus actually sports a moustache!  (Please note: the colors of these adaptations are mine, not those of the original illustrations.)

The Morgan Beatus is replete with fantastic borders, such as this one used to frame a sample of the lettering found in the manuscript.  Even in the lettering, the Spanish Mozarabic manuscripts stand out as something radically different from what was being done in the rest of Europe at the time. 

And a last example from the Morgan Beatus, one that seems somewhat more familiar as it reminds me of folk designs found all over Europe in paintings and embroideries. 

The Biblia Hispalense, a 10th-century Spanish manuscript, displays very obvious influence from Arabic sources.  This bird and fish actually form a capital letter, and the original illustration has "The Beginnings of the Book of Daniel" written in Arabic script on the bird's neck.

All of these designs, in black-and-white, can be found in my book, Here Be Drolleries, along with many others, especially from the Morgan Beatus. 

To see original pictures of Mozarabic illustrations, I recommend these web sites.

Morgan Beatus -- Morgan Beatus - Google Search

Biblia Hispalense -- biblia hispalense - Google Search

Girona Beatus -- Girona Beatus - "First, unique and unrepeatable edition"Gerona Cathedral

Liebana Beatus -- Beatus de Liebana, Codex Urgellensis

The following books are highly recommended for further study.

Mentre, Mireille.  Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Williams, John.  Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination.  New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Williams, John.  A Spanish Apocalypse: The Morgan Beatus Manuscript.  New York: George Braziller, 1991.  (This is a facsimile reproduction of the manuscript.)

Wixom, William.  Picturing the Apocalypse: Illustrated Leaves from a Medieval Spanish Manuscript.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Mary, Queen of Scots, was held captive by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, for almost twenty years before she was beheaded in 1587.  The last fifteen years of her imprisonment were spent in the company of Bess of Hardwick who, together with Mary, completed the now-famous embroideries found at Oxburgh Hall and Hardwick Castle.  (To see 17 of Mary's embroideries, go to and search for Oxburgh Hangings.)  It is amazing to think that Mary did such detailed work -- her cruciform panels were worked on evenweave linen at 13 stitches to the inch -- despite the fact that "she is very shortsighted, being unable to read or do anything else unless she has her sight quite close to what she wishes to peruse or to see distinctly" (from a 1557 description given by Giovanni Michieli, the Venetian ambassador to her court).

I was fascinated to discover that Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University owns original copies of the natural history books of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) that contain many of the motifs which Mary used. Lea Sears and I decided that we had to design new, tweaked versions of Mary's embroideries but utilizing all the basic elements of her originals.

This is the elephant panel (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).  It is an example of what all the panels looked like before they were cut down and appliqued onto large hangings.  These are the main elements of each panel.

1.  The cruciform outline, a modified Alisee Pattee cross, around the center motif
2.  The central motif of one animal, often with smaller motifs around it
3.  A banner with the animal's name
4.  Small motifs, sometimes different and sometimes all the same, in each outside corner
5.  Often the cypher or monogram of Mary

This drake is the first of our next set of "Inspired by Mary" designs.  In addition to using all the main elements of Mary's original designs, we continue to use colors that are appropriate for Renaissance embroidery.  We have, however, allowed ourselves the freedom to use the entire range of each color's shades in DMC floss.  This has given us a wider range of color options as well as "allowing" us to brighten up the designs.  The plain cruciform outline has been tweaked for greater emphasis, and the black-and-white border seems to make the whole design pop..

For a wonderful web site about Mary, go to Mary, Queen of Scots: Biography, Portraits, Primary Sources. Of particular interest, under Primary Sources, is a contemporary description by Giovanni Michieli.

The following books are recommended for further reading.

Bath, Michael.  Emblems for a Queen: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots.  London: Archetype Publications, 2008.

Levey, Santina.  The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall: A Catalogue.  London: National Trust, 2007.

Swain, Margaret.  The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots.  Carlton: Ruth Bean, 1986.

To see some of the original animals that Mary used in her embroideries, view Dover Publications' book and CD-Rom titled Gerner's Curious and Fantastic Beasts.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The lawn this year had hundreds of wild violets scattered over it with a few brave Star of Bethlehems peaking out here and there.  The sweet woodruff and forget-me-nots have come back with a welcomed vengence on one hill, while the germander is fighting a winning battle with the ivy on the other hill.  I am reminded of the passion of English writers for spring flowers, such as this well-known piece from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Where over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote this glowing poem "To Violets".

Welcome, maids of honour!
You do bring in the spring
And wait upon her.

She has virgins many
Fresh and fair;
Yet you are more sweet than any.

