Aumônières, otherwise known as alms purses

Embellished textile purses in the French 14th century

Purses in art

Pockets as we know them today were not in use in the 14th century. People required some other conveyance for everyday items like money, a paternoster (prayer beads later known as rosaries), a small book of hours, or wax tablet and stylus. The purse, which came in many shapes and sizes, was a common accessory for both men and women. Naturally, the art of the time abounds with people wearing purses hanging from their girdles, purchasing purses, and reaching into or out of their purses. Women seem to have been partial to the rectangular drawstring variety, which dangled from a carrying cord. Men wore these too, in addition to other styles ranging from dainty to utilitarian. The following images are a small sampling of 14th century illuminations depicting people with their purses. Click a picture below to see a larger version.

Purses in the Manesse Codex

Purses in the Manesse Codex

Dietmar von Aist shows a variety of purses and belts to his love interest while disguised as a peddler in the Manesse Codex, circa 1300–1320, Zürich, Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. pal. Germ. 848, fol. 64 recto. Belts and purses were apparently often sold together at the same shops. See the Egerton Genesis picture below. (Camille p. 52)

Giving alms in the Luttrell Psalter

Giving alms in the Luttrell Psalter

A scene of kindness in which a man opens his purse to give alms to a physically disfigured child in a wheelbarrow; from the Luttrell Psalter, circa late 1330s or early 1340s, London, British Library, Additional MS 42130. It was not uncommon to give alms to needy people on the street in the 14th century. (Backhouse p. 41)

A prostitute with her purse in the Romance of Alexander

A prostitute with her purse in the Romance of Alexander

A margin scene possibly portraying negotiations between a man and a prostitute in a manuscript of the Romance of Alexander, circa 1344 (Flemish), Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS 264. She wears what appears to be a drawstring purse and a knife, which is notable considering that very few other women in the manuscript feature these utilitarian accessories. (Bodleian Library)

Rape of Dinah, Egerton Genesis

Rape of Dinah, Egerton Genesis

The rape of Dinah in Shechem, an illumination in the Egerton Genesis, circa 1360, London, British Library, Egerton MS 1894, fol. 17 recto. Aside from the disturbing rape scene, Dinah appears two other times in this illustration of a biblical story —once greeting a Shechemite woman who looks just like her, and also waiting her turn to purchase a belt or belt accessory, such as a purse or knife, from a vendor on the street. (Coker Joslin, pp. 115, 116)

A financially prepared bride

A financially prepared bride

A margin scene from the Parement Workshop and Holy Ghost Master depicting “The Sacrament of Marriage”, circa 1380, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, nouv. acq. lat. 3093, p. 176. The bride stands shyly in the middle and wears what appears to be at least two purses, possibly three. I’m not certain of the significance, but she could be girded such to display her preparedness for the responsibilities of marriage. (Meiss, Plate 20)

Aumônières in specific

An aumônière is a purse or pouch, by its simplest definition. Also called alms or almoner purses/pouches in English, they may have originally earned their name from the New Testament’s exhortation to provide alms for the poor as a part of one’s Christian duty. The concept of spontaneous charity was not unknown to a medieval Christian of means and giving money straight from one’s private purse to a mendicant or pilgrim was typical behavior. Most likely, though, the name simply stuck as a catch-all term for purses worn by people going about their daily business, regardless of alms-giving. Purses in Medieval Europe served a number of purposes: carrying personal effects, storing religious relics (as a form of reliquary), and storing seals used in stamping documents.

For the most part, this discussion covers textile purses, usually embellished with embroidery, as a part of the 14th century person’s daily costume—what I will call aumônières. They seem to have been most popularly referred to as “aumônières” from about the mid-13th century to the mid-to-late-14th century, though textual references also use the term “purse”, or “bourse”. These sorts of embellished textile purses still exist in a number of collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), the Musée Historique des Tissus (Lyon, France), the Musée nationale du Moyen Age (“the Cluny”; Paris, France), the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Hamburg, Germany), and the Cathedral Treasuries at Sens and Troyes (France), and Xanten (Germany). (Carlano p. 113)

Drawstring, rectangular aumônières

Surviving alms purses come in a number of shapes and sizes. One common structural style was the rectangular, drawstring pouch, hung from a carrying cord which was looped around a purse-hanger on a belt or around the belt itself. The following pictures give examples of this style and how it was attached to the belt and worn. Click the pictures to open a larger version.

