Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Anne of Brittany (detail) High resolution image

  • Title: Pamphila collecting cocoons and spinning silk
  • Creator: Image #1: Talbot Master;
    Image #2: Bourdichon, Jean, painter
  • Description:

    The illustration above depicts Pamphila, the woman credited in Greek mythology with inventing silk spinning and weaving. In the background of the picture, Pamphila collects silkworm cocoons from a stand of mulberry trees. In the foreground she is shown at a loom, continuing the silk working process by weaving the threads into fabric. The object in her left hand is a shuttle, used for compacting the weft threads in the fabric. The image comes from a ca. 1440 French translation of Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus (originally written in 1374) which was presented to Margaret of Anjou, a future queen of England. The manuscript contains a collection of short biographies of famous women from antiquity through the 14th century. The inclusion of Pamphila in the book alongside classical goddesses and noblewomen indicates the growing importance of silk production in western Europe during the late medieval period and the material’s association with those of high status. Earlier in the 12th century, Chretien de Troyes had featured a haunting description of female silk workers in his romance, Yvain. The hero comes across 300 young women held prisoner and forced to weave cloth while hungry and deprived of sleep. Scholars have argued that this is not a plea on behalf of workers but a critique of introducing money into the realm of noble luxury.

    Silk fabric had been known to Europeans since the Hellenistic period, and, according to the historian Procopius, the Byzantine court had silkworms and knowledge of silk production by the middle of the 6th century CE. Throughout the early and high medieval periods European silk manufacturing was concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean and northern Italy. Sharon Farmer argues that weavers in northwestern Europe had been producing silk narrow ware, used for ribbons and trim, since the early medieval period with silk yarn imported from Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the spinning of silk yarn and widespread production of silk cloth in this region were more recent developments, beginning in Paris in the early 13th century. The expansion of the silk industry in France from narrow ware to luxury cloth was spurred by the immigration of silk workers and entrepreneurs from the silk producing areas of the Mediterranean to northern European cities and in particular to Paris.

    Medieval silk work was recognized as a skilled trade, and in some cases silk workers formed guilds. Paris, Cologne, and Rouen-- where the Bocaccio manuscript above was created-- were known for their silk and for their silk workers’ guilds, some of the period’s only exclusively female or women-dominated guilds. Women silk workers in these cities could often attain membership in a guild in their own right, without connection to the trade through a male family member, and could reap the economic and social benefits of guild membership. Still, women’s guilds were usually overseen by men at the municipal level and female guild members did not enjoy the political privileges granted to guildsmen.

    An example of silk produced in northern Europe can be seen in the portrait on the right of Anne de Bretagne, queen of France and duchess of Brittany. Her gown is made of yellow self-patterned silk and its wide, fur-trimmed sleeves reveal wool undersleeves dyed with kermes, an insect-based dyestuff that produced vivid reds and denoted royalty. The image comes from the Grandes Heures, a deluxe prayer book commissioned by Anne with extensive illuminations and large-format pages. In 1491 Anne, the 14-year-old duchess of Brittany, married Charles VIII of France in order to end his siege of Rennes, the Breton capitol. The marriage agreement stipulated that if Charles died without an heir, Anne would marry the next king of France. When Charles died seven years later, Anne used her position as wife of Louis XII and queen of France to restore many of Brittany’s rights as a sovereign duchy.

  • Source: Image #1: British Library
    Image #2: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Image #1: Public domain
    Image #2: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Anne of Brittany, Queen-Consort of Charles VIII and Louis XII of France Luxury Trade Pamphila (Mythological Figure) Queens Silk Textiles
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15- 16
  • Date: ca. 1440; 1503-1508
  • Related Work: Images from Royal 16 G V:
    Arachne weaving on a loom
    Penelope weaving and the slaughter of the suitors
    Gaia Caecilia or Tanaquil, with a loom, and women spinning;
    Images from the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne:
    Full page illustration of Anne de Bretagne with Saints (Anne, Ursula, and Helena);
    Deposition of the crucified Christ from the Grandes Heures. On the page opposite the portrait of Anne de Bretagne;
    Digitized manuscript of the Grandes Heures

  • Current Location: London, British Library, Royal 16 G V f. 54v
  • Original Location: Rouen, France
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Colors; Gold; Ink
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 41/27/[full page]
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Adams, Tracy. "Rivals or Friends?: Anne De Bourbon and Anne De Bretagne." Women in French Studies 1 (2010): 46-61;
    Burns, E. Jane. Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women's Work in Medieval French Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009;
    Cassagnes-Brouquet, Sophie. "La Pire des Aventures: le chevalier Yvain et les tisseuses de soie (fin du XIIe siècle)." Clio: Femmes, Genre, Histoire 38 (2013): 235-240;
    The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne De Bretagne: Negotiating Convention in Books and Documents. Ed. Cynthia J. Brown. Boydell & Brewer, 2010;
    Farmer, Sharon. "Medieval Paris and the Mediterranean: The Evidence from the Silk Industry." French Historical Studies 37, 3 (2014): 383-419;
    Farmer, Sharon. The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris: Artisanal Migration, Technological Innovation, and Gendered Experience. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017;
    Kowaleski, Maryanne, and Judith M. Bennett. “Crafts, Gilds and Women in the Middle ages: Fifty years after Marian K. Dale.” In Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages. Ed. Judith M. Bennett, Elizabeth A. Clark, Jean F. O'Barr, B. Anne Vilen, and Sarah Westphal-Wihl. University of Chicago Press, 1989;
    Molà, Luca. The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.