omen of the Middle Ages were once flesh and blood, participating actively in the economy of their society as textile producers, spinning, weaving and embroidering cloth, having clout as providers for their families. Bath city records, for instance, show us women as prosperous property owners as a result of their textile labors - as we see with Chaucer's Wife of Bath.\1 We have already heard Heloise explain that women are separated from clerical pens by their need to wield distaves. In the mainly male texts such women, exiled from the writing of words, were reduced from flesh to word, to text rather than textile - their distaff becoming iconic symbol as well as being perceived as aggressive weapon rather than as peaceful tool. With medieval misericords and in Shakespeare's Hermione and Paulina of the Winter's Tale we even sense a world-upside-down, a sex reversal, as taking place where women in such texts attack and mock men by sporting distaves like phalloi.\2

Men, if they were the literate clergy and therefore the producers and consumers of texts, were required to be celibate, to practice sexual apartheid - in order to have the right to wield the pen. Within these literate, textual communities phallicism became scribal and theoretical, the tool and weapon the pen upon parchment in contradistinction to the female feminine distaves, spindles, looms and needles. In Langland's Piers Plowman we read that "The wyf is owre wikked flesshe . that wil nou3t be chasted."\3 Medieval monastic writing dichotomized women. Eve was danger, the Virgin, purity.\4 Yet at the same time Eve, in malo, could be reconciled in the same image as the Virgin, in bono, as in the Fra Angelico Prado Expulsion and Annunciation (Plate I). (Similarly are the pair, Synagoga and Ecclesia, the same beautiful woman.) Connected with this pair, EVA/AVE, were Noah's archetypal, and arch, Wife - to whom Chaucer's Wife of Bath is related, and Mary Magdalene, the converted Whore of Babylon. The first represented, for clerics, a warning, a caveat, against marriage and sex, the second, surprizingly, the monastic ideal. One senses, in male texts, that these figures are as chess pieces, a semiotic code, woman as object, not subject, not flesh and blood portrayals, but sculpted out of ivory and stone, as Pygmalion-crafted graven images and idols. They are made, paradoxically, into allegories of that carnality they are thought to represent by the men who create their images. And women, being themselves forced to obey this symbolic code, either became slaves to its bond, accepting it as their contract for existence, as did the Griselda of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer,\5 or revolted - which was to play right into it - as did Alisoun of Bath.

Both "Noe's Wife: Type of Eve and Wakefield Spinner," by Laura Hodges, and its appendix, Adelaide Bennett's "Noah's Recalcitrant Wife in the Ramsey Abbey Psalter," show how spinning was attributed to Noah's Wife, Uxor, and was used to illustrate the futility of a wife's disobedience to her husband, and hence, symbolically, man's disobedience to God. As the prototypical willful wife, Uxor is also associated with Eve, the most negative image of women used to justify sexual inequality in the Middle Ages.\6 Next, Adelaide Bennett's discussion of an illuminated manuscript from an English monastery, the product of a male textual community and influenced by the paradigm shift towards greater misogyny resulting from the introduction of the university, leads us into strange realms of displaced sexual images (the plugged hole in the bottom of the Ark), and the association of Noah's wife with the devil, indicative of the demonizing, and dehumanizing, by monks vowed to chastity, of the feared, forbidden other.

Then, in contrast, Gail McMurray Gibson's "The Thread of Life in the Hand of the Virgin," demonstrates how clerics could treat also spinning, and thus women, in a more positive way, in bono, especially where they were writing for women, representing the power over life and death wielded by the Virgin Mary and her pagan predecessors, the Three Fates. This essay will also touch on other related and powerful aspects of women as flesh and blood - again abstracted into codes and cyphers - where conception, gestation and birth, and likewise birth, life and death, are made into metaphors involving spinning and weaving. Yet in both cases, with Uxor Noe and with Mary, women, in these texts and illuminations, exist only as sinner or as saviour, in malo and in bono, as male-created icons of distaff-wielding women as evil, because of their disobedience, or of good, seen as obedience (Ecce ancilla dei). By its conclusion - of this chapter and of this entire book - this perspective will be reversed. But this book will be first like that which Jankyn read to Alisoun in their hellish kitchen in Bath interweaving texts within mirroring texts concerning sexual politics, conflicts and partial resolutions - inscribed by male pens.

Plate I
Fra Angelico, Eve and Mary, Expulsion and Annunciation, Museo del Prado, Madrid


1 Ancient Deeds Belonging to the Corporation of Bath, XIII-XIV Centuries, ed. W.C. Shickle (Bath, 1921).
2Winter's Tale, "We'll thwack him hence with distaffs," I.ii.37.
3Piers the Plowman and Richard the Redeless, ed. W.W. Skeat (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), B.XVII.328.
4 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).
5 Elaine Tuttle Hansen, "The Powers of Silence: The Case of the Clerk's Griselda," in Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), pp. 230-249.
6 The portrayal of women in the Wakefield Master is also softened by his familiarity with the Roman plays of the ex-slave Terence who cared about and understood oppressed women and slaves, while writing about them with compassionate laughter as they gained their freedom.

Noe's Wife: Type of Eve and Wakefield Spinner\1

Laura F. Hodges

The spinning motif in the Wakefield Noah play is one that must be interpreted in context and in depth. It was customary to associate Eve with spinning; it was also common to speak of a woman as a daughter of Eve.\2 The Wakefield Master demonstrates this merging of associations of Eve, woman and spinning in his play, Processus Noe cum Filius, a combination that exists in no other English Noah play. In addition, the tradition concerned with the stubbornness of Noah's wife was known in England as early as the beginning of the eleventh century,\3 and the Wakefield Noah play reflects this commonplace.\4 That Eve is the prototype of the disobedient wife need hardly be stated. It follows that the Wakefield Uxor is conceived in this disobedient wife tradition. She is at once a type of disobedient Eve and a Wakefield spinner, a characterization combining religious and local significance which underscores the didactic message of the play and heightens its relevance for the Wakefield audience. The Wakefield Master creates this effect by his integration of typology and spinning iconography with the contemporary language associated with spinning - with terminology, wordplay and proverbs - making the Eve-Uxor characterization immediate, human and organic.

The traditional association of Uxor Noe with Eve, widely accepted by critics,\5 is established, in this play, through action and through language. The first Eve-Uxor link is implied in Noe's reference, early in the play (30-38), to the loss of Paradise, a loss which constitutes the basis for the current problems of Noe's world. Eve is not mentioned, but the allusion to her is obvious. Closely following his reference to the loss of Paradise, Noe is less reticent in placing blame on his wife for making his life less than Edenic. He characterizes her as

. . . full tethee,
For litill oft angre;
If any thyng wrang be,
Soyne is she wroth. (186-89)
The description is an apt one as we see in the physically violent argument between Noe and his wife. She asks where he has been (192), but does hear the answer: he has been conversing with God. Their argument and fight, in which Uxor is a full participant, prevents Noe's response. In refusing to hear God's words as retold by Noe, she demonstrates her willfulness and, in exchanging blow for blow with her husband, she fails to submit to the traditional idea of marital hierarchy. Finally Noe withdraws to proceed with his God-ordained project. When the Ark is completed, Uxor Noe's ireful, argumentatative and physically violent nature is dramatized again in a second fight as she declares to Noe, "I will not, for thi bydyng,/ Go from doore to mydyng" (375-76). Noe eventually calls her "bygynnar of blunder!" (406), making explicit the Eve-Uxor connection.