Parisian purse from 1340, color

Parisian purse from 1340

Parisian purse from 1340, other side

Parisian purse from 1340, other side

Made in Paris, circa 1340. Lovers playing a game with a hood in a garden. Six and 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches; topside-couched gold and silver threads on linen with silk polychrome embroidery in split, chain, stem, and knot stitches. (Color picture and some information from Camille, p. 50; additional b+w photo and further detail from Schuette and Müller-Christensen, pp. 136, 311)

Purse in the Sens Cathedral

Purse in the Sens Cathedral

Purse in the Sens Cathedral, other side

Purse in the Sens Cathedral, other side

French, mid-14th century; now in the Sens Cathedral. Scenes from La Chatelaine de Vergy, a romantic French poem of the 13th century: a woman receives a ring from her love on one side and on the other, is reunited with him after he returns from the hunt. Twenty one x 18 centimeters; linen ground with silk embroidery in split stitch and couched gold. (Schuette and Müller-Christensen, pp. 136, 311)

Mid-14thc alms purse fragment at the Musée des Tissus

Mid-14thc alms purse fragment at the Musee des Tissus

Mid-14thc alms purse fragment, back side, Musée des Tissus

Mid-14thc alms purse fragment, back side, Musée des Tissus

Two sides from a fragmented aumônière in the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyon, France. The ground is red velvet with embroidered linen applied to it. The embroidery is done in silks and in silver or gold thread using satin, stem, and split stitches with couched work. The color image portrays the falconer as the bird and the lady as the falconer, in a playful switching of roles. The black and white image simply shows the falconer, posing flirtatiously. Camille suggests that the female-centric and flowery, romantic subject matter makes it likely that this purse was worn by a woman rather than a man and I am inclined to agree. As these are fragments, I can not be certain that the original purse was rectangular, but the shape of the fragment certainly suggests it. (Camille pp. 98, 99; Schuette p. 135)

Alms purse at the Cloisters

Alms purse at the Cloisters, photo by Tasha Kelly

A mid-14th century French purse on display at the Cloisters in New York. This purse was constructed out of linen and embroidered in polychrome silks and metallic threads. It is rimmed by a series of tiny Turk’s head knots which can also be seen on a couple of the trapezoidal purses in the next section. The scene, yet another secular example of lovers in a garden, confirms the popularity of such themes on these purses while simultaneously hinting at the distance from any piety associated with purses in the form of alms-giving. It seems clear that by the mid-14th century the name “alms purse” had become vestigial. Note also that the braided purse cord has at least three different colors in it: green, red, and white.

Small lampas purse at the Museum of London

Small lampas purse at the Museum of London

A late-14th century purse from London. Made from a lampas-woven silk cloth and bordered with tablet weaving. The tassels at the bottom were formed from the warp of the tablet-woven ribbon. The handle is a fingerloop braid. (Crowfoot et al, p.114)

Half-silk velvet purse with tassels at the Museum of London

Half-silk velvet purse with tassels at the Museum of London

This fragile remnant found in a late-14th century deposit in London, shows how widespread the simple, rectangular purse was. In this case, three tassels adorn the bottom edge. This pouch is made of half-silk velvet with a tablet woven edge. (Crowfoot et al, plate 16) Like the one above it, it may have been called either a purse, or an alms purse in its time. There is simply not enough data available to say with certainty that unembellished textile purses were not also called alms purses.

A medieval purse hanger at the National Museum of Denmark

A medieval purse hanger at the National Museum of Denmark

Extant textile belt with buckle and purse hanger currently in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. (Picture from Fingerlin, p. 363)

A brass purse hanger designed from a 14th century example

A brass purse hanger designed from a 14th century example, by Windrose Armoury

The author’s leather belt with brass purse hanger from Windrose Armoury. The purse is attached using a lark’s head knot. (Permission granted by Windrose Armoury to display their work in this photograph.)

