Sewing as Authority in the Middle Ages

Sewing as Authority in the Middle Ages

By Kathryn M. Rudy

Zeitschrift für Medien-und Kulturforschung, Vol.6:1 (2015)

Letter of Indulgence for the Herkenrode Abbey (Source: | Limburg Provincial Library) [CreativeCommons BY-NC-SA BE 2.0]

Abstract: This essay considers medieval sewing in light of Austin’s speech-act theory. Analysing manuscripts, relics, indulgences, and even a bishop’s mitre, the article argues that stitching was a way to enact, or intensify, the ritual purpose of objects, whether that was ceremonial, devotional, or authoritative. Whereas a speech act functions by its utterance, stitches act by forming visible and often ceremonious attachments between materials in order to aggrandise, embellish, assert and layer authority, or swathe an object in textiles as if it were a relic.

Introduction: This essay has grown from my time as a fellow at the Internationales Kollegfür Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) in Weimar during the summer of 2014. The theme for the year was »How to do things by framing and sewing«, a title that recalls Austin’s famous How to Do Things with Words, in which he lays out speech-act theory. The basis of this theory is that there are certain kinds of language – speech acts – which perform by their very utterance. In contradistinction to normal declarative sentences (»The ship is called the Argo.«), a speech act changes the world in some way, for example: »I call this ship the Argo.« These words, spoken by someone who has the authority to speak them, and possibly accompanied by certain ritual actions (such as breaking a bottle of champagne over the ship’s bow) will effect a change. From that moment forward, that ship will be synonymous with the Argo.

In the spirit of 2014 theme, I address a different kind of performance, that of sewing, in order to ask: What is the relationship between sewing and authority? In the middle ages, how might sewing have effected a change along the lines of Austin’s speech act theory? I offer here some examples, drawing from late medieval material survivals, in order to flesh out the cultural operation of sewing. Specifically, I consider cases involving parchment, fabric, relics, and other objects that grow by stitching, whereby sewing becomes an operation of asserting authority. As with speech acts, the person wielding the needle and thread has the authority to do so, and effects a change in the world by transforming an object: making it larger, making it contain new elements, causing its increase in dimensionality (usually changing it from a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional one), forcing a new ritualistic use upon it, and reframing it. Stitching often calls attention to itself as a means of attachment, as if the ritualised form of attachment were being showcased in the resulting object.

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See also her TEDx Talk The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts: Uncovering their Inadvertent Stories 


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