Of Texts and Textiles

Hunting in the Middle Ages was an integral part of court etiquette, as depicted in details of a wool tapestry called “Boar and Bear Hunt.” (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
Hunting in the Middle Ages was an integral part of court etiquette, as depicted in details of a wool tapestry called “Boar and Bear Hunt.” (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Why would binoculars be an essential tool for a scholar of Renaissance literature during a study tour of Europe? What does crawling around on a castle floor have to do with researching the writings of Shakespeare and Spenser? Why would a professor of 15th- and 16th-century poetry and drama desperately need a therapeutic massage after a day of intense investigation? The answer is tapestries.

Massive, intricate, otherworldly weavings called “arras” were commissioned by European royals and nobles to adorn the walls of their palaces and estates. Peopled with life-sized figures depicting scripture, myth and legend as well as hunting, falconry and winemaking, they brought color and life to drab, drafty halls. But adornment was only part of the purpose of these colossal works of art, says Rebecca Olson, who has spent more than a decade studying their role in literature and, by extension, in Renaissance society.  They also reinforced power and inspired loyalty by evoking tradition and royal status.

“I use the analogy of Kindles and e-readers and how they retain some of the elements of an actual book.”
Rebecca Olson

“These tapestries were everywhere,” says Olson, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University School of Writing, Literature and Film. “Besides the magnificent large-scale hangings, there were smaller, cheaper versions adorning humbler settings. They were as ubiquitous as TV is today. They had practical uses, educational uses, political uses. You can’t really understand Renaissance literature unless you understand how they were used and how people thought about them.”

Crafted of wool and threaded with strands of silk, gold and silver, the most impressive tapestries sometimes unfurled 30 feet long and soared 15 feet high, all the better to awe, educate and even intimidate the viewer. Studying them can be a workout. Olson once slid herself along the cold stones of Hampton Court Palace to view the underside of an arras laid out on a rack for repairs. To examine details at the top, she often resorts to peering upward through a pair of binoculars. After days of scrutinizing every last detail, she can wind up with a serious crick.

“Just to look at them is very physical,” says Olson. “You’re moving because you can’t take them all in at once, so you’re craning your neck, you’re bending down, you’re walking up to look closely, you’re stepping back. My neck often hurts quite a bit.”

Stories from the Past

The first arras hangings she saw with her own eyes were in the banquet hall of England’s Hampton Court Palace. Even as frayed and faded as the massive tapestries were, she found them enchanting, particularly the heroic scenes depicting the labors of Hercules. The 500-year-old weavings felt like silent emissaries from Shakespeare’s era. As she gazed on them — realizing that the Bard’s contemporaries had sat among these very hangings eating, drinking and watching live actors perform — her arms prickled with goose bumps.

“Boar and Bear Hunt,” detail. (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
“Boar and Bear Hunt,” detail. (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

In the years since, she has discovered a rich — and largely overlooked — literary and historical presence for the arras, which she documents in her upcoming book, Arras Hanging: The Textile that Determined Modern Literature and Drama (University of Delaware Press, in press). The arras was, for instance, central to one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic scenes: Hamlet’s stabbing of Polonius. In Act III when Lord Polonius plots with Hamlet’s mother and stepfather to hide behind a tapestry to eavesdrop (“Behind the arras I’ll convey myself”), he makes a fatal mistake. Hamlet, hearing the hidden voice, thrusts his sword through the arras (translated as a “curtain” in some editions), killing Polonius.

“The idea of a prince damaging one of these very expensive tapestries really makes us wonder about Hamlet’s sanity in that scene,” Olson says. Modern audiences, she adds, would fail to grasp the import of his action without the historical context. “It’s like when a rock star smashes his expensive guitar. It has real shock value.”

In Book III of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen, one of the great classics of Renaissance literature, the writer devotes 18 stanzas to the virgin warrior Britomart’s night in a room draped floor to ceiling with arras tapestries (“For round about, the wals yclothed were With goodly arras of great majesty, Wouen with gold and silke…”). On the tapestries were bawdy scenes of debauchery and sensuality, which Spenser introduced to contrast with Britomart’s chastity.

Inspired to Reverence

For the rich and the royal, arras hangings were status symbols. They depicted ancient stories of valor and virtue. Often designed to inspire viewers to be braver and better, they also were instruments of political propaganda and puffery. King Henry VIII favored images of King David in an attempt to associate himself with the great biblical figure. Queen Elizabeth I lined her outer chambers with woven figures of small size, yet as the visitor proceeded toward her inner chambers, the figures got bigger and bigger. “They were supposed to make you feel smaller and smaller, so by the time you got to the queen you just felt tiny,” says Olson.

Boar and Bear Hunt.” (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
Boar and Bear Hunt.” (©Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Olson’s research has taken her to the Tower of London and to the National Archives of the United Kingdom, where she scoured ancient ledgers and inventories for clues to ownership and transport of arras hangings. She also has found evidence that tapestries were used to teach a young prince about the Battle of Troy, and that queens gave birth in chambers swathed in weavings.

As important as the woven images is the literary symbolism embedded in the act of weaving. Olson points out that the words “text” and “textile” derive from the same Latin roots texo and texere — “weaving” or “to weave.” Even though the loom has largely disappeared from daily life, the metaphor (to weave a story, spin a tale, follow a narrative thread) has survived all these centuries, cropping up in our most advanced communications lingo (the Web, the Net, an email thread).

Just as many moderns cling nostalgically to bound books of paper and ink, Olson notes, medieval Europeans would have felt attached to stories told upon the tactile surface of a weaving, even as the printing press was beginning to push the technology.

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