You're the maiden posies,
And so graced to be placed
Fore damask roses.

Yet, though thus respected,
By-and-by ye do lie,
Poor girls, neglected.

And perhaps the most lyrical of all is "The Affectionate Shepherd" by Richard Barnfield (1574-1627).

There grows the gillyflowers, the mint, the daisy
(Both red and white), the blue-veined violet,
The purple hyacinth, the spike to please thee,
The scarlet-dyed carnation bleeding yet;
     The sage, the savory, and sweet marjoram,
     Hyssop, thyme, and eye-bright, good for the blind and dumb.

The pink, the primrose, cowslip and daffodilly,
The hare-bell blue, the crimson columbine,
Sage, lettuce, parsley, and the milk-white lily,
The rose, and speckled flower called sops-in-wine;
     Fine pretty king-cups, and the yellow boots
     That grow by rivers, and by shallow brooks.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


In April, high ground is made ready for the sowing of flax, declared Ibn al-Awam in his 12th-century treatise, "The Book of Agriculture".  An Arab living in Spain, he went on to state that this is the time when "young aubergines are bedded out to be picked in October and beans and artichokes are ready for eating.  At this time the date palm is fertilized and pruned and sowing is made of gherkins, garden beans, the cucumber-melon, rue, henna and rice.  Now the cuttings of jasmine and citron are planted ... while in Seville they sow orach and other precious plants which may be eaten in six weeks.  (Lord, Philip, trans. A Moorish Calendar. 1979.)  What an exotic springtime!

Here is a fine fellow plowing his high ground, perhaps, as al-Awam said, getting it ready to sow flax.  This square panel is adapted from one of many panels on the "Creation Embroidery", a monumental work dating to ca. 1100 CE which resides in the Cathedral of Girona in Spain.  Even in its fragmentary state, this embroidery measures 3.65 m x 4.7 m and is one of the most remarkable images of the medieval cosmos which also includes creation myths, classical references, and images of the months of the year with activities associated with each month.   The piece is worked in linen and wool on a wool ground fabric using stem stitch and Bokara couching.  You can see the entire splendid embroidery as well as the original "April" design here:

Sunday, March 7, 2010


It seems only fitting to talk about wee folk and shamrocks in March, doesn't it? Fairies can be found all throughout European folklore. This little fellow was drawn in the 15th-century French "Hours of Mary of Burgundy" (Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1857). He represents what we normally think of as a fairy, although without wings, a "Tinkerbell" creature of very small stature. Irish folklore is replete with fairies which can assume human or animal forms. They are gifted musicians and have been known to lead humans astray with their singing and pipe playing. Although they can be social creatures, the best known are the ones who are loners, especially the leprechauns. The leprechaun is a very solitary creature, avoiding contact with even other leprechauns. About two feet tall with gruff and unfriendly dispositions, these males' (never female!) main occupation was making shoes for the fairies. If you should ever have the luck of catching a leprechaun, you can get him to tell you where he hides his treasure. But if you look away from him for even a split second, he will vanish! According to an article in Wikipedia on leprechauns, the creature had different appearances in Ireland depending on where he was found. Before the 20th century, it was believed that the leprechaun wore red, not green. And according to Yeats, the "trooping fairies" wore green whereas the solititary fairies, like the leprechauns, wore red jackets. Although this fellow seems to have lost his jacket entirely and also comes from a 14th-century English manuscript, I like to think of him as a wonderfully startled wee man, perhaps of the leprechaun persuasion.
(Yes, I know that leprechauns are all male, but I just have to wonder how more leprechauns would be produced! I personally think that this very strange little female from a 14th-century French illumination (NY, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 68.174, fol. 28v) would be exactly the right companion for any sensible leprechaun!)
And finally, the shamrock, a member of the clover family. This border of shamrocks is adapted from the embroidery on an altar frontal from 13th-century Rupertsberg. The famous apocryphal story about St. Patrick is that he used its three leaves to teach the Irish about the Christian Trinity. An older Druid belief involved finding a four-leaf clover which, they believed, could help in locating witches and demons. The shamrock remains the national emblem of Ireland.

Friday, February 5, 2010


The simple heart symbol that we all know from childhood valentines seems to have originated in the Mesopotamian region and moved west. This is a 6th/7th-century semvir from a Sassanian silk fabric. It is interesting to note that the "heart" is placed where it should be, anatomically, but it is impossible to know whether the symbol was used as a simple design or signified something more. However, it would probably be safe to say that we are looking at a simple design with no other meaning.