Supporting the Wakefield Master's explicit language we find in Uxor's spinning a dominant symbol of Eve typology\6 and of the Eve-Uxor link. Spinning and its implements, in medieval iconography, are to be interpreted in bono et in malo and may only be understood in context. In manuscript illuminations spinning is often a symbol of the active life. In the Caedmon Manuscript, Sarah, Abraham's wife, carries a spindle whorl\7; in a manuscript of the first half of the fifteenth century, St. Margaret of Antioch is pictured as a shepherdess with distaff\8; and numerous manuscript folios, between those dates and afterward, contain pictures of virtuous women spinning. For example, the "virtuous woman" of Proverbs 3l is depicted as a woman who spins in MS Douce 3l3, folio 291v. Two other examples of women virtuously spinning may be seen in a Ghent Psalter, dated 1320-1330 (MS Douce 6, folio 48v) and in an illumination from a fifteenth-century Roman de la Rose manuscript (MS Douce 195, folio 67). In two Italian manuscripts, the Virgin Mary is shown spinning: in the late fourteenth-century, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 410, folio 24v; and in the 1275-1300, Canon. Liturg. MS 393, folio 240, an Annunciation scene, showing Byzantine influence.\9 It was common in Europe, after the eleventh century, to find Annunciation scenes in which Mary weaves, rather than spins. Examples of this are the two illuminations in the 1407 French Book of Hours, MS Douce 144, folio 19, and the late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century Italian Meditations on the Life of Christ (Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 410, folio 6).\10

Thus both spinning and weaving are frequently depicted as virtuous activities in manuscript illuminations. The virtue of spinning is that it fulfills the requirements of the active life, that life of work assigned to Eve by God after the Fall.\11 However, because the distaff cannot be reduced to a single meaning, it is not sufficient to say that its primary significance in the Wakefield Noah play is "emblematic of the punishment of Eve after the Fall," or "a radical alteration of the human condition,"\12 even though this is significant. In this vein is the illumination, from a fourteenth-century Roman de la Rose manuscript (British Library, MS Yates Thompson 21, fol. 165), reproduced in D.W. Robertson's Preface to Chaucer, figure 68, in which the vice of Sloth is pictured as a woman who holds a distaff but who is plainly not spinning; her thread hangs slack, and her spindle is on the foreground floor. Similarly, Accedia is portrayed as a female figure burning her distaff in the mid fourteenth-century work, Jacobus' Omne Bonum, British Library, MS Royal 6 Evi, folio 37v.

As such, the emblem of a woman spinning carries both positive and negative associations: the act of spinning is an act of humility and of virtue, at the same time it is a clear reminder of original sin. Such emblems appeared in medieval illuminated manuscripts with greater frequency as spinning, in the late Middle Ages, assumed an ever greater economic importance. These were years of rapid growth in the English cloth manufacturing industry, and spinning, once predominantly necessary for the production of family clothing, became a ready source of additional income when spinners might sell their full spindles to cloth manufacturers. Thus, iconographically, immoderate spinning might represent avarice, a concentration on things of this world, such as is exemplified by Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Just as failure to spin represents sloth iconographically, and a woman engaged in the activity of spinning represents humility, so does excessive spinning indicate pride and willfulness. Thus the act of spinning as a sign needs to be interpreted according to the context.

In the Wakefield Noah play, spinning, as the characters' language makes clear, provides both a personal and a sociological dimension to the figure of Uxor Noe, in addition to serving a typological and theological function. It is Uxor's constant occupation prior to boarding the Ark and the means by which she demonstrates her resistance to her husband's will. After the first physical fight with Noe and his withdrawal, Uxor sits and spins; apparently she cares nothing about her husband's actions so long as he leaves her in peace to carry out her spinning (235-38). She is spinning again when Noe comes to tell her to board the Ark. When she hesitates, not believing they must board immediately, he tells her, "There is garn on the reyll other, my dame" (298). In this colloquial expression, he both indicates her current use of the spinning reel to ball or to make hanks of yarn, and he metaphorically comments that there is other work to do that is more important than her spinning, thus evoking the theme of hierarchy in the matter of work as well as in the family. A fearful Uxor then complies, but balks at boarding, refusing to enter until she has "spon a space," and has sat a while on "my rok" (336-38),\13 that is, until she has used her distaff to spin. Here language is the source for humor, as in Wakefield, a wool-industry town, this excuse for delay must have been heard frequently by husbands from their spinning wives. The Wakefield Master repeats this local joke as Uxor refuses to board a second time, with "yet will I spyn" (359), and a third, with "This spyndill will I slip/Apon this hill" (364-65).

The crux of the matter is the question of degree: spinning is Uxor's rightful work under postlapsarian conditions, but here she spins to excess, contrary to Noe's wishes and to God's. She successfully resists Noe's will and her family's request to enter the Ark, but succumbs to God's will as the rushing water forces her comic scramble on board. We may assume that she takes the tools of her craft with her, since the third Mulier tells Uxor,"If ye like ye may spyn, moder, in the ship" (361), and it would be out of character for Uxor to do otherwise.\14 There is no doubt that Uxor grows in grace during the last part of the play; however, Uxor will live in a postdiluvian, postlapsarian world. She will continue to need her distaff and to use it according to God's injunctions delivered to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Thus by means of the spinning motif, the Wakefield Master humorously dramatizes his didactic message - the futility of pitting one's own will against God's. Metaphorically, in her spinning, Uxor attempts to control her own fate. However, unlike the classical Fates, Uxoris not in control, and the rising flood makes that abundantly clear, even to her.\15 Uxor's arbitrary and continuous spinning figuratively indicates her tendency to assert her own will, in taking her time to comply, in spinning things out according to her own time scheme. Also, in her insistance on slipping her spindle, that is, on emptying it, saying, "This spyndill will I slip/Apon this hill," Uxor indicates the material object and activity upon which she concentrates daily, her spindle the rod that is the axis around which her life figuratively turns. Here the distaff represents Uxor's way of life and in this signification it serves the same function as that served by her chatting with her "gossips" and drinking in the Chester play, of providing a sociological context. In the refusal to stop spinning, the Wakefield Master indicates Uxor's human concern with leaving a familiar environment and activities\16 and her desire to perpetuate her former life as long as possible. But he also demonstrates that such desires are futile when opposed to God's will. And the lesson might best be expressed in the following lines: "For well to conne, and naught to don, Nys nather raw ne y-sponne."\17 The didactic message is clear; Uxor may spin out her old life only so far. She cannot convert it to new threads in opposition to God's plan, in this case, literally, against the flood of God's will.

This lesson, upholding the idea of submission to authority,\18 surely appealed to husbands in the Middle Ages and other historical periods. However, the characterization of Uxor, with its depiction of Eve-Uxor as spinner, was exceptionally appropriate for the Wakefield audience. Although wives were spinning throughout fifteenth-century England, Wakefield wives must have been especially occupied in this way. Records show that the "art of weaving woolen cloth was well established in Wakefield as far back as the thirteenth century."\19 The following list of family names in local records indicates the extent to which trade in woolen goods was carried on: Walker or Fuller, Lister, Webster, Mercer, Chapman, Tailor, and Chaloner. Such names appear frequently in medieval records of Wakefield.\20 Both Henry II and Henry III encouraged Flemish weavers, male and female, to emigrate to England, and Court Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield (1274-97) reveal a number of Flemings (the word was used as a surname) active in the trade of dyeing. However, the woolen trade was active even before the Flemings arrived. J.W. Walker informs us:

The industry was mainly domestic; there were a few mills, but as a rule the wool was carded, spun and woven in the workman's own home . . . . The distaff . . . was part of the equipment of every household, and spinning belonged to to the common round of the daily task.\21
As early as 1308 there was a cloth market in Wakefield when a German put up two cloth booths in the market place, and the Wakefield woolen industry grew at a steady rate during the medieval period. Rent records reveal that a fulling mill was rented in 1396 by Cristine, widow of William de Sargy, for £4 a year, and that she replaced the former lessee, Emma Erle. Other records show men to have leased the mill.\22 The proportion of the town involved with the woolen industry may be seen in records of the 1379 poll tax in Wakefield parish; in the population of 315 men and women over the age of sixteen years,\23 twenty-nine of the fifty tradesmen listed were involved in the woolen industry and, no doubt, some of the twenty-four serviens. In addition, the highest tax was three shillings four pence, which was paid by Robert Wulchapman, wool merchant. The two other high taxpayers were the franklin and a cattle dealer.\24 The woolen industry continued to expand and in 1535, approximately a hundred years after the date of this play, John Leland visited Wakefield and wrote: "Al the whole profite of the Toun stondith by Course Drapery."\25

