[HNW] Merovingian needlework terms

Sarah Randles s-randles at adfa.edu.au
Wed Feb 20 17:44:56 PST 2002

Maureen Tilley wrote:

>To historians of needlework:
> I am working on a translation of Caesarius of Arles' Rules for Nuns in which
>several  terms for Merovingian-era embroidery occur. Latin dictionaries and
>the French translation of the Rules simply use the word 'embroidery stitch'
>for all of them. As an embroiderer, I a not satisfied. I would appreciate any
>help you can furnish in deciphering them or references to photographs/diagrams
>of the stitches. They are:

Hi Maureen,

I am both a textile historian and a professional lexicographer (dictionary
writer), and I have been struggling with textile terminology in English
(including Middle English), Latin, French and German for some time.  It's a
major problem, and I don't have any satisfactory answers.  This isn't the
first time the issue of textile terminology in Rules for Nuns has come up -
there was a long discussion on the Medieval Art mailing list on the subject
some time ago - I can't remember the details, but it involved the Ancrene
Riwle and Ancrene Wisse, and with time I can dig out details if you need

The problem stems from the fact that while we have quite a number of
existing embroideries from the Middle Ages (although virtually nothing from
the Merovingian period), and we have a number of descriptions of embroidery
in medieval sources, we have, to my knowledge, virtually nothing where we
can match up an embroidery with a contemporary description of it.  So,
while we can translate the Latin terms and make a reasonable guess that
opus pluminarium resembled feathers in some way, we have no way of knowing
precisely how this resemblance worked.  As Linn points out, we must not
assume that any stitches resemble modern stitches with similar names.

There's a huge amount of work to be done in this area - and very little of
it has been done.  You can't trust the Oxford English Dictionary on this
area at all - perhaps some of the work will be done in time for the 2010
edition, but so far it hasn't been.  (I'll be doing some revision there,
but I probably won't be dealing with latin terminology.)  I am aware of
someone working at the University of Manchester who has done some work on
Middle English stitch terminology, but I haven't read the work myself.  The
person to contact would be Dr Gail Owen-Crocker in the English Department
there - she's not the person who has done the work, but she will know who
it is.  I don't have an address for her at hand, but you should be able to
get something from the web.

I'll make some comments on the terms you've found, but you need to be very
wary of any easy answers - the only real answer is we don't know, and until
we've done a whole heap of detailed primary research, we can't know.  Be
particularly careful about any book on embroidery that gives you a
definitive translation of any of these terms - a number of them do, but
they're just guessing.

>1. acupictura - perhaps the same as 'needle painting'?

The most common terms for embroidery in medieval documents are those
derived from the latin verb pingere, meaning to paint or depict.
Unfortunately, the same terminology is used for painting - and the noun
'pictus' or 'pictor' is apparently used for both painters and embroiderers.
I wouldn't make the leap that this term means 'needle painting' in any of
the modern senses, nor even that it means anything like opus anglicanum.
It may not refer to a stitch at all, but perhaps the sense that the
embroidery in question is pictorial, or historiated - that is that it
depicts figures of some sort rather than an abstract pattern - but that's a

>2. holoserica - some sort of embroidery in silk

Yes.  You can't say much more than that, though.

>3. opere saursurio - opus sausurium??

Yes.  The case is simply different.

>4. plumeria/plumaria - if this is to be translated feather stitch, would it be
>the same as modern feather stitch?

See comments above.

>5. polimitum/polumitum/polymitum

I can't offer anything useful on this one.

>  I have tried Latin dictionaries and lexicons, standard lists of (modern)

If you want to go further with this, I'd suggest looking at these terms in
contemporary glosses - i.e. see how a French or English word list or
document translates the term.  That will still be problematic, since it's
not going to tell you whethe the writer of the gloss really knew what the
terms was - unless he or she was an embroiderer it's pretty unlikely, but
it might give you some clues.  Looking at inventories and wills etc. may
turn up some existing pieces, which can tell you how they were described in
contemporary terms, but it's a needle in a very big haystack.  Looking at
contemporary embroidery will give you an idea of what stitches were used,
but not what they were called, and for the Merovingian era, there's
probably not enough evidence to give you anything useful - the only
embroidery that's likely to exist will be archaeological fragments.

I'm sorry to be so discouraging on this issue, and I would much prefer to
be able to give you some firm answers.  I am collecting this kind of
material though, although it's not going to do anything but sit in a file
for a while.  I'd be interested in getting the reference from you for your
text, and I'm also interested in the context - is this a prohibition on
certain sorts of embroidery, as is usual in these guides to nuns?


Sarah Randles                                    email: s.randles at adfa.edu.au
School of English                              phone: 02 6268 8842
University College ADFA                 fax:   02 6268 8899
Canberra ACT 2601

Note: on Mondays and Tuesdays I work at the Australian National Dictionary
Centre - phone: (02) 6125 0476.

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