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Anonymous was a woman

history hunter's report

Buried truth about female artists

When I researched and wrote my first series about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern day scholar on her trail, I learned that women artists worked alongside their male counterparts, but they were rarely credited for their efforts. To this day, we hear little about female scribes or illuminators. We’re taught that the exquisite calligraphy and jewel-toned illuminations in ancient manuscripts were made by monks and male artists.

The truth is, European women participated in the arts throughout the middle ages and beyond. In The Girl from Oto, my fictional heroine Miramonde de Oto created a small self portrait in a prayer book. Tiny Latin words woven into the border around her image spelled out “Mira, painter and servant of God.” I did not make this up—a medieval woman named Guda did exactly the same thing about a thousand years ago. (see more about Guda in a previous blog post.)

After the Miramonde Series was published, I was thrilled to learn about a long-buried female artist whose remains were discovered in Germany two years ago. Thanks to modern technology, researchers learned that this member of a female religious community in the middle ages had traces of lapis lazuli in her teeth. The bright blue mineral powder was used by medieval artists in their illuminations. Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan, was extremely expensive. Why would a nun living in a convent have it in her teeth? The explanation researchers have come up with is that the artist licked the tip of her paintbrush to wet it while she worked. Learn more here.

Proof in the historical record

For my new series, I’ve been researching the roles of women during medieval times. Tax rolls and wills give excellent glimpses of what women were up to in various European cities. In 13th-14th century Paris, for example, women made up about 10-15% of all taxed individuals. This number included artisans, widows, business owners—any female earning her own taxable income. Illuminators and embroiderers showed up frequently on the tax rolls, as did silk-weavers, brocaders, and textile finishers. Women were accepted into many trade guilds of the time, usually via family members, but some trades had free entry and accepted all who met their requirements. (Source: A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade Labarge.)

Let’s take a look at some of the illuminated books being produced during this time. First, a beautiful French book of hours illuminated by Jean Colombe and his atelier in the early 15th century shows the great skill of the scribes and illuminators involved.

(See the original online at the Mediathéques St. Etienne in France.) Given what I’ve learned about female artists of the time, some of the people involved in its production may well have been women.

The same goes for this lovely miniature image of a female artist at work by Giovanni Boccaccio (early 15th century). (See original manuscript online at the French National Library (folio 50r).

And finally, this image by Ovidius of women spinning (late 14th century). (See original manuscript online at the French National Library (folio 31).

Women have never been mentioned in association with the production of most illuminated European manuscripts. But given the truth about female artists, taxpayers, and guild members of the time, it is reasonable to assume women played some role in the creation of these and other books of the era.

When I’m doing research, I never forget that history is full of holes and silenced stories. It’s my job to tease these buried voices out of the shadows, then use fiction to bring them to life.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Julie Cassin says:

    You go, girl!!

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thank you, Julie!

  2. Dawn Bolgioni says:

    “When I’m doing research, I never forget that history is full of holes and silenced stories. It’s my job to tease these buried voices out of the shadows, then use fiction to bring them to life.” So true! Love your work Amy!

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thank you, Dawn!

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