The Needle is Mightier than the Sword: The Effect of Embroidery in Medieval War Material Culture
By Valentina Grub
Paper presented at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies (2016)
Introduction: It’s the 7th of September, 1303. Two thousand mercenaries march on the small Italian town of Anagni, where Pope Boniface VIII prepares to excommunicate King Philip IV of France. Leading the band are two disgraced cardinals, Guillaume de Nogaret (1260–1313) and Sciarra Colonna (1270-1329).
By the time they reach the papal palace, almost all of the Pope’s allies and relatives have fled. He alone steps out to meet the army, dressed richly in embroidered papal regalia, and shouting “Here is my neck, here is my head!” His holiness singlehandedly drove off the forces with the strength of his faith and magnificence, and rallied the loyal townspeople behind him.
Or at least, this is the story that many contemporary sources, including Dante Alighieri, would have us believe. Nevertheless, while many of the details and facts of the siege remain in doubt, what is consistently emphasized is the magnificence of Boniface’s vestments. The image that these garments projected bolstered the minimal power that the Pope had in that instance. The garments’ splendor also marked him as the head of the church, identifying him and not-so-subtly reminding his foes that they were attacking the leader of their Church. In this anecdote, the embroidered vestments embody a two-fold function; they serve to identify and to magnify.
I began with the example from the Outrage of Anagni, partially because the anecdote illustrates the importance of embroidered garments, but also because the Pope uses clothing that was not meant for battle in a military environment. It is one of the only times that a papal garment was appropriated for the battlefield. However, it is not the only time there was an evolution in the uses of embroidered images and garments. Beginning in the early Middle Ages, military garments evolved from simple identifying clothing with little ornamentation, to richly decorated garments that reflected the increasingly complex – and somewhat artificial – heraldic composites. It was amidst the evolving notions and roles of the nobility and gentry that heraldry became increasingly central to self-representation and the construction of a public identity. And I argue that the tournament, rather than war, allowed martial textiles to evolve from simple aids to identification into complex works of art.