Woven Stories: Tapestry and Text in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance by Tina Kane

In the Fall of 2002 I team-taught a course at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York with Nancy Willard, an English professor, author and poet, and specialist in medieval literature. The tapestries were from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, and many of the texts, such as Le Roman de la Rose and Gawain and the Green Knight were drawn from around the same period. We also looked at film and drama, as well as poetry, both medieval and contemporary. The students—mainly juniors and seniors—were also asked to learn to weave simple tapestry samplers and to construct their own visual narratives. It was a complex and various course and it provoked a number of ideas, some of which I would like to present here.

Initially, the students expected to study tapestries as more or less woven illustrations. Illustration that is auxiliary to text clarifies or explains the text by means of decorative images or diagrams. Although there are some instances where tapestries do indeed function in this way, most tapestries from this period have a more complicated relationship with the text or texts that inspired them and require a more complex narrative decipherment. For our study, we found ourselves in need of both a framework and terms to describe the relationships between tapestry and text. Out of this inquiry came two central concepts.

The first falls under the general heading of narratology and is a classification or taxonomy of tapestry and narrative. It is based on how the designer organized the iconographic program in the three dimensional format of tapestry. The second of these concepts is a consideration of what is technically referred to as poetics. How does the tapestry tell its story? How does the viewer actually decode the story? I will begin with the first concept, taxonomy.

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