Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: A wild woman and two wild men with fantastic animals
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This tapestry depicting a wild woman and two wild men, is dated to the 15th-century, between 1430 and 1470, and was made in German-speaking, modern-day Switzerland. The tapestry is a fragment (cut) with a top edge width of 2212mm, bottom edge width of 2141mm (Note: Measured by conservation), proper right edge height of 910mm, and a proper left edge height: 913mm (Note: Measured by Victoria and Albert conservation). The tapestry is dyed wool, and the patterns/imagery are created through the use of slit joins. The tapestry was likely a soft furnishing, probably a wall hanging although it might also have been a furniture cover or tablecloth. At the center of the tapestry, we see a wild woman covered in fur, flanked by two wild men also with fur. The figures have the typical folkloric features of the medieval “wild” person, as seen in the comparanda referenced in the metadata. Also in the tapestry are three fantastic beasts, floral imagery, and several small rabbits and birds. The image of the wild person evokes a sense of freedom, in particular, sexual freedom. Coupled with fantastic beasts, this tapestry is also a reference to the bestial side of the Self and how it might manifest in the non-Christian, uncourtly wild.

    Not much is known about the origins of this tapestry. There is no indicated artist or patron, and while it was most likely a wall hanging, the fragmentary nature of the textile does restrict our understanding of its function. The Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the tapestry from art dealer F.A. Drey during the 1930s. The Museum website states that it originally came from the convent of St. Anna Kloster in Bruck, a monastery whose order has been based in Lucerne since 1498, close to the time when the tapestry was made. However, it is unlikely that a tapestry with this imagery would have been made for an ecclesiastical setting. The image of the wild person is notably of a non-Christian tradition, with possible pagan origins, as well as an emphasis on freedom and sexual liberties that run counter to Christian doctrines. Because of these non-Christian implications, a tapestry like this one would have likely been hanging on the walls of a wealthy merchant or even someone of noble status. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (see metadata for link), while not including images of wild people, are stylistically similar and were owned by the dukes of Devonshire starting in the 16th century. Again, with these tapestries, the exact origins are unclear, but they are known to have furnished Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. This is not to say that the tapestry might not have had Christian origins, as we see wild people appear in Books of Hours and other Christian settings during the late Middle Ages.

    The Victoria and Albert Museum catalog references another tapestry from the mid-15th century that used the same cartoon as this tapestry. This older version of the same design is presumably in the Landesmuseum Zurich (LM 1178). We can infer from this how common the wild person motif was in the 15th-century German-speaking world, and indeed, across Western Christendom. This is apparent in the comparanda accumulated here as well. The furry figure of the wild person is consistent in the “Armorial Tapestry” from Flanders and the tapestry of “Wild Men and Moors” from Alsace, Germany, among the other tapestries listed. But this motif is not exclusive to tapestries. It appears in manuscripts, in architecture; it even emerges on a 16th-century bread mold also from Switzerland. It is clear then that the wild persona was a prominent fixture of later medieval Western culture, as it frequently manifested across both the fine and decorative arts.

    As mentioned previously, this tapestry likely functioned as a wall hanging, as most late medieval tapestries did. However, many medieval tapestries were multi-functional due largely to their warmth and durability. Therefore, this tapestry might also have been used as a bed cover, cushion, tablecloth or seat furniture. Tapestries were what provided color and detail to individual chambers and often presented viewers with narrative sequences or consistent themes throughout the room. A household might even have had an inventory of tapestries in a designated “tapestry chamber,” and these tapestries would be taken out and put on display when the family was in residence or to entertain guests (Cavallo, 27). This alludes to the very mobile aspect of medieval tapestries. They were not permanent fixtures but were rather taken from place to place to be shown off. Tapestries might play a part in a processional ceremony, as the decorative fabrics would be carried along the routes of secular, religious or royal processions. These textiles crafted environments, shaping a space with their color and their stories. Of course, due to the complex and detailed nature of tapestries like the one of the wild people, they were likely only viewed by those of wealthier status. Complicated (and expensive) tapestries served the houses of great princes, who would use these tapestries to express their wealth and status. Tapestries like this then might be found in a courtly setting, which is almost ironic, as the scene depicted is an expression of freedom from the regimens of the court.

  • Source: Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Rights: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Subject (See Also): Art History- Decorative Arts Gender Nature Sexuality Tapestries Wild Woman
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1430-1470
  • Related Work: 1) Related tapestries:
    Armorial Tapestry with wild woman and wild man, 1480-1520, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
    The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, 1430s, Victoria and Albert Museum.
    Wild Men and Moors Tapestry, ca. 1440, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
    Wild Woman with Unicorn, tapestry cushion panel, ca. 1500-1510, Historisches Museum Basel.
    Wild people working as farmers, tapestry, 1460, Osterreiche Museum.
    2. Wild people in other mediums:
    Jamb figures in the form of wild men, detail of right jamb of main portal of the College of San Gregario, Valladolid. Spain, about 1490.
    Wild man, detail of manuscript illumination from the Luttrell Psalter, 1335-40, The British Library, Ms. Add 42130, fol, 70.
    Wild man, woman and child, manuscript page from a Book of Hours, ca. 1490, The Morgan Library and Museum, Ms. S.7, fol. 30r.
  • Current Location: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, T.117-1937
  • Original Location: Switzerland, possibly Lucerne or Basel
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Textiles;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wool; Discontinuous weft-facing weave/tapestry weave; Tapestries;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 91/221.2/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Campbell, Thomas P. “European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002. Available open access.

    Cavallo, Adolph S. Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. Available open access.

    Grössinger, Christa. Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. Manchester University Press, 1997.

    Husband, Timothy B. Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. Available open access.

    Moseley-Christian, Michelle. “From Page to Print: The Transformation of the ‘Wild Woman’ in Early Modern Northern Engravings.” Word & Image 27,4 (2011): 429-442.

    Stock, Lorraine K. "Wild Woman." Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs. Edited by Carl Lindahl. ABC Clio, 2000. Pages 435-436.

    Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature. Oxford University Press, 2008.