IES takes on Women and the Book

Posted on 31st October 2018 by simonbeattie

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending a one-day symposium, Women and the Book, hosted by IES at the University of London.  David Pearson gave the introductory plenary session on women as book owners in the seventeenth century, which was a real treat for those of us who couldn’t hear him speak at the Lyell lectures this year.  On the digital side of things, Marie-Louise Coolahan and Mark Empey gave an overview of RECIRC, an incredible quantitative project being undertaken at NUI Galway to analyse the reception and circulation of women’s writing, 1550 to 1700.  Both the scale and rigor of their work is impressive, and their blog is definitely worth a read, too.  Another highlight was a peek into the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, courtesy of Rare Materials Project Cataloguer Stephanie Fell.

Out of all of the talks, however, I was particularly taken by a paper given by Gilly Wraight titled ‘Stitched up?  Devotional Messages?  Reading Women’s Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Embroidered Bookbindings’.  Wraight, a freelance speaker undertaking doctoral research at Oxford, is a long-time embroiderer and contributed to the Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c. 450-1450 (Brill, 2012).  I appreciated her fresh take on the embroidered binding, stressing its untapped research potential and reminding us that ‘embroidery was meant to be read’.  Marshall McLuhan, eat your heart out.

Gilly Wraight shares some of her own (extremely skilled) needlework at the Women and the Book symposium.

The talk worked particularly well in conjunction with Ms. Fell’s presentation on the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection; it certainly supported Baskin’s assertion ‘that women have always been productive and working people and this history essentially has been hidden’ (Baskin Collection webpage, Duke University Libraries).

I was personally reminded of the work involved in making carpet pages for medieval manuscripts; the painstaking, delicate, elaborate, all-consuming work of monks really does mirror that of an embroiderer, in that their labour is, in and of itself, an act of devotion.  Ms. Wraight added that, in addition to being a devotional aid, embroidery also functioned as rites of passage for young girls, and was an essential part of women’s education.  It’s a point I’d vaguely known already, but gave, with the rest of the audience, an audible gasp when Ms. Wraight shared a photo of a stunning casket embroidered by Hannah Smith, aged 11-12, c. 1654.

I would love to see embroidered bindings become the subject of more serious studies like Ms. Wraight’s, rather than simply be relegated—as they all too often are—to people’s Pinterest boards.  Surely there must be a PhD candidate or two out there ready to take this on?

For those interested, there’s an embroidered bindings Facebook page that updates fairly regularly.  There’s also a particularly fascinating embroidered binding currently on view at the Bodleian’s  Weston Library; attributed to Elizabeth I, aged 12, it was given as a new year’s gift to Katherine Parr in 1545.

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