With the importance of the Wakefield woolen industry in mind,\26 we find the Wakefield Master's language, mentioned earlier, to be as sociologically relevant as it is humorous and didactic, including as it does numerous references, both literal and symbolic, concerned specifically with the art of spinning and generally with weaving. When Uxor tells Noe, "Bot thou were worthi be cled in Stafford blew" (200), she both indicates derisively what she thinks of the blue cloth woven in Beverly and Stamford,\27 towns which perhaps competed with the Wakefield cloth market, and at the same time her low opinion of Noe.\28 Another such significant statement, mentioned previously in a different context, is Noe's statement to Uxor: "There is garn on the reyll other, my dame" (298), probably familiar fare to Wakefield residents - as familiar as the excuse Uxor gives for not hurrying to do Noe's bidding: "This spyndill will I slip . . . or I styr oone fote" (364-66). Similarly, Uxor's statement, "Sir, for Iak not for Gill will I turne my face,/Till I haue on this hill spon a space/On my rok" (336-38), must have included both literal and allegorical meanings. Since "rok" means distaff, Uxor speaks literally here in terms of spinning, but there is latent religious meaning in this farcical section of the play. John Gardner states that "in effect, she sits on a parody of Zion, spinning a parody of the Rock of Salvation."\29 Whether or not we wish to accept this explanation, it is impossible to think of the Ark as representing the Church without also thinking of the rock on which it is based according to Christ's statement: "Upon this rock I will build my church."\30 Thus we see Uxor in direct conflict with God; God founds his church on one rock, Peter, prefigured here by Noe; Uxor, farcically, defiantly and mistakenly clings to another rock - the rok of her familiar daily activity of spinning.

The Wakefield Master's use of spinning language in other plays serves to highlight the artistic mastery of his language in the Noah play. One such example is Garcio's proverb, in Mactatio Abel: "ill-spun weft ay comes foule out" (436), that is, the use of poor raw materials results in an unattractive, even hideous product. We have here only an isolated proverb in a context in which it has no additional meaning. But in the Secunda Pastorum Mak's Uxor, Gil, is also a spinner, of both falsehoods and of yarn. Apparently, for her and possibly for more than one Wakefield wife, spinning was used as a ready excuse on every occasion. For example, when Mak returns home in the middle of the night, his wife does not want to open the door for him; she says she is set to spin and cannot see how she will make a penny if her work is interrupted. Later, Mak uses spinning terminology to express the idea of his having trouble in store concerning, actually, the "birth" of his latest "child," when he says, "I haue tow on my rok more than euer I had" (389). His metaphor is repeated by the second shepherd when he notices Mak's "child" has a snout and proclaims: "Ill-spon weft, iwys, ay commys foull owte" (587). Here, whether the second shepherd gibes at Mak's sexual prowess, or at his lineage, the proverb is surely an insult. Clearly, spinning language, spinning metaphors and spinning proverbs were common speech in Wakefield; just as clearly, the Wakefield master recognized this and employed this language in the Noah play in a way that was both effective and artistic.

In Processus Noe cum Filiis the Wakefield Master's spinning language is most effectively used because in this play such language is both a medium of conversational exchange with women and an essential element of Uxor Noe's characterization. As a consequence, the relevance for the Wakefield audience is heightened on several levels - personal, sociological and spiritual. As Noe is the new Adam, Uxor is the new Eve. Her iconography is that of the Eve portrayed in the twelfth-century York Psalter,\31 who is shown with a spindle in her right hand, her left hand on a distaff. She sits and watches Adam delve in the earth around a stylized tree outside Paradise. It is a mark of the Wakefield Master's artistry that he conflated this iconography of Eve with that of Uxor Noe for the Wakefield play. His Uxor is not a lily of the field accepting in faith what Noe can and God will provide. She is illustrative of the active life; she spins appropriately as part of her postlapsarian condition. However, prior to eventual flood-forced compliance with Noe's and God's will, she spins and asserts her willfulness in her stubborn resistence to authoritative instruction, making clear her kinship with Eve. Her spinning is virtuous work perverted. Nevertheless, beyond this specific significance, that Uxor and presumably her spinning implements are saved from the Flood makes it clear that Uxor's excessive and obsessive spinning is forgiven. God's mercy bestowed upon Noe's family serves as a reminder that He will provide for the world another spinner, the Virgin Mary, and through her another salvation.

American Embassy


1 I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Gretchen Mieskowski for her assistance with this essay. An earlier version was read at SEMA, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 1982.
2 The proverb probably arose during the Peasants' Revolt; however, the Oxford English Dictionary dates it 1560, Pilkington: "Whan Adam dalve, and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman." A.C. Cawley states, "The Huntington Manuscript may be as early as 1450," The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle, ed. A.C. Cawley (Manchester: University Press, 1958), p. xvii.
3 Katherine Garvin, "A Note on Noah's Wife," Modern Language Notes, 49 (1934), 90. See also Adelaide Bennett, appendix to this essay, for paired illuminations of Uxor Noe and Eva, portrayed as "instruments of the devil and as paradigms of disobedience."
4 In the extant Noah plays of the British Isles, only in the Cornish play is Uxor completely obedient. See The Ancient Cornish Drama, ed. and trans., Edwin Norris (London: Oxford University Press, 1859), I, lines 1153-56.
5 Jeffrey Alan Hirschberg, "Noah's Wife on the Medieval English Stage: Iconographic and Dramatic Values of her Distaff and Choice of the Raven," Studies in Iconography, 2 (1976), 25, says that the Eve-Uxor association is one that critics "never accounted for other than by pointing to Eve as the archetype of the disobedient wife." Pp. 27, 29, provide an excellent summary of variations in characterizations of Uxor Noe in English mystery plays.
6 In "Fall of Man," Ludus Conventriae or The Plaie called Corpus Christi, ed. Katherine Salter Block (Oxford: University Press, 1922; rprt. 1960), Early English Text Society, Extra Series 120, pp. 28-29, lines 413-416, Eve as archetype is also Eve as spinner. Eve illustrates this speaking to Adam:

