Constructed by Tasha Kelly McGann, December 2002 through March 2003
Thanks to the beautifully embellished 14th century purses still in existence today, I was inspired to compliment my research on the social context of this fashion phenomenon by making my own. I was influenced by a number of things; mainly the surviving purses themselves, but also the Romance of the Rose, a popular poetic text of the 13th through 15th centuries, and the many portrayals of drawstring purses worn discreetly by women in the art of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Michael Camille’s The Medieval Art of Love contains small color reproductions of two illuminations from the Romance of the Rose, one called “The God of Love Locks the Lover’s Heart” and the other, “Coitus: Nature’s Smithy”. These illustrations come from two manuscripts executed around 1380 in France. I used these images as the template for my design of a drawstring purse.
In lines 2159–2162 of the Romance of the Rose, the God of Love instructs the Lover to “Deck yourself out with gloves, a belt, and a silk purse; if you are not rich enough to do so, then restrain yourself. You should, however, maintain yourself as beautifully as you can without ruining yourself.” I used this line as my textual inspiration.
The purse was made from two embroidered panels of white tabby-woven linen, lined in silk twill, outlined with silk tablet-weaving, adorned with tassels made from silk, and completed with fingerloop-braided drawstrings and carrying cord (also silk). The embroidery was done in silk (Soie d’Alger by Au Ver a Soie) with “Japanese gold” # 7 (by Kreinik) substituted for real gold-wrapped silk floss, as might have been used in the 13th through 15th centuries. I used the following stitches: split, knot, chain, stem, and topside couching. The split stitching and couching made up most of the embroidery while I outlined in stem, did most of the hair in knot, and the belt on the Lover in chain. It took roughly 300 hours to complete. If you would like more details on its construction, please feel free to email me.
In retrospect I would change many things, but that is the way these big projects go. There is always something to improve next time. My biggest nit is the execution of the folds of drapery on the God of Love. I fudged this completely, and did not take the time to carefully design the shading of fabric as it lays in folds. I did a much better job on the bedcovers in the Coitus image, which was embroidered after the God of Love scene.
There is evidence that embroiderers (mostly women in organized guilds by the turn of the 14th century in Paris) used pre-painted or drawn ‘cartoons’ as guides for their work. I can attest that if they used simple line cartoons, the execution of subtle shading in full color was a huge artistic challenge, in addition to the workmanship of stitchery itself.
For a list of useful sources covering the purses of this period, see my aumônière research page. Here’s a picture of me wearing my purse (along with a French 1410s outfit) suspended from a brass purse-hanger on my belt: