Acquiring, Flaunting and Destroying Silk In Late Anglo-Saxon England

The silk buskins in which Pope Clement II was buried.
The silk buskins in which Pope Clement II was buried.

Acquiring, Flaunting and Destroying Silk In Late Anglo-Saxon England

Robin Fleming

Early Medieval Europe: Vol.15 (2007)


This paper argues that silk was ubiquitous in England in the late Anglo-Saxon period. It also contends that when examined in the context of its use, it becomes clear that the deployment of silk was symbolic. People of means moved heaven and earth to get silk because it allowed them to appropriate its associated meanings for themselves. So, after establishing silk’s ubiquity and its uses, the paper teases out its ideological underpinnings. Finally, the paper investigates the economics of silk. In the end it strives to prove that a whole spectrum of people acquired, displayed, and sometimes even destroyed silk, because it made others see them as they wished to be seen.


Before I began this research, when I pictured the men we study –Merelsweinn the Sheriff, Tovi the Proud, the Godwinesons – I imagined them dressed in the earth-toned woollens of the Bayeux Tapestry. Now, however, I know better. Men like these – men who served as royal councillors, oversaw the executions of criminals, bullied peasants, and fought and died at Hastings – hard, tough, serious individuals, dressed like peacocks, kitting themselves out, on important occasions, in loud, shiny get-ups, dressing in robes decorated with elephants or wild cats, and sporting garish tunics banded with gold-embroidered trim. This paper will argue that vibrantly coloured silks and other elaborate textiles were ubiquitous in England in the late Anglo-Saxon period. This is a more difficult case to make than it should be, not for lack of evidence, but because of the way textiles have been studied, written about, and used. Historians, by and large, do not employ cloth as historical evidence, and it is generally the preserve of museum curators, restoration experts, archaeologists and art historians, whose publications historians are, alas, inclined to eschew.

Beyond this, the textiles English people craved in the tenth and eleventh centuries were produced outside of Europe, and much of the research on them appears in the publications of Byzantine and Islamic specialists, who have little interest in the contexts in which these textiles have been preserved, and whose work is unfamiliar to historians of Europe. Finally, because of the efficiency of Henry VIII’s Reformation enterprise, the bulk of England’s ancient silks were consigned to the flames in the sixteenth century, so one is forced, if one wishes to know about silk in late Anglo-Saxon England, to ferret out parallel material across the Channel. The consequence of these historicaland historiographical circumstances is that the evidence surrounding textiles is so diffuse and so scattered among fields, disciplines and national histories, that it is very nearly invisible. Nonetheless, when the surviving, and, so it turns out, substantial corpus of textiles is marshalled, it becomes clear that pre-Conquest England was awash with silk.

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