Alas that ever we wrought this synne oure bodely sustenauns for to wynne 3e must delve and I xal spynne in care to ledyn oure lyff.
7 MS Junius 11, p. 88; all manuscripts cited are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, unless otherwise stated. Gratitude is expressed to that library and to Maureen Pemberton for assistance in this study of spinning iconography.
8 Rawl. Liturg. E. 12, fol. 140.
9 The Virgin is depicted with a spindle in an Annunciation scene in the border of the early twelfth-century Pala d'Oro of San Marco, Venice. See Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, trans. as Iconography of Christian Art, by Janet Seligman (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971), for account of Mary and spinning iconography beginning with apocryphal Protevangelium of James, dating from end of second century, and book iconography contained in Annunciation scenes, figures 66, 68, 71-75, 78, 80, 87, 90, 93, 95, 97, 98, 142 and 156.
10 See also British Library MS Add. 4836, fol. 30, and MS Harl. 2989, fol. 27. Mary sews in MS Add. 20,729, fol. 104v, and MS Add. 25,693, fol. 16; she embroiders in MS Add. 18,193, fol. 48v, and MS Add. 20,729, fol. 81v. Mary knitting is also depicted in "Our Lady of Siena," circa 1325-1350, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's studio, and in "Our Lady of Buxtehude," circa 1370, Master Bertram, Munich. For reproductions see Irene Turnau, "The Diffusion of Knitting in Medieval Europe," Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson (London: Heinemann, 1983), Pasold Studies in Textile History 2, pp. 383-384, plates 19.7, 19.8.
11 Hirschberg, pp. 30, 32, gives sources and quotations of fourteenth-century lyrics which speak of Eve's spinning after the Fall.
12 Hirschberg, p. 30.
13 For spinning and reeling technology of the period, see Marta Hoffman, The Warp-Weighted Loom (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1964), Studia norvegica, 14, fig. 124, p. 295 (a picture of a ninth-century spinning reel from the Oseberg find of type still in use in fifteenth century), and A History of Technology, ed. Charles Singer, E.J. Holmyard, A.R. Hall, Trevor I. Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), II, figs. 168, 173, 174, 183. Many manuscript illuminations show that women frequently walked and spun simultaneously. [I have seen this among Italian women and children shepherding mountain flocks, the daughter spinning, the mother knitting the spun wool into socks. JBH.] Fig. 173 shows a distaff made stable by placing it in a wooden stand. That Uxor sits on her distaff, her rok, could mean that it was attached to a bench or stool which could also contain a reel to take up the finished yarn. See Schiller, fig. 142, where Mary's distaff is emplanted in a flat base that is either placed on or is attached to the bench on which she sits while the spun thread shows clearly as it reaches across her body to her right hand from which the spindle drops. For an explanation of the symbolic connection between the distaff and wrangling, see Carter Revard, "The Tow on Absalom's Distaff and the Punishment of Lechers in Medieval England," ELN, 17 (1980), 168-70, especially 169.
14 While it is true that there are no references to the distaff once Uxor boards the Ark, we should not conclude that Uxor has discarded it in order to signal "her awareness of her own perilous condition and her consequent call for the help of God (431-432)," as Hirschberg, p. 36, says. In the absence of such stage directions, and in the presence of the suggestion offered by her daughter-in-law, it seems more reasonable to suppose that Uxor's spinning gear accompanied her on board the Ark.
15 Hirschberg, p. 30. His comment on the distaff and spinning is pertinent here: "The distaff - and spinning - had particular iconographic associations throughout the Middle Ages which even references to the spinning of the Fates and Fortune's Wheel fail to capture. For the distaff was emblematic in both Continental and English traditions of the punishment of Eve after the Fall and therefore of the postlapsarian human condition." He states, p. 32, that the "rok" is "emblematic of Eve's humility," and also that it "points directly to Uxor's utter lack of humility and to the necessity of her learning that virtue in order to gain salvation." In this essay I discuss Uxor in terms of active sin - willfulness or pride - as opposed to lack of virtue.
16 Josie P. Campbell, "The Idea of Order in the Wakefield Noah," The Chaucer Review, 10 (1975), 81. She agrees that Uxor's refusal to board is due to her fear of the unknown, in contrast to Hirschberg's statement, p. 29, that Uxor "is simply but consistently motivated by her desire to complete her spinning."
17 OED example from Macro Plays, c. 1315.
18 V.A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), p. 150, equates the macrocosmic disorder in this play (lines 343-347) to the microcosmic disorder of Noe and Uxor's brawling: "God's great world is turned upside down just as man's little world, and for the same reason: proper maistrye has been destroyed." See his p. 300, n. 4, for a list of places in which a wife beating a husband is the subject of misericord carving in English churches.
19 John William Walker, Wakefield: Its History and People (Wakefield, 1967), II, 384.
20 II, 384.
21 II, 385, quoting H. Heaton, The Yorkshire Woollen Industries, p. 6.
22 II, 386, 388.
23 I, 124-125.
24 I, 124-125.
25 II, 388.
26 Walker treats the woolen industry in a separate chapter, thus indicating its importance in Wakefield's history.
27 Cawley, p. 96, n. 200, gives the names of the towns. Kolve, p. 112, comments that in making this insult, Uxor offers Noe "a beating that will leave him the color of the famous blue cloth from Stafford . . . managing to pun on the word 'staff' at the same time."
28 Interesting also in this context is Noe's oblique reference to "worklooms" in the Newcastle play, Noah's Ship, The Non-Cycle Mystery Plays, ed. Osborn Waterhouse, EETS, E.S. 104 (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), p. 26.
29 "Imagery and Allusion in the Wakefield Noah Play," Publications in Language and Literature, 4 (1968), 11. Martin Stevens, "Language as Theme in the Wakefield Plays," Speculum, 52 (1977), 110-111, speaks of "stone" as representing an image of stillness and calmness in this play. As such, "stone" would provide an ironic contrast to Uxor's "rok" since she uses it in a discordant fashion. See also, regarding the symbolism of "rock," R.E. Kaske, "Patristic Exegesis: The Defense," Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature, ed. Dorothy Bethurum (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 41.
30 Matthew 16.18. There is, in the Museo Sacro of the Vatican, a pilgrim staff carved with scenes of Noah's Ark and St. Peter as founder of the church, clearly equating the two: Paul A. Underwood, "Drawing of St. Peter's on a Pilgrim Staff, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, III (1939-1940), 147-153.
31 T.S.R. Boase, introduction and notes, The York Psalter (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 5, reproduces illumination from Psalter, Glasgow, Hunterian Museum, MS U.3.2. For Anglo-Saxon material on spinning and weaving, see Jane Chance, Woman as Hero in Old English Literature, and Christine Fell, Cecily Clark and Elizabeth Williams, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (London: British Museum, 1984), pp. 39-55.

Appendix: The Recalcitrant Wife in the Ramsey Abbey Psalter

Adelaide Bennett

On the verso of the first of five leaves now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (MS 302), a miniature in the upper left compartment shows an unusual non-Biblical rendition of the role of Noah's wife in the Flood (Plate II, 1). The leaves originally prefixed the English Gothic Psalter of Ramsey Abbey, now in the Stiftbibliothek, St. Paul im Lavanttal (MS XXV.2.19), which was probably made for John of Sawtry, who was abbot of the Benedictine foundation in the Fenlands from 1286 to 1316.\1 While the miniature of the stylistically related Peterborough Psalter (Brussels, Bibliothèque Albert Ier, MS 9961-62, folio 24v) shows Noah and his wife in the Ark sighting the return of the dove, a standard representation, the Ramsey leaf illustrates Noah alone in the Ark filled with creatures and his spouse still standing in the rising waters filled with submerged bodies.\2 At this last crucial moment, he grabs his wife's left wrist and, with his left hand raised, commands her to come on board. Meanwhile a winged devil clings to her back, dissuading her from boarding. When she finally enters the Ark, the wily devil evidently accompanies her unseen, for in this conflated version we see him escaping through a hole he has bored in the bottom of the Ark in an attempt to drown those within. The purpose of his actions is to thwart God's plan for salvation. The depiction of Noah's wife as a rebellious character diverges from the traditional theological perception of her not only as the faithful spouse, as exemplified in the Peterborough Psalter, but also as the type of the Virgin, epitomized by a titulus of "Noe significat Christum, uxor eius beatam Mariam" ("Noah signifies Christ, his wife, blessed Mary"), for the moralizing illustration of the embarkation of Noah and his wife in a thirteenth-century Moralized Bible in Oxford (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 270b, folio 9v).\3

The illuminator of the late thirteenth-century Ramsey manuscript evidently knew of a legend of Noah's wife that was familiar also to the early fourteenth-century English artist of the Queen Mary's Psalter (London, British Library, MS Royal 2.B.vii). The latter depicted on folio 6 the devil inciting Noah's wife to persuade Noah to divulge his secret of building the ark and, on folio 7, the devil's escape through a hole in the hull which is plugged by a serpent's tail when the dove returns to signal the subsiding flood.\4 But on folio 6v this illuminator did not render the incident of the wife's hesitation to enter the ark; he illustrated a dutiful wife waiting with two of the three sons at the bottom of the ladder while her husband, carrying a son on his back, mounts the ladder to the ark.\5 On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon Genesis of the eleventh century (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 66) represents one of Noah's sons on the middle rung of the ladder beckoning to a woman, perhaps his mother, at the foot, to ascend to the ark.\6 This may be a precocious but variant version of the reluctant wife. While the Ramsey folio appears to be a very early and dramatic portrayal both of the devil's influence on the wife's hesitation to embark and his subsequent exit, there is evidence that, apart from the episodes excerpted and conflated there, the legend of Noah's obstinate wife was better known than the few surviving English and Scandinavian medieval examples would suggest.\7 In English mystery plays of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the cycles of Chester, York, Towneley (or Wakefield), Newcastle, and perhaps the Cornish Creation also relate the wife's recalcitrance, and the Newcastle fragment recounts the devil's temptation, of which only the first incident of Noah revealing his secret to his wife has survived.\8

The unusual scene of Noah's wife refusing to enter the Ark seems at first a peculiar selection for such a short Old Testament cycle on the first folio of the Morgan fragment. The recto (Plate II, 2) begins, in the top two compartments, with the Creation story from the fourth to sixth days telescoped into one scene and continues with the Creation of Eve in the next. Eve figures again in the bottom two compartments dealing with the Fall: the Temptation and the Expulsion of the First Couple. On the verso (Plate II, 1), God's regret at having created man and man's search for salvation after the Fall are represented in the top left compartment by Noah in the Ark. Here, however, the disobedience of Noah's wife under the devil's influence threatens man's attempt at salvation and serves as a strong parallel to Eve's on the preceding recto.