Round-top trapezoidal aumônières

Another style that has managed to survive is a trapezoidal shape with a rounded top flap that folds over and covers the (most likely) circular opening. Not having yet had the chance to see these purses in person or in a photograph with a flap opened up, I cannot be sure what the interior looks like. However, if you look closely at some of the purses below, you may be able to see tell-tale signs of a circular frame hidden behind the rounded flap at the top of each purse. An acquaintance who has seen a few of these purses in person says that the top portion of the upper flap is sewn down to the rest of the purse in a curve, which suggests that the flap is not able to flop open; it requires the direct manipulation of one’s hand to get inside.

A mid-14thc purse once belonging to the Comtesse de Bar

A mid-14thc purse once belonging to the Comtesse de Bar

The comtesse's purse, top and bottom

The comtesse’s purse, top and bottom

An aumônière in the Musée national du Moyen Age (“the Cluny”) in Paris; it comes from the Abbay de St. Mihiel and is said to have been owned by la comtesse de Bar, probably made in mid-14th century Paris. The scene of half-human, half-animal creatures gives evidence of the popularity of secular figures in the embellishment of purses at this time. The figures were done on linen and applied to the ground fabrics of red silk and green velvet. The faces and hands are worked in a fine silk chain stitch with the garments in gold couched work. Height: 35 cm; width at bottom: 31 cm. (Schuette and Müller-Christensen, pps. 139, 311)

Purse in the Xanten Cathedral

Purse in the Xanten Cathedral

An aumônière in the Xanten Cathedral Treasury, Germany. Musicians embroidered in polychrome silk, chain stitch and couched work and applied to the ground, which is covered in couched gold. 35 x 31 cm. (Schuette and Müller-Christensen, pps. 138, 311)

A purse in the Troyes Cathedral

A purse in the Troyes Cathedral

An aumônière in the Troyes Cathedral Treasury, France. Said to have belonged to Thibault IV (a comte and chansonnier who lived between 1201-1253), the purse’s figural complexity combined with the styles worn by its subjects place it firmly in the 14th century. It is made of canvas (probably linen?) and demonstrates raised applique in green velvet, split stitch with silk threads, and couched gold. Though it is not obvious from this photograph, the women in the bottom section are sawing the heart upon the table between them. (Carlano, p. 77–79)

Another purse in the Troyes Cathedral

Another purse in the Troyes Cathedral

An aumônière in the Troyes Cathedral Treasury, France. Said to have belonged to Henri, Comte de Champagne. It was made using the same techniques and materials as the one above, and could have been created by the same embroiderer, or within the same workshop. The subject matter appears to be a chevalier protecting a woman from an animal, or as Carlano suggests, defending her honour. (Carlano p.78, 79)

Purse fragment in the Cluny

Purse fragment in the Cluny

This fragment of an aumônière in the Musée national du Moyen Age (“the Cluny”) in Paris belonged to Marie de Picquigny, according to a coat of arms presumably seen somewhere on the purse. She married a man named Jean d’Hangest in 1342, which the Cluny used to help date the purse. It looks to me like this is the bottom half of a round-top trapezoidal purse. This purse, like the others in its style, was embroidered with polychrome silks and silver and gold threads on a linen ground. It also looks like it might have spent some time folded in half with the half on the right having a history of friction, given its threadbare appearance. (Erlande-Brandenburg et al, p. 166)

Belgian purse in great condition

Belgian purse in great condition

Back view of the Belgian purse

Back view of the Belgian purse

This purse, made in Paris, is dated to 1395 to 1410 by the Royal Institute for the Study and Conservation of Belgium’s Artistic Heritage, but I suspect this date is wrong. I would hazard a guess of 1340-50, judging from the figural style of the embroidery (and the clothing styles of the figures), plus the dating of similar purses made in Paris during that time.

Early 14thc German purse

Early 14thc German purse

A German purse found in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. The museum dates this purse to 1301–1315. The quality of embroidery is not as fine on this purse as that seen on most of the other extant purses examined here, but is notable for its different look and feel.

