Thread and blood: the fabrication of female devotion in medieval english literature
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
This thesis explores the representation and development of female devotion through textiles in medieval English literature. Drawing from a broad range of texts that can be termed as “devotional” narratives (including lives of Christ, biblical apocrypha, hagiographies, prayers, and mystery plays), I argue that women’s devotion during this period was “fabricated”. Pushed to the margins of religious and ecclesiastical culture and, to a large extent, excluded from the vocal and literary prerogatives of patriarchal Christian spirituality, I argue that medieval women found in cloth a rich alternative for the interpretation, exercise, and expression of religious devotion and closeness to Christ. This broad and eclectic range of material is corralled around four archetypal figures, whose significance and connection to cloth I delineate from the early Christian period. I begin at the very root of this tradition in Chapter One, exploring Eve’s vocation as a spinner. A task originally symbolic of the first woman’s sensory transgression, I argue that Eve’s spinning evolved into a symbol of the potential of such hapticity for Christian exegesis. This foundational chapter forms the basis of the textile hermeneutic, the particularly feminine means of interpreting Divine truth through cloth, which I establish and trace throughout this thesis. Chapter Two explores the literary representation of the Virgin Mary as a clothworker, considering legends surrounding her weaving of Christ in the womb as another example of this alternate exegetical hermeneutic, a distinctly gynocentric means of reading and interpreting Christ’s incarnate body. This conception of Christ’s incarnation as a textile phenomenon is then extended in Chapter Three, which focuses on the literary development and evolution of the Veronica as a cloth relic, a further manifestation of the divine presence via textiles venerated and borne by a woman, St. Veronica. Chapter Four turns to Christ himself as an archetype of distinctly feminine suffering and piety. This chapter flips our narrative, exploring the patriarchal violence imposed through textiles as cultural and social signifiers in clothing. Aligning Christ’s persecution and conception as Agnus Dei with the lives of a range of virgin martyrs, saints, and holy women, I outline the ways in which cloth’s hermeneutical and figurative qualities are redirected towards ideological and physical abuse through what I term “sartorial persecution”. Ultimately, I suggest that our understanding of women’s religiosity in the Middle Ages is greatly enriched by emulating their own exegetical practices; we might restore the richly woven tapestry of female piety by following their own methods and patterns, reading and interpreting their lives through cloth.