In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Textiles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Collections of Essays
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Museum and Other Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Domestic Soft Furnishing
  • Shrine and Coffin Furnishings
  • Other Uses of Textiles
  • Cotton
  • Linen
  • Wool
  • Tapestry
  • Textile Workers
  • Textile Trade
  • Status and Power

Medieval Studies Textiles
Elizabeth Coatsworth, Gale R. Owen-Crocker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0184


Textile was a ubiquitous presence in the Middle Ages, because clothing, soft furnishings, and containers were made from it; and it was undoubtedly valued because of its labor-intensive production as well as for its beauty and the precious materials (silk and gold) sometimes used in it. However, its survival into modern times is relatively unusual, because the fibers from which it was made are organic and subject to decay; because it was subject to recycling to the point of being worn out and was thrown away or destroyed; and because outmoded items decorated with metallic thread were sometimes deliberately burned in order to recover the metal. Surviving pieces of cloth are usually archaeological textiles, or items that have survived in tombs or church treasuries as holy relics. Archaeological textiles are usually fragments, either grave finds that are extremely small, and often mineralized, but that have some context by virtue of associated human remains and grave-goods, or finds from urban excavations, which may be larger but lack context other than stratification and general place. Surviving textiles of any size are mostly garments, usually ecclesiastical vestments, in various states of completeness, alteration, and repair. Many of these were made and decorated with expensive materials: silk, gold or silver thread, embroidery, metal, and gemstones. There are also furnishings and banners. The most famous, and largest, surviving medieval textile is the Bayeux Tapestry. Surviving textiles have been studied as artifacts, in which case their fiber, spin, weave, and decoration may be identified. Individual textiles have also been studied as historical witnesses, and as artworks, especially the gold embroideries known as opus anglicanum. Textile production is attested both from archaeology, with finds of tools and tool parts, and of potential workshops, augmented by artworks, and from the documentary sources familiar to the economic historian such as accounts. Town and guild records attest the importance of the textile industry and trade to the economy and developing society of the later Middle Ages. Recent research identifies some uses of textile previously unacknowledged or dismissed as unimportant. Increasingly, the social and symbolic, as well as the economic and practical, roles of textile are being recognized, as they variously reveal, obscure, and conceal both the human body and sacred objects/images.

General Overviews

World coverage of textiles and textile techniques from ancient times to the twentieth century may be found in Harris 1993, which while necessarily covering each section only briefly, has the advantage of contextualizing the medieval period and its products. Other relevant surveys are confined geographically to western Europe (Jenkins 2003, Wilckens 1991) or to parts of western Europe (Cardon 1999, Dodwell 1982). Coatsworth and Owen-Crocker 2018 focuses on garments from western Europe that have survived in recognizable form.

  • Cardon, Dominique. La draperie au moyen âge: Essor d’une grande industrie européenne. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1999.

    Pioneering examination of the textile industry in the northwest Mediterranean area, using texts including little-known manuscript sources, art, and archaeology. In sections assigned to wool, thread, and cloth, it explores biological differences in sheep and their migration, moving on to techniques of production, technological change, regulation, economics, and marketing. A table of measurements in different places and their metric equivalents is appended. Well illustrated with medieval and earlier art, diagrams, and maps.

  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004352162

    A comprehensive introduction covers the origins and scope of the study; circumstances of survival; afterlife; sets and collections of garments; weaves, constructional techniques, non-textile materials, and embroidery; inscriptions; iconography; everyday wear; and style and fashion. Ten chapters each present a different category of garment, each with ten examples, giving technical details, object biographies, information about associated people, bibliography, and full-page color illustration.

  • Dodwell, C. R. Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1982.

    Survey of Anglo-Saxon art mainly from documentary sources, which at publication raised awareness of the importance of textiles in the early medieval world. It has been a starting point for much subsequent study. Because it concentrates on documentary sources, its concern is mostly rich textiles, including embroideries and imported silks: chapter 5, “Textiles”; chapter 6, “Costume and Vestments.”

  • Harris, Jennifer, ed. 5000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press in Association with The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1993.

    A volume of essays by twenty-four contributors, lavishly illustrated in color. Beginning with a survey of techniques, the volume continues with geographically arranged sections covering textiles from ancient times to the twentieth century. There is a brief glossary and a section of further reading/sources cited for each chapter.

  • Jenkins, David. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    The medieval parts of this encyclopedia have contributions on the evidence of textiles in northern Europe and England by experts: Lise Bender Jørgensen and Penelope Walton Rogers, mainly from archaeological sources for up to 1000; John Munro and Anna Muthesius on the wool trade and silk in the later medieval period; Frances Pritchard on the uses of textiles from 1000 to 1500.

  • Wilckens, Leonie von. Die textilen Künste: Von der Spätantike bis um 1500. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1991.

    Survey of western European textiles from the late Roman period to the end of the fifteenth century, including imports. Chapters divided according to materials and/or techniques, with chronological development analyzed in each. Well illustrated: has a useful glossary and brief accounts of many individual textiles from all parts of Europe including the British Isles. More comprehensive in chronological and geographical coverage than any other survey to date.

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