Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Were Medieval Women Artists? How Do We Know?

In the subtitle for my book Ivory Vikings, I took a chance. I dropped all the qualifiers. Rather than cluttering up the cover of my book with "may have" or "perhaps" or "maybe," I came out and said that a woman carved the Lewis chessmen.

The subtitle reads: "The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them."

Some reviewers objected: "Though more full of conjecture than the assertive subtitle suggests, Brown's account is nonetheless fascinating," said Publisher's Weekly.

"OK," said a reviewer for a medieval studies blog, "that title is quite attention grabbing: women as medieval sculptors and artisans? Not sure how that will be discernible in the art but I have not read the book yet so..."

In the text of the book, I do carefully re-insert all the "may haves" and "maybes." "Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall?" I ask in the introduction. "Unless the Skalholt dig is reopened, and proof of an ivory workshop is found, we cannot say yes or no. But 'the limited evidence' places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation."

I also rail against the book editors and graphic designers who take out all the qualifiers when asserting that the Lewis chessmen were made, instead, in Trondheim, Norway. Yes, I did it too; guilty as charged. Reader, beware: titles exaggerate. Marketing is not scholarship.

We cannot say if Margret the Adroit really carved the Lewis chessmen or not. Medieval artists did not sign their work. Gender is not, as that reviewer noted, "discernible in the art."

And yet, should we so matter-of-factly dismiss, as that reviewer seems to do, the idea that Margret was capable of it? "Women as medieval sculptors and artisans?" Really? Pshaw!

The Saga of Bishop Pall presents ample evidence that Margret the Adroit was a true "medieval sculptor," working on an equal footing with her male colleagues Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, and Thorstein the Shrine-Smith at the cathedral of Skalholt in Iceland in the late 1100s and early 1200s. This contemporary saga, written within a generation of the bishop's death, has never been translated from Old Norse, however, so you can't expect every medieval scholar to be familiar with it.

So let's look for women artists in a more mainstream place: medieval Spain.

In 2008, a pair of researchers from Duoda, the Women's Research Center of the University of Barcelona, M.-Elisa Varela Rodr√≠guez and Teresa Vinyoles Vidal, published the essay “Scattering Light and Colours: The Traces of Some Medieval Women Artists” in a series called The Difference of Being Woman: Research and Teaching of History. The essay, which includes the images reproduced below, can be downloaded here:

In March 2014 it was circulated by the website, which is where I learned of it. That link is:

Rodriguez and Vidal write of women artists who lived and worked near Barcelona between the 10th and the 14th centuries--and who actually signed their work. "Some artists of embroidery wanted to leave their name for history," the researchers note.

One was the late 10th-century abbess Maria de Santa Maria de les Puelles de Girona. The epitaph carved on her tombstone begins: "Maria of venerable memory, working with great effort every day on holy works..." Add Rodriguez and Vidal, "Maria wanted to leave a trace and she did so in the way that she knew how. In the parish church of Sant Feliu of Gerona a magnificently woven and embroidered stole is conserved ... on which there appear some letters that identify Maria as the author of the work." Those letters read: "[Remember], friend, Maria made me, whosoever wears this stole on themselves take it from me that they will have God as their help." The researchers continue, "Although the words 'know' or 'remember,' are blurred on the weaving, we can permit ourselves to interpret it in the following way: Maria wanted to be remembered, she was conscious that she had realised a laborious and beautiful work."

Another textile artist who wished to be remembered for her work was Elisava. She "signed the so-called banner of Sant Otto, which, originating in la Seu d’Urgell, is conserved in the Textile Museum of Barcelona. An art historian defines Elisava as commissioner of the piece," Rodriguez and Vidal write, "but we do not agree with that theory, we think that the clear affirmation 'Elisava me fecit' has to do with the real work, not only with paying for or sponsoring the work." They date the banner to 1122.

A third medieval Spanish woman artist painted the 115 miniatures in the Beato de Girona, "one of the richest manuscripts pictorially within the tradition of commentary on the Apocalypse." It is dated to 975. An inscription in the manuscript, as Rodriguez and Vidal interpret it, "clearly declares the authorship of the work to be of a woman with the name of En who is a painter, is fully aware of her task, and is also aware of its importance. … we interpret the text Dei aiutrix, helper of God, in that sense that through her the divine is transmitted to us … And she does it as a woman, which is why the illustrations of the Beato de Girona are different to that of other Beatos attributed to men painters. The Beato de Girona is the richest of miniatures, it is the richest in the palette of colours that it uses, and it is also unique in the interpretation that the painter makes of some scenes or passages."

Is gender discernible in the art? These researchers believe it is, in this case and in that of the wall murals Teresa Diez painted in about 1316 for the Real Convento de Santa Clara de Toro, and which she also signed. Teresa chose to paint the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, contrasting feminine mediation and patriarchal power. "The exhibition of this pictorial-textual message, an explosion of colour and light, would undoubtedly move one to a religious devotion," Rodriguez and Vidal write. "Teresa Diez uses a language that is an invitaiton to life, full of poetry, light; an artistic language following the paths of the emerging gothic style. She interprets it in a personal way." Her work, they say, offers "an immense carpet of colour."

"It should also be pointed out that," conclude Rodriguez and Vidal, "when so few names of women artists appear to us, it must be deduced that there were many more that were anonymous, and also others that history may still discover."

One of those women artists whom I hope other medievalists will soon discover, through my book Ivory Vikings, is the 12th-century ivory carver from Iceland, Margret the Adroit.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):


  1. While the roles of women and men in Viking society may have been different, it is my understanding, from the Sagas and archaeological research, that women still held quite a bit of influence. Their political power may not have been overtly great, but culturally I suspect they were quite effective just like Margaret the Adroit.

  2. "Bonified" for bona fide is an interesting eggcorn. Just sayin'.

    1. Thanks for that! I must have been very sleepy. Interesting how the brain works.

  3. Nancy - I was delighted to browse the new books at the Chapel Hill Public Library and see your book there - freshly bound and ready for more readers! Yay!

  4. Nancy, I'm curious: why has the Saga of Bishop Pall never been translated? Is their insufficient action for modern tastes?