Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


(I regret that the visual material used when reading this paper cannot be included in these Proceedings, as many of the collections from which they come have severe restrictions in regard to reproduction. I have also excluded shelfmark references for individual manuscripts as some of them are previously unpublished.)

The theme of this paper is part of my dissertation in medieval art history entitled "The Dress of Monastic and Religious Women as Seen in Art from the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation". I would like to introduce some basic concepts relating to female monasticism before I focus on the nun's black veil and the white one of other religious women and how they are represented in the visual arts. This humble textile, solemnly blessed at the nun's consecration, functions in several ways: as textile object, social signifier and symbol.

My richest primary sources are in the medieval illuminations of liturgical and secular manuscripts, in texts such as the Rules of the various Orders, the records from bishops' visits to female convents, and in monastic documents such as wills and administrative records. In the later period, panel painting also offers valuable information. Other medieval art media, including textiles, funeral brasses, stone and wood sculpture and stained glass also contain details for interpretation. Until recently, and with exception for the important contributions by Lina Eckenstein (1895) and Eileen Power (1922),1 the secondary literature on women's monasticism has been scant. But from the 1970's with the emergence of Women's Studies as an academic discipline, a number of works on medieval women religious have been published by scholars in various disciplines although none has focused on their textiles, dress and visual representations.