Purse illuminated with gilding

Purse illuminated with gilding

From folio 67 verso of the Romance of Alexander, Flanders, circa 1344. A woman holds a trapezoidal purse. This manuscript shows evidence of both a woman and a man (below) wearing/holding this style of purse, leading one to guess that both sexes used them. Notably, both purses here and below are gilded, which probably reflects the popularity of metal thread embroidery on them. (Bodleian Library)

Man wearing gold purse

Man wearing gold purse

This section of an illumination from a manuscript depicting the Romance of Alexander (folio 72 verso) gives us a clear idea of how a young man might attach the trapezoidal purse to his belt. Note that the illuminator does not portray a purse-hanger, but rather shows the purse hanging from a thin cord wrapped around the belt itself. (Bodleian Library)

The “Saracen” connection

According to the regulations for the guild that produced these purses in the late 13th century in Paris, they were called “aumônières sarrazinoises” (Saracen alms purses), implying that the silk and precious metal-embroidered versions of purses originated in the Holy Land. (Boileau 382) Marianne Carlano, in her section on embroidery in French Textiles, consults a work called Glossaire français du Moyen Age à l’usage de l’archéologue et de l’amateur des arts (1874) by Laborde and states that they were “adapted from the Arabs,” and that “they were first referred to as ‘bourses sarrazinoises’ or ‘sarrazinoises’. There was a trade guild in Paris set up to make copies of the Asian bags…” Having read the original trade regulations for the Saracen alms purse makers, I am curious to know where Laborde—according to Carlano—came up with the idea that the guild was actually copying the bags, as opposed to carrying on a long-standing tradition of embellishing secular textile purses which had, at one time, been inspired by original purses produced in the Holy Land. She also gleans from Laborde that they were probably collector’s items, judging from a literary reference in which a man boasts of owning many different kinds. (77, 113) Not having seen the entry in Laborde’s glossary, I have no further information about which literary work contains the reference to a man’s boast-worthy collection of purses.

Blanche Payne in History of Costume, however, mentions that “A minor custom of the crusaders was the wearing of a purse suspended from the girdle.” She goes on to say, “A purse, along with a pilgrim’s staff and cross, was given each recruit by his priest,” before setting off on crusade to the Holy Land. (158) Unfortunately, Ms. Payne does not provide the source from which she draws this tidbit. It is not clear whether the purse received its description as “Saracen” because a particular style of purse was brought back by returning crusaders or the purse was named for the purpose of going to Saracen lands on crusade.

Could the tradition of brightly embroidered purses also have found its way into northern Europe from Moorish Spain? It is possible that in addition to their coming to the West over land by way of pilgrims and crusaders, the purses of the Levant may have arrived via ship across the Mediterranean trading with the bottom tip of Spain, which for a time was under Moslem control. The rest of Spain was greatly influenced by Moorish material culture, as evidenced by the common use of cotton there, earlier than in most other parts of Northern Europe. The beautiful Cantigas de Santa Maria, and The Book of Games, Spanish illuminated manuscripts commissioned by Alfonso X the Wise (ruler of Castile and Leon) sometime during the late 13th century, show groups of people with brightly decorated drawstring purses with tassels. The designs, while geometric in nature, appear to be embroidered. The trade between the Holy Land and Moslem Spain had been a regular and robust business, and it is possible that the fashion of decorating purses with lively embroidery was helped by the import of bright silk threads or pre-embroidered purses from the Saracen lands.

Earlier purses

Regardless of the origin of the moniker “sarrazinoise”, the tradition of embellishing purses with embroidery had clearly been established for a long time before the late 13th century Parisian trade dedicated to the making of “aumônières sarrazinoises”. A number of extant examples of pre-13th century purses can be seen below. Click on a thumbnail picture to open a much larger version in a new window.

