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Background
The Tapestries
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BACKGROUND

MEDIEVAL TAPESTRIES

Tapestries: “a fabric formed of threads, inserted by hand, passing alternately in and out on the parallel strings of a warp stretched upon a frame or loom. The weft threads are not thrown completely across the loom, but are introduced to cover short spaces with various colours and tints as required by the design. The warp is thus completely hidden into finished fabric.” (A.F. Kendrick, Catalogue of Tapestries, 1924)

Tapestries have long been part of society. Fragments have been found from ancient Egypt. The earliest European tapestries still in existence date from the 11th century. Tapestries became particularly fashionable in the 14th century, and reached their heyday in the 15th century, when the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were made.

Tapestries in the Middle Ages were both beautiful and useful, bringing color and warmth to the otherwise cold and echoing stone rooms of medieval houses. They were hung without gaps between them, and fitted around windows and corners to cover all parts of the walls.

As a result, tapestry designs were often crammed with images. Art historian Linda Woolley explains: “The [tapestry] designer had to take into account the way in which they were used. The entire surface therefore had to be covered with equally compelling images, satisfying the requirement for a well-presented and coherent narrative but without having too strong a central focus” (Medieval Life and Leisure in the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, 2002).

Subject matter was both religious and secular. Religious subjects included scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and various saints, as well as other popular Bible stories such as the Prodigal Son. Other tapestries depicted everyday activities such as winemaking, woodcutting, and especially hunting, or scenes of chivalry and courting among the nobility.

Tapestries were expensive to make in medieval times. The work was exacting and time-consuming, and the materials – fine wools and silks, sometimes gold thread – costly. In the novel, the Le Viste family has to pay 5 weavers’ full-time salaries for two years (not counting all the unpaid hours the women worked on them), as well as fees for the artist, the merchant middleman, and all of the materials and transport. In today’s terms, the labor alone for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (as I have imagined them) would have cost at least $250,000 – and that is a conservative estimate!

As a result, only the wealthiest of families could afford tapestries. Tapestries were easily movable, and often accompanied nobility as they moved from residence to residence. Once hung they quickly established a new room as the family’s own, as well as showing off their wealth.