The illustrations on the remaining three compartments of folio 1v (Plate II, 1) have been described as apocryphal episodes from the life of the Virgin: "Joachim and the Lord," "The Marriage of Joachim and Anna," and "The Birth of the Virgin."\9 The inclusion of "The Marriage of Joachim and Anna" is unusual, for it is rarely represented before the fifteenth century.\10 Moreover, these three scenes seem oddly juxtaposed with only one Old Testament scene of Noah. Actually the top right scene is probably not the Lord appearing to Joachim. In representations of the Annunciation to Joachim, an angel, and not the Lord, gives the good tidings of Anna's forthcoming pregnancy. The clue here is the Lord pointing to six yellow stars in the clouds. In this context, the kneeling, well-dressed figure is probably Abraham, instructed to count the stars and promised progeny that will include the Messiah (Genesis 15).\11 The fulfillment of the promise is shown below in the depiction of Anna, Joachim's wife, giving birth to the Virgin, and on the following folio the Annunciation and the Nativity of Christ. In fact, during the time that she was barren, Anna prayed to the Lord, beseeching him to bless her womb as he had done the womb of Abraham's wife, Sarah.\12

The link between Abraham's Covenant with the Lord and the Birth of the Virgin at the right parallels the left-hand scenes showing the marital discord of Noah and his wife above and the harmonious matrimony of Joachim and Anna below. Thus, the idea of pairing Noah's wife and Eve as instruments of the devil and as paradigms of disobedience may well underlie the choice of these particular Old Testament scenes for the Ramsey Psalter cycle. This idea, too, contrasts with that of Anna and Mary as virtuous types of obedience to the Lord's will in the Conception of the Virgin and in the Incarnation of Christ.

Index of Christian Art
Princeton University

Plate II. Ramsey Abbey Psalter Fragment, Pierpont Morgan MS 302 1. Covenants with Noah and Abraham, Birth of the Virgin, fol. 1v 2. Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, fol. 1


1 The five leaves in New York illustrate twenty-seven Old and New Testament scenes, a historical miniature relating to Ramsey Abbey, and eight hagiographical episodes of miracles performed by saints and the Virgin venerated there. In St. Paul im Lavanttal two more historical miniatures precede the psalter proper. Ramsey Abbey was dedicated to the Virgin and St. Benedict. For discussion and reproductions of the five leaves in New York and the psalter in St. Paul im Lavanttal, see Lucy F. Sandler, The Peterborough Psalter in Brussels and Other Fenland Manuscripts (London: Harvey Miller, 1974), pp. 39-47, 88-97, 116-119, 147-150 (for a list of subjects), 162-169; Sandler, "The Historical Miniatures of the Fourteenth-Century Ramsey Psalter," Burlington Magazine, 111 (l969), 605-611; Sandler, "Christian Hebraism and the Ramsey Abbey Psalter," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 35 (l972), 123-134.
2 For the Peterborough Psalter illustration, see Sandler, The Peterborough Psalter, fig. 30. Sandler entitled the Ramsey miniature, "Noah in the Ark," publishing it for the first time in her book (p. 147, fig. 69).
3 Alexandre de Laborde, La Bible moralisée illustrée, conservée à Oxford, Paris et Londres (Paris: La Société française de reproduction de manuscrits à peintures, 1911-1927), I. pl. 9.
4 George Warner, Queen Mary's Psalter (London: British Museum, 1912), pp. 13-15, 57, pls. 10, 12.
5 Pl. 11.
6 Israel Gollancz, The Caedmon Manuscript (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), p. xlv, Pl. 66. This manuscript was also pointed out by Katherine Garvin in "A Note on Noah's Wife," Modern Language Notes, 49 (1934), 88-90. The identity of the woman at the bottom of the ladder as Noah's wife has been questioned by Francis L. Utley, "The Flood Narrative in the Junius Manuscript and in Baltic Literature," in Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur C. Brodeur, ed. Stanley B. Greenfield (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1963), pp. 216-217.
  Among the many accounts of the apocryphal and folkloristic sources for this legend and its spread in art and literature of the East and West, see Oskar Dähnhardt, "Beiträge zur vergleichenden Sagenforschung: I. Sintflutsagen," Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volksunde, 16 (1906), 369-396, esp. 369-372 and 380-382; Montague R. James, The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920), pp. 12-15; Anna J. Mill, "Noah's Wife Again," PMLA, 56 (1941), 613-626; Francis L. Utley, "Noah, his Wife and the Devil," in Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore, ed. Raphael Patai, Francis Lee Utley and Dov Noy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), pp. 59-91, esp. pp. 71-77; Utley, "The Devil in the Ark (Aa Th 825)," in Internationaler Kongress der Volkserzählungs- forscher in Kiel und Kopenhagen, Vorträge und Referate (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1961), pp. 446-463; and Rainer Stichel, Die Namen Noes, seines Bruders und seiner Frau; ein Beitrag zum Nachleben jüischer Uberlieferungen in der ausserkanonischen und gnostischen Literatur und in Denkmälern der Kunst (Göttingen: Vardenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1979), pp. 61, 68-69, 82-88 (with extensive bibliography), 118-119.
  Swedish wall paintings of the fourteenth century in Edshult (Småland) and of the fifteenth century in Vilberga (Uppland) and Risinge (Östergötland) illustrate the embarkation scene of Noah's spouse and the devil similar to that of the Ramsey leaf. Vilberga also shows a conflated version of the devil accompanying Noah's wife on the plank to the Ark and the serpent's tail plugging the hole made by the devil in the bottom of the ship, the latter motif already seen in the Queen Mary's Psalter. For Scandinavian examples including fifteenth-century Örberga (Östergötland), see Mill, pp. 622-623; Andreas Lindblom, La peinture gothique en Suède et en Norvège (Stockholm: Wahlström and Widstrand, 1916), pp. 96, 177, 210-214; and Lindblom, "Den Apokryfa Noahsagen i Medeltidens Konst och Litteratur," Nordisk Tidskrift för Vetanskap, Konst och Industri (1917), 358-368.
  For English examples, which follow more closely the Caedmon version of the hesitant wife, see M.D. Anderson, Drama and Imagery in Medieval English Churches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l963), pp. 107-108, 212.
  Compare with fourteenth-century German illustrations of the devil's entrance to the Ark, his temptation not of Noah's wife but of one of Noah's sons and the latter's wife to break the vow of continence proclaimed by Noah during the Deluge, and his escape through the bored hole of the Ark's bottom, stopped up by a toad in manuscripts containing Jans Enikel's Weltchronik, composed after circa 1276 in Vienna. For the text see Philip Strauch, ed., Jansen Enikels Werke, vol. III of Monumenta Germanicae Historica, Deutsche Chroniken (Hanover and Leipzig: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1900), pp. 36-60, lines 1795-2582, and for the list of Noah illustrations pertaining to Munich, Staatsbibliothek, MS cgm 11 (first half of fourteenth century), and Regensburg, Fstl. Thurn und Taxis'sche Bibliothek, MS Perg. III (mid- fourteenth century), see his introduction, p. vii. The mid-fourteenth century MS cgm 5 in the Staatsbibliothek, Munich, provides a more detailed cycle of this Noah legend (folios 19-25v) in that it represents, for instance, the devil's slipping away through the hole, which was then blocked by a toad, an episode not rendered in the cgm 11 and Regensburg manuscripts. The miniatures of MS cgm 5 are described in Franz Jacobi, Studien zur Geschichte der baverischen Miniatur des XIV Jahrhunderts (Strasbourg: J.H.E. Heitz, 1908), pp. 40-41. For photographs of these folios, I thank Mme. Christiane Villain-Gandossi of Paris. For this particular legend, see Utley, "Noah's Ham and Jansen Enikel," Germanic Review, 16 (1941), 241-249. [See also Graeme Dunphy's several publications on Jans Der Enikel, generated by his  dissertation:Daz was ein michel wunder: The Presentation of Old Testament Material in Jans Enikel's Weltchronik (Göppinger Arbeiten zur Germanistik vol. 650), Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1998, and in which he proposes this form of the Viennese Chronicler's name be adopted.]
8 Rosemary Woolf, The English Mystery Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 132-145 (with full bibliography); Jeffrey A. Hirschberg, "Noah's Wife on the Medieval English Stage: Iconographic and Dramatic Values of Her Distaff and Choice of the Raven," Studies in Iconography, 2 (1976), 25-40, esp. 25-30.
9 As entitled in Sandler, The Peterborough Psalter, p. 147.
10 Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l'enfance de la Vierge dans l'Empire byzantine et en Occident (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1964), II, 59-60. Added to her list are now the Ramsey folio and a German altar cloth of circa 1400-1430 in Braunschweig, Städtisches Museum (M. Schuette, Gestickte Bildteppiche und Decken des Mittelalters [Leipzig: Hiersemann, 1930], II, pl. 17, and Renate Kroos, Niedersächsische Bilderstickereien des Mittelalters [Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 1970], pp. 102-103, 117 (9), fig. 380). The identification of a stained glass panel of circa 1339 in the westernmost window of the south aisle of the nave in York Minster as "The Marriage of Joachim and Anna" (E. Milner-White, "The Resurrection of a Fourteenth-Century Window," Burlington Magazine, 94 [1952], 109-110, fig. 24) has been questioned by David E. O'Connor and Jeremy Haselock, "The Stained and Painted Glass," in A History of York Minster, ed. G.E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 381, n. 278.
11 Compare with Genesis 22.17,18; Romans 4.16 ("Abraham, who is the father of us all"); Galatians 3.16; Hebrews 2.16 and 11.11,12. For a discussion of medieval examples of Abraham told to count the stars, see Alfred Roth, Die Gestirne in die Landschaftsmalerei des Abendlandes (Berne: Benteli, 1945), pp. 26, 228; K.J. Galbraith, "The Iconography of the Biblical Scenes at Malmesbury Abbey," Journal of the British Archaeological Association, ser. 3, 28 (1965), 45-46; Hoichi Koshi, Die Genesis Miniaturen in der Wiener Histoire Universelle (Cod. 2576) (Vienna: Holzhausen, 1973), pp. 40-41.
12 From the Protevangelium of James, 1.3, as given in Montague R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), p. 39.


