A Medieval Love Story – with Carding and Spinning!

Here’s a little Valentine for all you textile and book aficionados!

A few months ago, while researching for my post on a medieval herbal image, I came across some intriguing images of a man doing women’s work, and then trying to distract the woman from her work!  In some of the pictures, he looks happy to be sharing her work, but in others he looks very unwilling.  She never looks particularly happy with him, as you would think she would be, if he was helping her out.  I could not figure out what was going on.


After lots more research, I found the source.  They are from The Decretals of Gregory IX, from 1300 to 1340, which is in the British Library (Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 138v through f. 148r*).  There are more than 600 little scenes at the bottoms of the pages, and about 20 of them are part of a connected tale which is thought to be showing a woman setting tasks for her husband or lover, or possibly a variant of the tale, “The Wright’s Chaste Wife.”

Well of course I had to know more!  You can look at this version that I like – if you scroll a long way down, past all the introductory remarks, an amusing summary in modernized language appears on the right.  But if you don’t have time for that, let me sum up.

A wright (working man) decides to get married late in life.  He asks a widow woman for her daughter’s hand in marriage, and she agrees.  When the couple gets married, the widow gives the husband a garland of flowers and says they will never fade as long as her daughter is faithful.

As time passes, the husband starts to worry that his wife may be unfaithful, so he builds a tower with a trap door in it.  Then he has to go away from home to work, and three different men (a Lord, a Steward, and a Proctor) ask him about his garland of flowers.  As soon as he explains, each man plots to take advantage of the wife.

One by one, each man approaches her, offering a sum of money.  She tries to turn them down, but they won’t take no for an answer, so she pretends to agree, takes their money, and leads them to the tower.  Once they are in there, she pulls the secret door and traps each man in a pit.

As they get hungry and demand food, she agrees to feed them if they will do her work.  Each one rebels at first, then ends up giving in, and all three help with her spinning.

Her husband comes home and finds out what went on.  The young wife sends for the wife of the Lord, who comes, laughs at her husband and takes him home, leaving all his money with the wife.

So these illustrations do seem like they could fit with a version of that story, since in many of the pictures, the older man does not look too happy to be doing the work.  There are also pictures of him making an “amorous advance”  (the British Library’s apt description), and trying to remove her shoe, and a picture of her hitting him with a stick.  In another picture, he is handing her some sort of cloth, and she is covering her nose as if it stinks!

I hope you will take a look at all the pictures, and if you come up with another theory about their subject matter, I would love to hear it!

*Here are the British Library’s Access and Reuse Notes.  These works are in the public domain, but I did crop them a little.