Review – The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World: the sacred and secular power of embroidery

2 mins read

Alexandra Lester-Makin
Oxbow Books, £38
ISBN 978-1789251449
Review Cynthia Jackson

Embroidery is simply defined as the embellishment of textiles using needle and thread. However, as revealed in this book, it was a highly regarded art form in the Anglo-Saxon world, playing as critical a role in the visual communication of early medieval society as the more recognised arts of metalwork and manuscript illumination.

The early medieval period was a turbulent one that included intra-island tribal conflict, invasion by diverse foreign cultures, and the development of trade alliances. The timeframe under review by the author is AD 450 to 1100, providing a corpus of 43 extant objects, found or excavated in Great Britain and Ireland. Throughout her study, Alexandra Lester-Makin clearly shows embroidery’s significant role in the dissemination of diverse political and religious principles during this period.

The fragmentary nature of the artefacts, their condition due to environmental factors relating to their survival and discovery, and the manner in which they are housed and conserved, typify the difficulty of the study of early medieval embroidery. However, principles of object biography theory are well-employed to shed new light on key data to inform wider discussions.

Additional material includes a catalogue of the embroidered artefacts, an illustrated glossary of terminology, and a series of tables that identify at a glance important details of the embroideries, such as materials and stitches. Line drawings and black-and-white images illustrate the main body of the text, and colour images of many of the artefacts are located at the back of the book.

The author’s archaeological background, in conjunction with her first-hand knowledge of the art of embroidery as a trained practitioner, adds a previously unexplored perspective through her meticulous, interdisciplinary investigation of each artefact. She knowledgeably hypothesises on the development and configuration of the embroidery workshop from a one-person, home-based craft to a more productive, commercial environment, providing insights into the makers, production methods, materials, and design that ultimately developed into the celebrated body of English embroidery commonly known as opus anglicanum.

This review appeared in CA 360. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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