The Thread of Life in the Hand of the Virgin

Gail McMurray Gibson

The gossamer threads which float lazily in the autumn air over fields and meadows are known in France as fils de la Vierge.\1 The name for the delicate silken threads released by ballooning spiders is a humble survival in present-day folklore of a medieval legendary tradition which showed the Virgin Mary with the thread of life in her hand. The legend of the weaving and spinning Virgin Mary - as almost all the other legends concerned with her life - can be traced back to an eighth-century apocryphal Latin text, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Pseudo-Matthew, in turn, depended on a Greek gospel that dates from the Apostolic age, the so-called Protevangelion of James.

Pseudo-Matthew, with his interest in details of the lives of the Holy Family (which are significantly missing in the references to the Infancy of Christ in the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke), reveals that the girlhood of Mary was spent in close seclusion. She spent her early years as one of the Virgins of the Temple of Jerusalem. There she led a life of great purity and industry which the author offers as a model for the withdrawn existence of a nun:

And this was the order that she had set for herself: From morning to the third hour she remained in prayer; from the third to the ninth she was occupied with her weaving; and from the ninth she again applied herself to prayer. She did not retire from praying until there appeared to her the angel of the Lord, from whose hand she received food. . . .\2
The motif of the Virgin at the loom occurred with frequency in Western art only after the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin (celebrated by the Byzantine Church on November 21 from the seventh or eighth century onward) was introduced into the West in 1372. One prominent example is a miniature in the Grandes Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry of 1409. Mary with crown and halo, is shown weaving at her loom as the angel approaches her with a basket of food and a jug of wine. The inspiration for the scene is obviously Pseudo-Matthew. In the illuminated initial below the weaving image, the figure of the Duke of Berry is seen kneeling in prayer before the Virgin above, just as the Virgin had knelt before the altar of the Temple.\3

The two textile activities, Mary's weaving and spinning, are not always clearly separated; they often seem interchangeable and are occasionally even metamorphosed into embroidery or knitting in late medieval art. But in the course of the iconographic development of the theme, the Virgin holding the thread and wielding the distaff is generally of greater importance. As Pseudo-Matthew tells it, after Mary was betrothed to Joseph, she was commissioned along with six other maidens to spin the wool for the veil of theTemple. The maidens drew lots for their respective assignments and to Mary fell the task of spinning the purple wool - a thinly disguised hint at the royal ancestry of her son and of the blood of his Passion. The passage in the Apocrypha reads:

And when she had got it, those Virgins said to her, Since thou are the last and humble, and younger than all, thou hast deserved to receive and obtain the purple. And thus saying, as it were in words of annoyance, they began to call her queen of Virgins. While, however, they were so doing, the angel of the Lord appeared in the midst of them saying: These words shall not have been uttered by way of annoyance, but prophesied as a prophecy most true. They trembled, therefore, at the sight of the angel, and at his words, and asked her to pardon them, and pray for them.\4
The spinning passage in Pseudo-Matthew was of far-ranging importance for the iconography of the Virgin Mary and of the Annunciation scene. In a great number of representations, Mary was shown spinning the purple wool at the very moment when she was approached by Gabriel. In one of the earliest scenes showing the Annunciation - a relief on an early fifth-century sarcophagus at Ravenna - a large basket of wool is placed prominently between the monumental figure of the seated Mary and the standing Archangel Gabriel. Subsequently, distaff and/or woolbasket almost invariably appear in Byzantine Annunciation scenes as attributes of the Virgin. These attributes were encountered also in Western art as significant paraphernalia of the stage setting of the Annunciation until a change took place in the first half of the thirteenth century. At about that time the spinning attributes either were discarded or were relegated to second place in favor of the attributes of study, lectern and book.\5 It is, however, possible to trace reading/spinning Madonnas deep into the sixteenth century, as in the grandiose theological program of Federigo Zuccari's lost fresco that once graced S. Maria Annunziata in Rome (1566). Mary's book is explained by the legendary tradition that at the moment of the Annunciation she was engrossed in reading passages from the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to her son's Incarnation and Passion.\6 For an early instance in which a combination of the older spinning motif and the motif of the Virgin with a book is found, we may turn to the Evangelienbuch of the Carolingian writer, Otfrid of Weissenburg:
Gabriel entered her palace. He found Mary with a Psalter in her hand, sorrowing with bended head. She had finished reading her Psalter and had taken up her work: She was fashioning a work of beautiful cloth and costly threads. This she did quite earnestly.\7

Although the Virgin of the Annunciation came to be transformed in the course of medieval art from an industrious spinster to an inspired theologian, the spinning motif should not be dismissed as an inferior detail that gradually came to be superseded by the tradition which saw her as the fountainhead of the Messiah's wisdom. The spinning of the veil (as well as the weaving), even though it did not have the sanction of the canonical Gospels, remained a meaningful emblem of the Virgin. Both activities symbolically foreshadowed her son's Passion: Luke 23.44 tells that the veil of the Temple, and thus Mary's handiwork as Temple Virgin, "was rent in two, from the top even to the bottom," after Christ had yielded up his spirit. Seen in the light of this passage, Mary spun the thread for the veil at the moment of the Incarnation that would be torn at the moment of Christ's death at Golgotha. Both motifs of the Annunciation, the spinning of the wool and the reading of the scriptural prophecies, by pointing at Christ's Passion, carried basically the same prophetic message.

