Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Religious woman dancing while a friar "plays music"
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this manuscript scene, a woman dances while her companion, a Franciscan friar, "plays music" with a fireplace bellows and a distaff. The exuberant figures may have been intended to convey a lively humor. The nun or beguine (a religious woman who lived a life of service among the laity) has hiked up her robe to the knees, and her headdress is askew with some hair showing. The friar is properly attired in a Franciscan robe with the knotted belt signifying poverty, chastity and obedience. However, his musical instrument is not a fiddle but a fireplace bellows, and the bow is a distaff, the tool for turning fibers into yarn that is traditionally identified with women. In this "World turned upside down" view, the wheezing of the bellows and the gendered spinning tool confer a ridiculous air on the inappropriate familiarity between the friar and the semi-clothed religious woman. The text above their heads is part of the Office of Matins, using well-known verses from the Song of Songs:
    Vox Ecclesiae: Ecce tu pulcher es dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina.
    (Voice of the Church: Behold, you are handsome, O my beloved, and graceful. Our bed is flourishing. The timbers of our houses are of cedar; our ceilings are of cypress.)

    This illuminated scene appears in a manuscript known as the Maastricht Hours, a very small prayer book (3 by 4 inches) that is profusely illustrated. In addition to marginal scenes, there are initials full of figures, grotesques, full-page miniatures and calendar illustrations. The illuminations tell narrative stories from the New Testament, as well as those of saints and the Virgin's redemption of Theophilus from a pact with the devil. The Stowe 17 artist drew ideas from earlier manuscript illustrations done in the Meuse River region (likely from the atelier's copybooks), but added more inventive and often homely details. The infant Christ steadies himself on the donkey's head while reaching for his mother's pillow. A noble woman is represented at prayer ten times in the manuscript (beginning on folio 18r and ending on 256r) and is believed to be the original owner.

    Scholars have pointed to the emphasis on maternal themes in the illustrations, ranging from the Virgin and child to the Massacre of the Innocents, where an angel transports a baby's soul to heaven. Miniatures of female saints include Margaret, the patron of women in childbirth, who is emerging from a dragon, with her hands clasped in prayer. In the marginalia many female figures also appear, including mermaids, hybrid female creatures, nuns, a peasant woman protecting her rooster from a fox, noble women, and women brandishing weapons. Like the monk and dancing woman, many of these figures appear at the bottom of the page without any leafy decoration to distract from the expressive figures and their energetic activities.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Dancing Friars Humor Marginalia Music Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1300- 1325
  • Related Work: Digitized copy of Stowe MS 17.
    Nun and cat playing with a spindle, Stowe MS 17, fol. 34r.
    Fox preaching to chickens and a goose, Stowe MS 17, fol. 84r.
    Dog playing a violin, Stowe MS 17, fol. 172r.
  • Current Location: London, British library, Stowe MS 17, fol. 38r
  • Original Location: Liege
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Gold; Colored inks;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 9.5/7/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Barrow, Robyn. "Stowe MS 17: Text, Image and the Ramifications of Female Viewership in a Gothic Illuminated Book of Hours." Immediations 4, 2 (2017). Available open access: https://courtauld.ac.uk/research/publications/immediations/immediations-online-2/immediations-2017-volume-4-number-2/70584-2;
    Camille, Michael. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Harvard University Press, 1992;
    Nishimura, Margot McIlwain. Images in the Margins. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009;
    Oliver, Judith H. Gothic Manuscript Illumination in the Diocese of Liege (c. 1250 – c. 1330). Two volumes. Uitgeverij Peeters, 1988;
    Standley, Eleanor R. "Spinning Yarns: The Archaeological Evidence for Hand Spinning and its Social Implications, c ad 1200–1500." Medieval Archaeology 60, 2 (2016): 266-299.