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Opus Anglicanum: What is the significance of English Medieval Embroidery, why did it change in style during the fourteenth century, and what is its legacy?

Suzanne Treacy



During the Middle Ages, England was renowned for producing exquisite embroideries.   English medieval embroidery was commonly known throughout Europe during this period as Opus Anglicanum and this ‘English Work’ was very highly regarded, especially during the so-called golden years between 1250 and 1350.  Beautifully embroidered vestments were worn by the clergy and played a significant part in religious ceremonies.  Demand for Opus Anglicanum, particularly from the Church, was significant at this time and the quality of both the workmanship and materials was magnificent.  Kings, popes and high ranking prelates coveted English medieval embroidery.  It vied in importance as an art form with painting and sculpture and also became collectable.  Its monetary value was comparable to other forms of medieval art and was revered and venerated accordingly.  


The aim of this paper is to determine the significance of English medieval embroidery in the Middle Ages and its continued importance today.  The focus will be to demonstrate its power and influence and by examining how it was used as a notion of gift-giving and for diplomatic gifts, this will put its significance into context.  


In addition, the style of English embroidery changed around the middle of the fourteenth century and this paper will discuss the possible reasons for this as well as the reasons that so few extant pieces remain today.  Some vestments, for example, were taken apart and used for different purposes.  The reasons for this repurposing and how certain pieces have survived will also be investigated.  Embroidery conveyed messages within both religion and secular society during the Middle Ages and in considering why it was used for this purpose, this paper will provide an explanation of its significance.  Consideration of who commissioned English embroidery during the Middle Ages and the purposes for which was it created, will illustrate the significance of Opus Anglicanum.  


The Bayeux Tapestry is the most famous and iconic medieval embroidery and yet its origin, (English or French), is still being debated so reference to it is included in this paper.


The main characteristics of Opus Anglicanum and what made it so distinctively English will be discussed as will the stitches and techniques used and the specific reasons for their use.  The matter of why English embroidery was so highly regarded on the Continent will also be explored in order to put into context its significance at the time and also today.  


By considering and debating the theories surrounding these questions and considering the opinions of others who have written on this subject, it is hoped that the reader will have an awareness of the relevancy of the issues discussed. 

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