"Semis" (overall patterning) of hearts are found in 11th- and 12th-century Byzantine art, such as this field of hearts from an enamelled medallion on an icon frame currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Generally speaking, these Byzantine hearts were depicted upside down from how we are familiar with the motif.

This border of repeating, offset hearts is from an 11th/12th-century fragment of knitting found in Egypt. The piece is currently in the Geneva Museum of Art. Note that the heart motif has moved from Mesopotamia through Byzantium and into Arabic Egypt.

Also from Egypt is this border from an 11th/12th-century silk tapestry.

An embroiderer in 13th/14th-century Egypt worked this lovely floriated heart, the original of which is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Another Egyptian embroiderer stitched this lively heart border sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. This, too, resides in the Ashmolean Museum.

And finally, although Lucas Cranach the Elder may have meant these to be apples, his woodcut, done in Germany in the 16th century, certainly seems to incorporate some fine apples with the violets! The original is now in Berlin.

I think it is rather fun to know that you are sending a rather old symbol, found on the figure of a mythological Sassanian creature, to your loved one on Valentine's Day.

(Please note: The colors shown in the examples are not the original colors.)

Friday, January 15, 2010


There are actually two different types of cross stitches -- long-armed and equal-armed -- both of which have been used in embroidery before 1600. As seen in this modern Scandinavian motif, long-armed cross-stitch provides a wonderfully-textured surface in larger red and blue areas of the crowned heart while the equal-armed cross-stitch are used singly. To stitch a long-armed cross-stitch, the initial thread goes over two squares with the top stitch going back only over one square.

An historical example using both types of cross-stitch can be seen in a pillow found in the tomb of Ferdinand de la Cerda who died in 1275 CE in Spain. The original was stitched in silk and resides in the museum at Las Huelgas near Burgos. To see all the textiles from these amazing Spanish burials, see Manuel Gomez-Moreno's book, El Panteon Real de las Huelgas de Burgos (Madrid, 1946).

A fragment of an Egyptian Mamluk (1250-1517) embroidery in red, yellow, and blue silk on linen uses both herringbone stitch and cross-stitch. This fragment is currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and can be seen in Marianne Ellis' beautiful book, Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt (Oxford, 2001).

But are these "counted" cross-stitches? Well, yes, if you consider that you need to count threads in the ground fabric in order to make evenly-stitched and evenly-spaced cross-stitches. The modern notion of "counted" cross-stitch assumes that the stitcher is working from a chart or graph and "counting" exactly the number of various stitches in various colors. It is difficult to say, in many instances, whether a stitcher used a chart or not. Before the advent of printing, patterns would have had to have been handwritten. As far as I know, there are no existing handwritten patterns for cross-stitch.

For example, was this design of two affronting birds stitched freehand or worked from a chart? We do not know. It was worked in four colors of wool on linen and measures, without the fringe, 13.5 cm (ca. 7-1/2") across the width of the band. It was possibly worked at Kloster Lune near Luneburg in Germany about 1500 CE. This and other fascinating embroideries from this cloister can be found in Horst Appuhn's book, Bildstickereien des Mittelalters in Kloster Lune (Dortmund, 1983).

This charming little couple, from a handkerchief of possibly Moravian origin, was stitched on linen with red silk in 1560. The figures are worked in cross-stitch, and, again, we do not know if a chart of any sort was used. It seems quite possible that they were done freehand. The woman holds a flower while the man holds a cup or jug of some sort. The handkerchief is currently in the Moravian Museum in Brno.

For many years, the embroideries that were done by Mary, Queen of Scots, while she was held captive by Elizabeth I were considered to have been done in tent stitch which is basically the first half of a cross-stitch and generally worked on canvas as a needlepoint stitch. However, close examination in recent years has shown that Mary's work was done in very fine cross-stitching. And this was definitely not counted cross-stitch: an artist was hired to draw the underlying designs on the fabric which Mary then stitched over. The tiger is an example of her work, one of many now hanging at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, which can be seen in Gill Speirs and Sigrid Quemby's book, A Treasury of Embroidery Designs (London, 1985). Arelate Studio has a current new line of designs based on Mary's original embroideries.

Printed model books were popular by the 16th century, and eventually "samplers" became a popular form of embroidery. (Samplers are, however, not even that "modern": Egyptian stitchers were working samplers of various stitches as early as the Ayyubid period - late 12th to 13th centuy CE. See the Ellis book cited above.) This is a detail of the famous "Jane Bostocke Sampler", the earliest dated sampler. Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with an excellent picture of the whole sampler in Susan Mayor and Diana Fowle's book, Samplers (Wakefield RI, 1996), Jane used a great variety of stitches, including cross-stitch. It seems very probable that she was working from patterns.