12thc French purse

12thc French purse

French purse from 1170–1190 presently in the Musée Alfred-Bonno in Chelles, France. Silk threads on red-dyed linen. (Camille 18)

9thc Byzantine relic purse

9thc Byzantine relic purse

Byzantine relic pouch from the 9th century; stored at St. Michael in Beromünster, Switzerland; lions and other quadrupeds worked “on a blue silk ground; lined with ruby red taffeta. Seams at the bottom and along one side. Two strips of similar silk, ending in fringes, adorn the side edges. The drawstrings and carrying-cords are tablet woven silk.” (Flury-Lemberg 273)

10th or 11thc Byzantine relic purse

10th or 11thc Byzantine relic purse

Byzantine relic pouch from the 10th or 11th century; stored at St. Michael in Beromünster, Switzerland; “lattice-work wreath pattern worked on a [silk] ruby red ground. It is made from a single linen-lined piece of cloth, and has seams on two sides. These are concealed by a narrow gold tablet woven border. The red silk drawstrings and carrying-cords are adorned with 25 silver balls.” (Flury-Lemberg 273)

Geometric patterns — embroidered, woven, or applied beads/pearls

Embellished textile purses, as mentioned previously, were not always given figural, freeform designs. There appears to have been a healthy tradition, at least in Spain and in Germany, of repeating geometric patterns as well. The collection of German relic purses pictured below, for example, shows a wide variety of counted geometric embroideries executed in brick stitch. These purses are from the Liebfrauenkirche of Valeria in Sion. Click the picture to see a larger version.

German reliquary purses

German reliquary purses

This collection of 14th century German reliquaries gives one an idea of how varied the simple drawstring, rectangular purse with tassels could be. (Flury-Lemberg p. 68)

One of the German reliquaries, conserved

One of the German reliquaries, conserved

One of the purses above, after proper conservation. The pouch was “embroidered in gold, silver, and silk” and “is adorned with a lozenge décor in which three golden leopards alternate with three red lilies. It has two side seams and is lined with mauve silk taffeta. The drawstring and carrying-cords of plaited silk are decorated with tiny knots of gold thread. The embroidery which completely covers the linen ground is badly damaged and large areas are missing.”(Flury-Lemberg pp. 270, 271)

Alfonso’s Book of Games gives us this purse image. Click the picture to see a slightly larger version.

Illumination of a Spanish purse

Illumination of a Spanish purse

This purse hangs from the bottom of an illumination of a man and a woman playing chess (folio 40 recto). It appears to have symbolic meaning, though without further knowledge of the text and the larger book itself, I can’t be sure exactly what that is. I can speculate that the purse stands for the monetary stakes of gambling or perhaps the financial dealings of marriage, but that is pure guesswork.

Even though such patterned embroidery has not (so far) been found in 14th century English purses, quite a number of extant purse pilgrim badges survive to suggest that repeating geometric motifs may have been used in England—if not as a result of embroidery, as simple geometric or repeating-shape brocades. Brian Spencer, the author of two authoritative books on the subject of English pilgrimage badges, suggests that the lattice-worked purses seen below were probably representations of embroidery. (Spencer [MoL] p. 313) He also draws the conclusion that the popularity of these purse badges are signs that people viewed the purse as an icon for earthly wealth and luck. (Spencer [Salisbury] p. 116) Click the pictures below to see larger versions.

Pewter purse pendant

Pewter purse pendant

These early 15th century pewter (tin-lead alloy) pendants, most likely designed to be hung from a pewter badge, show two similar styles of of the rectangular, drawstring purse with tassels at the bottom. Both have latticework quatrefoil patterns, which could be symbolic of both a popular embroidery pattern or a popular woven cloth pattern. The first pendant can be seen here from the side, as it was designed to hold a small “coin” also made of tin-lead alloy. Its three dimensional appearance probably also emphasized the fullness a purse should, in good times, have. (Spencer [Salisbury] pp. 116, 134)

Another purse pendant

Another purse pendant

This purse pendant has cross-hatchings which may be the artist’s attempt to portray shading or may be a faithful redrawing of the extant item; it is unclear. The edges are more clearly cross-hatched, though, which might simply represent a tablet-woven reinforcement. The heart in the center was a popular symbol of heavenly love, but more commonly as a symbol of romantic love. (Spencer [Salisbury] pp. 117, 135)