What thus far may seem to be a little more than iconographic conjecture is clearly vindicated as we turn to a passage in John Lydgate's early fifteenth-century Life of our Lady:

And of this purpill, that I of spake to forne
I fynde playnely, how that Mary wrought
Thylke vayle that was in tweyne torne
The same houre whan he so dere us bought
Loo howe that godd in his eternall thought
Provydede hathe, by Iust purveyance
The purpull silke, unto his moders chaunce.\8
This intimate interrelationship between Incarnation and Passion places Mary's spinning of the wool threads for the Temple into a totally different light. What appears superficially as nothing but a domestic occupation, assumes an archetypal significance. Long before the Gospels or Apocrypha had been composed, a time-honored tradition had existed which closely linked the spinning of threads with the concepts of Life and Death. The symbol of the thread that is cut at the end of life is an idea as old as human history, and spinning and weaving of the thread as activities symbolic of man's course on earth are archetypal motifs in literature and art. In Isaiah 38.12, Ezechias, King of Judah, laments as he finds himself at the threshold of death with the following words: " . . . my life is cut off as by a weaver: whilst I was yet but beginning, he cut me off: from morning even to night thou wilt make an end of me." A ninth-century illustration of this passage in the Utrecht Psalter shows a woman winding yarn and another weaving at a loom. As they work, two women with scissors in their hands stand beside them, ready to cut the thread.\9 This ancient symbolism of the thread of life may sometimes be sensed in representations of the Spinning Virgin of the Annunciation; in a painting like the twelfth-century Catalan fresco of the Annunciation in Barcelona,\10 the awesome spinning Virgin - shown frontally and in a stark Byzantine manner - is no woman surprised in the middle of a domestic chore (Plate III, 1). The Virgin Mary has become an archetypal divinity who holds in her hands the thread that will tear at the moment of her son's death and which, therefore, contains the promise of ultimate Redemption for humankind.

The concept of the spinning Madonna in the Middle Ages surely was not a creation ex nihilo. We may conjecture that the iconographic type of Mary spinning derived from classical prototypes. Aphrodite, to the ancients a divinity not only of Love but also of Death (Pausanias had called her the oldest of the Fates), was at times portrayed in classical art with a spindle in her hand or with arms and hands raised in the eurhythmic spinning pose favored by classical artists. Whether this ancient image and its iconographic message directly influenced representations of Mary cannot be told with certainty. A more likely hypothesis is that the medieval motif of the spinning Mary was influenced by the well-known classical composition of the three spinning sisters personifying man's destiny. The Fates (the Greek Moirai, the Latin Parcae or Fata) were described by mythographers and encyclopedists (for example, by Isidore of Seville, d. 636)\11 throughout the Christian Middle Ages. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos - the three Fates - were frequently represented by artists. Clotho was usually shown carrying the distaff, Lachesis (Mary's immediate prototype), spinning, and Atropos, cutting the thread of life.\12 Visual evidence for the association of Mary and the spinning Fates may be found in several illuminations from a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Pseudo-Bonaventura's Meditationes vitae Christi. The Meditations on the Life of Christ informs us that during the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt, the "Lady of the World" worked with distaff and needle, making garments for her family and for sale to others. Mary, we are told, went from house to house asking for cloth or spinning work until the Christ Child had grown enough to act as her messenger. The illustration of this passage in the Meditations shows the child Jesus, witha garment slung over his shoulder, leaving the house where his mother sits sewing with two other women. The following illumination again shows the three women at work. While one woman spins, the Virgin sews the spun thread, and a third woman holds a piece of material and a pair of scissors - a scheme roughly corresponding to the concepts of past, present and future expressed by the gestures of the three classical Fates. Significantly, there is no textual basis for the inclusion of the Virgin's two companions in these scenes, nor is there for a third scene showing the Virgin as one of three spinning women which is found later on in the manuscript.\13 The Meditations present Mary's employment as a seamstress during her stay in Egypt as a homely detail that was intended as an exhortation (for the benefit of the nun to whom this work is addressed) to observe frugality and industry. But there exists yet another medieval tradition in which the Virgin's weaving and sewing of garments definitely takes on a symbolic meaning. In several legendary lives of Mary and Christ (among them the Vita beatae Mariae rhythmica of the thirteenth century and the influential Vita Christi by Ludolf of Saxony who died in the year 1378), we hear of the mysterious tunica inconsutilis. This is the tunic without seams for which the Roman soldiers at Calvary cast lots. In the words of the Gospel (John 19.23): "Erat autem tunica inconsutilis, desuper contexta per totum," "Now the coat was without a seam, woven from the top throughout." The medieval legend tells that Mary herself made the seamless tunic for Jesus when he was a child, and that the garment magically grew along with his body to adulthood. This legend of the seamless garment is illustrated in a panel of the Buxtehude altarpiece of about 1480 which originated in the workshop of Master Bertram.\14 The Virgin is shown knitting a coat for the Christ Child who sits at her feet, reading prophecies of his Passion, while two angels appear, bearing the arma Christi of Cross, Lance and Crown of Thorns. This explicit hint at the Passion parallels the foreshadowing of the motif of the Temple veil. In both instances, the role of Mary as an instrument in the plan for man's ultimate redemption through Christ's death is clearly stressed.

The seamless tunic which grows with Christ's body helps to reveal still another level of meaning in Mary's spinning and weaving. Mary is a kind of Lachesis because she spins the thread of Christ's life: but, unlike her pagan countertype, she is a creative rather than a menacing force. The Virgin Mary is, literally as well as figuratively, the clother of the Messiah. The young Christ is given the seamless tunic, the garment of his Passion, by the mother who also gave him the garment of his human form. In regard to the latter concept, theologians did indeed refer to the Incarnation as a "clothing in flesh." This familiar metaphor for the Incarnation ultimately led to a bold comparison between Mary's womb and the sacristy of the Church: there exist highly authoritative texts (among them William Durandus' Rationale divinorum officiorum, written in the year 1295, the most important late medieval treatise devoted to the liturgy) which call the sacristy, that part of the church where the priest donned the celebrant's robes, "the womb of Mary where Christ put on his robes of humanity."\15 This symbolic clothing of Christ in Mary's womb reveals, as I believe, the true significance of a great number of fourteenth and fifteenth-century representations of Joseph's Doubt in which the pregnant Madonna is shown spinning.\16 In an illumination from the Meditations manuscript, for example, the theological question of the Virgin Birth is expressed as a theme of contrast: while St. Joseph broods, head in hand, thereby the uninitiated Everyman, the Virgin Mary appears close to the picture plane, drawing a long thread from her spindle across her distinctly pregnant womb.\17 The significance of this remarkable gesture is made even more explicit in a South German panel of about 1400 in which Mary not only draws the thread of her spindle across her womb, but also across a windowed image of a tiny Christ Child whom we see within an aureole of light (Plate III, 2).\18 In representations such as these, we may justifiably speak of the Virgin with the Thread of Life in her hand, clothing the Word in flesh. Much like the threads in the hands of the classical Fates, the symbolic threads in the hand of Mary serve as a hint at divine Providence, intimately linking with one another the three phases of Christ's terrestrial Life, his Incarnation and Nativity, his Public Life, and his Passion.

