Expressions of Power – Luxury textiles from early medieval northern Europe
The British Museum
Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008
Introduction: This paper focuses on luxury textiles from archaeological and non-archaeological contexts in northern Europe from approximately the 5th to 11th centuries A.D. Due to the preservation bias against organics in the archaeological record, today we only catch glimpses of the crucial role that textiles played in the Germanic world. Careful analysis of often minute remains of textiles, supplemented by examination of historical sources underlines their importance. Hence, textiles are not only a source of knowledge for early medieval social and economic relations but they are also markers of long-distance exchange between the North and the Mediterranean and beyond.
Select examples of high-status burials from Frankish, Anglo-Saxon and Alamanic contexts (e.g., St. Denis, Sutton Hoo, Oberflacht,) will provide an introduction to archaeological textiles and illustrate various threads cross-cutting regional and ethnic boundaries, thus unifying the early medieval North: Luxury textiles both in form of elaborate costume and lavish furnishings were one device of conspicuous consumption and status display. Elite identity found its expression through the quality and fineness of cloths, their sometimes exotic provenance, and the preciousness of gold thread and dye stuffs.
In addition, valuable textiles from Christian contexts – burials, reliquaries – but not necessarily Christian in themselves, will be considered. A subsequent layer of evidence from mostly non-archaeological sources, they epitomise the close interplay between the new religion, the negotiation of power through gifts and relics, and the far-reaching, inter-cultural contacts of elites, represented by textiles from the Byzantine sphere, the Near East and central Asia, which were preserved in northern European church treasuries.