A selection of purse-themed pewter work from English finds

A selection of purse-themed pewter work from English finds

Elaborate mid-15thc German purse illustration

Elaborate mid-15thc German purse illustration

Spencer draws a connection between the latticed quatrefoil pattern seen in figure 311 on the left to the mid 15th century picture by Stefan Lochner in the Kölner Cathedral on the right (found in Fingerlin p. 365). He feels the picture on the right depicts embroidery. I am inclined to view it as applied pearls or perhaps white glass beads, rather than stitches of floss. (Spencer [MoL] p. 313, 314)

The purse as romantic gift

Since the height of courtly love in the 12th century, purses have enjoyed status not only as a fashion accessory but as a romantic token or favor, passed from one lover to another, according to Andreas Capellanus, the famous author of The Art of Courtly Love. (Camille p. 51) In medieval culture, there was a strong corollary between the aesthetic lure of rich adornment and the attractiveness of the person so adorned. The “gift culture” was, therefore, strong. (Camille p. 53) The authors of a book about the Egerton Genesis assert that purses were fashionable gifts in 14th century England. According to records in the Norwich Priory, many purchases of purses among other items like knives, rings, and brooches were made and were probably given to women. (Coker Joslin p. 116)

Last 13thc illumination of the marital purse

Last 13thc illumination of the marital purse

The purse as a symbol of woman's greed

The purse as a symbol of woman’s greed

If we are to believe Michael Camille’s interpretation of period artistic portrayals of people and their purses, the intermingling of the erotic and the monetary join at the purse.

Camille cites the two illuminations above, both from manuscripts made in 1280. In the picture on the left, from a French copy of Justinian’s Digeste (Paris, Bibliothèque national, MS fr. 20118, fol. 266recto), the husband and wife hold a large purse together, symbolizing their sharing of goods within a marriage. In the picture on the right, from a copy of Le Roman de la Rose (Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Urb. 376, fol. 51verso), a woman feels a man’s purse as illustration for a section in the Le Roman de la Rose in which Friend bemoans how money-hungry modern women are — seeking wealthy lovers. (Camille pp. 64, 65)

Joan Evans, author of Dress in Mediaeval France, claims that in the 13th century it was common to “wear an aumônière or pouch hanging from the belt. This was usually of embroidered silk; such pouches were often made by ladies and given as presents to their lovers.” She cites Liénor in Guillaume de Dôle, a 13th century French romance written by Jean Renart, who “sends the seneschal a pouch and belt embroidered with birds and fishes.” (p. 18) Evans goes on to describe the evolution of the purse from square rectangle (presumed to be 13th century and previous) to a bag with a metal frame and a flap covering the frame (mid-14th century), to a “shaped bag with a more or less elaborate metal mount.” (p. 18)

Other french terms for purses

This last reference may have described what she calls an “escarcelle” or perhaps a “gibecière”. François Boucher, in 20,000 Years of Fashion, shows us two clasp-purses of the 15th century, which he calls escarcelles. He provides no further information, so I cannot be certain if the term applied specifically to clasp-purses when used in the 15th century or was simply another all-purpose word for “purse” (bourse in French) back then as well as today, which is what French dictionaries seem to imply.

Escarcelles(?) in the Cloisters

Escarcelles(?) in the Cloisters

The purse on the left is cut velvet with an iron clasp, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The purse on the right is made of leather with an iron clasp, and is also owned by the Met. (Boucher p. 207) Both are on display in The Cloisters. There seems to have been a 15th century fashion for small buildings used for decorative elements on purse clasps and belt clasps, as seen on pp. 329, 330, and 365 (picture above) in Fingerlin.

On p. 47 Evans mentions that the gibecière was worn until around 1420, but had ceased to have as much decorative importance as it once did. Unfortunately, she supplies no reference for this assertion.

