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Sewing the Scene: The Uses of Embroidery in Medieval Film

Sewing the Scene: The Uses of Embroidery in Medieval Film

By Valentina S. Grub

Paper given at the Borderlines XIX Conference at Queen’s University, Belfast on April 12, 2015

Merida and the Tapestry in Brave
Merida and the Tapestry in Brave

Introduction: Well before any of us went to school and learned about the Middle Ages through academic text books, our conception of the era was probably established through more non-academic means, namely literature and film. It is impossible to know with the precision needed to create a film what the Middle Ages actually looked like. Thus, filmmakers more often than not, fall back on inaccurate tropes that we have come to equate with the Middle Ages, but which are really romantic constructs of the 19th century. And it is this very type of ahistoricism, according to historian Arthur Lindley, which obscures the reality of the Middle Ages and sentimentalizes it in a way that denies it any real independent existence. Filmmaker Andrew Elliot also noted that scholars are upset with Hollywood because, as he describes it, of the ‘filmmaker’s audacity to infringe on the serious scholarly domain of the Middle Ages.’ But if this is the way most people are exposed to the Middle Ages, then it behoves us to acknowledge medieval film as an important area of scholarship.

But is there really such a thing as a ‘medieval film’, and if so, what defines it? In her book, Filming the Middle Ages, Bettina Bildhauer argues that medieval films should be considered a genre unto themselves, sharing a portrayal as a time of monks, death, sexual repression and violence; this demonization has its origins in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. But the accuracy (or lack thereof) of events and scenery aside, there are three characteristics which define a medieval film; non-linear time, a visual rather than a literate culture, and an anti-individualism that Bildhauer calls ‘pre-individualism’. This is relatively broad criteria for medieval films, and encompasses everything from The Name of the Rose to Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But just as important as the construction and perception of the Middle Ages in film is the creation of the feminine in medieval films. Particularly in earlier films, female characters are shown as passive and languid, and are rarely the main protagonist. In addition to their clothing and attitudes, the use of embroidery is key in establishing and further grounding the female characters and the setting in the Middle Ages. It is where, as Pauline Johnstone explains, the popular conception that ‘embroideries were created by ladies wearing their elegant wimples, sitting in their solars sewing a graceful seam whilst listening to troubadours’ is reinforced. In reality, it was almost equally as likely that a man would embroider as would a woman, and there were several men noted for their skill with the needle in the Middle Ages. However, the 19th century came to see embroidery as the height of femininity and equated medieval women with this as a symbol of domesticity. In these films, embroidery establishes a feminine space which is at odds with the other, male-dominated scenes. However, more recently, embroidery has been used in medieval film as a means by which the main female character reclaims her autonomy.

I will be looking at a selection of films that conform to Bildhauer’s criteria, and which form a continuum. The continuum begins with female characters who create a feminine space, only to wait there for the main male character to invade it, which corresponds to a change in their marital or maternal status. On the other side of the continuum, embroidery both connotes and denotes an acceptance of the main character and the claiming of her independence.

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