Department of English
Davidson College

Plate III

1. Romanesque Spinning Virgin, Catalan Fresco, Museu d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona
2. Gothic Spinning Virgin, Erfurter Meister, Staatliche Museum, Gemäldgalerie, Berlin


1 For the meaning of the term fils de la Vierge, see Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image (L'art religieux du XIIIe siècle) (New York: Harper, 1958), trans. Dora Nussey, p. 244.
2Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Revelations, trans. Alexander Walter (Edinburgh: Ante-Nicene Christian Library, 1870), pp. 23 f.
3 Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke (London: Phaidon Press, 1967), II, fig. 234.
4 Walker, pp. 27f.
5 For the tenacity of the spinning motif in the iconography of the East, see the Handbook of Mount Athos (the Hermeneia tes zographikes), probably an eighteenth century compilation of older material, which in III, 209 describes Mary as holding silk wound around a spindle in her left hand while she raises her right hand toward Gabriel (ed. and trans. G. Schafer [Trèves, 1855], pp. 171 f.). See Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, II, 2 (Paris: P.U.F, 1957), p. 179, for a useful discussion of the motif of the Virgin with distaff in scenes of the Annunciation. For the early Annunciation with woolbasket on the sarcophagus at Ravenna see Marion Lawrence, The Sarcophagi of Ravenna (New York: College Art Association Studies, 1945), pp. 18, 26, and fig. 33, College Art Association Studies, 2; and G.A. Wellen, Theotokos (Utrecht-Antwerp, 1961), p. 43, and fig. 6a, with other examples of the motif dateable at the beginning of the fifth century.
6 The prophetic texts read by Mary are: "Suscitabis tibi . . . " (Deuteronomy 18.15); "Ecce virgo concipiet . . . " (Isaiah 7.14); "De fructu ventris tui . . . "(Psalm 131.11); "Veniat dilectus meus . . . " (Song of Songs 5.1); Creavit dominus . . . " (Jeremiah 31.22); " . . . et veniat desideratus" (Haggai 2.7f.). See Ernest Guldan, Eva und Maria: Eine Antithese als Bildsmotif (Köln: Graz, Böhlau, 1966), Cat. 70, p. 190, in which Zuccari's lost composition is illustrated by Cornelis Cort's engraving of 1571.
 Otfrid of Weissenburg, Otfrids Evangelienbuch, I, 5, 9-12, ed. Oskar Erdman (Tübingen, 1962), p. 21, Aldeutsche Textbibliothek, 49:

Giáng er i thia pálinza, fand sia drúrenta,
mit sálteru in hénti, then sáng si unz in enti;
wáhero duacho werk wirkento
diurero gàrno. thaz deda siu io gérno.
The tradition according to which weaving may signify wisdom survived deep into the eighteenth century (W.S. Hecksher). Thus Filippo Picinelli (1604-circa 1667) in his Mundus symbolicus (1653), refers in Book XVII, chap. xxxiii, no. 181, under TEXTORA MACHINA, to weaving principally as a symbol of "Prudentia." Justus Lipsius, according to Picinelli, compared the weaving loom's complexity of both threads and colors to the work of the scholarly mind, which, out of a thousand complex strands, produces a uniform and coherent body of knowledge: "sic scriptores ex mille aliquot particulis uniforme & cohaerens corpus [formant]."
8 John Lydgate, A Critical Edition of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, ed. Joseph A. Lauritis, Ralph A. Klinefelter and Vernon F. Gallagher (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University, 1961), p. 305.
9 E.T. DeWald, ed., The Illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter (Princeton: University Press, 1932), pp. 66 and pl. 132.
10 See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), Bollingen, 47, p. 233 and pl. 96. For a discussion with profuse illustrations of the spinning Aphrodite, see Elmer G. Suhr, The Spinning Aphrodite: The Evolution of the Goddess from Earliest Pre-Hellenic Symbolism through Late Classical Times (New York: Hellos, 1960), for example, "Aphrodite of Nocere," Napoli, Museo Nazionale, fig. 30 and pp. 113 f.
11 Hardly a medieval monastic library was without at least one manuscript of the Etymologiarum libri XX of Isidore of Seville. Isidore mentions the Parcae twice: I,xxxvii,24 and VIII,xi,93. In the second passage, he speaks of the Three Fates as follows: "una quae vitam hominis ordinatur; altera, quae contexat, tertia, quae rumpat"; while he clearly describes their functions, he does not introduce the Fates by their names. Isidore's reference to weaving has, unfortunately, only been transmitted in an incomplete phrase: "Texere est . . . ." See also H.G. Bode, Scriptores rerum mythicarum (Zelle, 1834), Mythogr. I, col. 55; II, p. 78; and III, p. 187. A description of the Fates as well as an illustration of the spinning sisters seated next to the throne of Pluto appears in a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Fulgentius Metaforalis written by John Ridewell about 1330; see Hans Liebeschütz, ed., Fulgentius Metaforalis (Berlin: Teubner, 1926), p. 120 and pl. 4, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, 4.
12 See E. Steinbach, Der Faden der Schicksalgottheiten (Leipzig: M. Billig, 193l); W. Krause, "Zeus und Moira bei Homer," Weiner Studien, 64 (1940), 10-52; Herbert Hunger, "Moiren," Lexikon der greichischen und römischen Mythologie (Vienna: Brüder Hollinek, 1955), pp. 227 f.; and W.H. Roscher, "Moira," "Fatum," "Parcae," Ausfürliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (richly illustrated).
13 [Pseudo] Bonaventura, Meditations on the Life of Christ, ed. and trans. Isa Ragusa and Rosalie B. Green (Princeton: University Press, 1961), pls. 62, 63, 73, and p. 418. In Johan Grashove's Boek van der Bedroffenisse Marien (Magdeburg, 1486), a scene shows Mary weaving at her loom during the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt. She has the shuttle in her left hand and is attended by Joseph and the Christ child with a cross-nimbed halo hinting at the Passion.
14 Hamburg Kunsthalle, Inv. no. 501. For a serviceable reproduction, see Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Gütersloje: Mohn, 1966), I, fig. 65. For a discussion of early commentaries on the seamless tunic, see Michel Aubineau, "La tunique sans couture du Christ: Exégèse patristique de Jean 19.23-24," in Kyriakos: Festschrift Johannes Quasten, I, ed. Patrick Granfield and Josef A. Jungmann (Münster, 1970), pp. 100-127. Material concerning the famed relic at Chartres should also be investigated here.
15 William Durandus, Rationale divinorum officiorum, I (1503): "Sacrarium sine locus in quo sacra reponuntur sive in quo sacerdos sacras vestes induit uterum sacratissime marie significat: in quo christus se sacra veste carnis induit. Sacerdos a loco in quo vestes induit ad publicum procedit quod christus ex utero precedens in mundum venit." See also Honorius of Autun, Gemma animae, I.5, ed. J.P. Migne, Patrologia latina (Paris: Garnier, 1844-1891), 172, col. 544. The sacristy as a symbol of the womb of the Virgin is discussed by Yrjö Hirn, The Sacred Shrine: A Study of the Poetry and Art of the Catholic Church (London: Macmillan, 1912), p. 493, and by Joseph Sauer, Symbolik des Kirchengebaudes und seiner Ausstattung in der Auffassung des Mittelalters, mit Berucksichtigung von Honorious Augustodunensis, Sicardus und Durandus (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1924), pp. l33 and l47, n. 3. In a Byzantine inscription of the ninth century reference is made to Christ who tears the "garment of death" on the Cross and is clothed with the "garment of immortality." (See G. Schiller, I, 107 and n. 17).
16 There is also in the image the suggestion that Mary, in keeping with her role as "Eva Secunda," turned Eve's humble spinning following the Fall to a new and noble purpose on the formula that opposites may be cured by their contraries: "Sic contraria contrariis curarentur"; see Bonaventura, Breviloquium, IV.3, Opera Omnia, V, ed. Quaracchi, 1891, p. 243, and Ernst Guldan, p. 60 and n. 19.
17 Meditations, pl. 22.
18 Victor Curt Habicht, Maria (Oldenburg: Stalling, 1926), pl. 39.


This is Chapter One from the E-Book: Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages



Chapter 2: Woman and the Pen
I. Crosses and Boxes: Latin and VernacularJulia Bolton Holloway
II. St. Birgitta: The Disjunction between Women and Ecclesiastical Power, Joan Bechtold
III. Christine de Pizan: A Feminist Way to LearningEster Zago


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