Chaucer uses the English word for gibecière, gipser, when describing the appearance of the Franklin in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. His gibecière is white silk, though he says no more on the subject. In contrast, Chaucer uses the word “purse” much more often when referring to the bags suspended from the girdles his characters wear. Laura Hodges presumes this may signify a relatively base status to these sorts of bags, while “gipser” may be reserved for a finer sort of purse. (142) A later footnote on p. 143 suggests a somewhat contradictory description for the “gibbeciere” (as it is spelled there): a “large, flat pouch worn at the side by sportsmen”. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the connection between the word gibecière and the Old French word gibecer (to go hunting) is not conclusive, yet provides no further proof. Either way, the term remains questionable — is it a fine silk bag used in gentlemanly context, or is it a big, utilitarian sports bag, or a sturdy leather pouch designed to be worn in tandem with a blade? Hodges cites some 15th century highly adorned textile gipsers mentioned in the Middle English Dictionary (MED for short).

The embroidery on purses

The free-form figural embroidery seen on a number of surviving purses is greatly influenced by opus anglicanum, or ‘English work’. The defining features of this style as seen on these purses are the use of polychrome silk embroidery and couched silver or gold threads depicting graceful figures cavorting in scenes of secular love. Stitches used include split, chain, stem, satin, and knot. (Schuette p. XI) The popularity of opus anglicanum spread from England to the rest of continental Europe by the late 13th century (Wardle p. 7) and lasted in popularity until at least the middle of the 14th, when embroidery styles began to change and the devastation of the plague whittled down the highly skilled craftsman community. (Schuette p. XVI) These surviving works of art, not easily confused with their more utilitarian cousins made of leather and strapped around a sturdy belt (for examples, see p. Egan 350–355), provide a glimpse of what the Provost of Paris classifies as “aumônières sarrazinoises” in 1295.

The informal yet highly populated guild that had sprung up in Paris by the end of the 13th century for the purpose of creating these delicate works of art in large quantities was necessary in order to satisfy the French appetite for the fashionable accessory. At least 124 embroiderers, mostly female, appear in the trade regulations as an organized fraternity under rigid rules for apprenticeship, methods, and materials. (Boileau p. 384) In fact, if a maker of Saracen alms purses created one using inferior gold or some other forbidden material or technique, the purse qualified for immediate destruction in order to safeguard quality. (Boileau p. 385) The various trades, including embroiderers, generally confined themselves to some particular area of the city of Paris and could be found in ‘open shops’, sharing space with other specialists in textile and metal crafts. (Tuchman p. 159)

As the 14th century progressed, needle-painting ascended in France and began to move away from the opus anglicanum style. Some extant purses from the middle part of the 14th century contain the seeds of a new technique called or nue, or ‘shaded gold’. (Schuette plate p. XI) The technique as it appears on these purses employs polychrome silks for topside-couching gold threads so that geometric patterns emerge. (Schuette p. XXII). Later, this technique would blossom into a complex form of realistic figure portrayal in which the gold ‘background’ would shimmer through the polychrome silk couching stitches. (Staniland pp. 44, 45)

The Schuette book mentions that a number of extant embroideries have worn away to reveal the remains of patterns or drawings applied to the ground cloth for the purpose of guiding the stitchers in their art. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, in his 15th century treatise on artistic techniques, describes in detail a method by which an artist can paint subtle shades into their figures applied to fabric for embroiderers. (pp. 105, 106)

There appeared to be a separation between the craft of professional embroidery and the design of their subject matter. If the practice of commissioning a professional artist to first lay down a rendering on the cloth was common, then the embroiderers were not expected to have such design skills themselves. Instead, it appears that many of them were required only to use good workmanship to faithfully follow someone else’s design. If the design were a simple cartoon, i.e. a line drawing, the embroiderers would still need skill in faithfully coloring the complex folds of draping fabric, a hallmark of the figural embroidery seen on such purses.

Special thanks are due the following people for helping me find information and images: Kaye Adair, Nancy Feldman, Charles Mellor, Rachael Schechter, Ulla-Mari Uusitalo, Linda Brizendine, Greta Nappa, Michelle Watson, Lee Ann Posavad, and Karen Harris.

For a look at the author’s own attempt at an embroidered alms purse, click here.

Works cited

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