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Silk Threads: Weaving Global Art Histories of Medieval Textiles


Module description

How should we look at medieval art from a global perspective? How do we de-centre western Europe in studies of medieval art? These are important questions in our increasingly globalised discipline. One way to shift our focus is to concentrate on the materials and materiality of art, especially on materials that travelled across cultures. Textiles are a global medium par excellence: most cultures make and use textiles to clothe bodies, shroud the dead and furnish architectural spaces. Textiles have sometimes been neglected by art historians but they are crucial to understanding pre-modern art. Artists and patrons put a large amount of resources into creating and displaying textiles and their portability meant that they were vital in transmitting designs and artistic trends from place to place.

In this module, we will travel along the silk roads, beginning in China and making our way west, through Central Asia and the Islamic Empires, to the Mediterranean and finally to western Europe. We will consider the production and trade in silks and other textiles, their use in diplomacy, in political and religious ritual, how they were used in architecture and how designs were transmitted across cultures. Along our journey we will meet some extraordinary objects, some famous, like the Bayeux Tapestry, others less well-known, such as a Chinese child’s coat, the Hungarian coronation mantle, the Vulture Peak Embroidery in the British Museum and the Steeple Aston Cope in the V&A; we may be able to visit some London museums to see some of these. Examining a single material across time and space will enable us to discuss the inter-connectedness of the medieval world, its historiography and the relatively new concept of ‘the global middle ages’. We will also consider the gendered nature of the history of textiles and how medieval textiles are conserved and displayed in museum collections.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Frameworks: Material, Historical and Theoretical
  • Silk in Tang China
  • The Draped Universe of Islam
  • Dressing for Power
  • Dressing for God
  • Silk in Space: Architecture and Furnishings
  • Needlework, Women’s Work?
  • Silk for the Vikings
  • Collecting, Curating, Digitising: Medieval Textiles in the Modern World

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to demonstrate an understanding of:

  • key debates about medieval textiles
  • some of the relevant works within their historical and geographical contexts
  • the nature of the relationship between art and wider cultural discourses.