Mere Embroiderers? Women and Art in Early Medieval Ireland

Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, University College, Cork ,

‘The woman who embroiders earns more profit even than queens’, states a maxim from the early Irish law tract, Bretha im Fhuillema Gell. Yet for the learned class who wrote such tracts, the two categories, queen and embroiderer, must have blurred almost imperceptibly across the margin defined by birth, which made it not an art, but an elegant and appropriate accomplishment: embroidery was a skill taught only to aristocratic girls, as other legal texts make clear. The aristocratic woman’s defined role in early Irish society relegated the sphere of her activities to the domestic; her contractual capacities were far less than those of her husband, father or brothers, yet in the disposal of the work of her needle, and her jewels, she could take responsibility; likewise contracts entered into with craftsmen and poets were amongst the few which were binding without legal sureties, and which women could therefore make. The altar-cloths, jewels and small portable objects donated by women to the church were therefore the combined result of specific social and legal possibilities, and, to an extent, an appropriate femininity in terms of medium. To regard them, however, as lower in value than other more lasting works in stone, is a mistake, as revealed by the mournfully recorded lost or ‘drowned’ vestments of contemporary chronicles. But could women’s engagement with art go beyond this? Although sparse, a number of queens in ninth- to twelfth-century Ireland are recorded in hagiographical and chronicle sources as being actively involved in building work; hagiographies of female saints, moreover, indicate similar activities, while the legal tracts suggest the possibility of female craftsmen in stone or wood. 

This paper will trace the documentary evidence for women’s engagement with visual art from the earliest historical period up to c.1200 and beyond, taking into account recent methodological work on the role of women as poets and patrons of poetry and literature, in the same period. Where it is possible to identify the objects/buildings from the documentary sources, these will also be discussed.