Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 30, 2019
Sharon Farmer The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris: Artisanal Migration, Technological Innovation, and Gendered Experience Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 368 pp.; 28 color ills. Cloth $69.95 (9780812248487 )

The release of Sharon Farmer’s most recent book, The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris: Artisanal Migration, Technological Innovation, and Gendered Experience, was eagerly awaited. With this study, the author tackles an exciting and ambitious project: to reconsider the history of silk industries in medieval Paris and question its origins. Exploiting with ease all sources available, Farmer demonstrates that from the last decade of the thirteenth century to the late fourteenth, Paris had, in effect, a silk cloth industry whose production went far beyond the manufacture of haberdashery to which it has often been limited.

In the introduction, Farmer addresses and defines the main goals of her study: to establish the existence of the medieval Parisian silk-cloth industry and to consider the role played by skilled immigrants, especially those from the Mediterranean area. Farmer also aims to address the introduction of the technical knowledge of silk cloth production in Paris and to show how this industry provided unusual opportunities for women. These questions are answered in a thorough demonstration of Farmer’s erudition of the sources. The study is based on the analysis of three sets of written documents: normative (the Parisian guild statutes codified between 1266 and 1365 by the provost of Paris, Étienne Boileau, and his successors), fiscal (seven Parisian tax assessments generated between 1292 and 1313), and accounting (household accounts from the courts of France, England, Artois, Savoy, etc.). Along with this main corpus of texts, Farmer uses other materials (court records, inventories, iconographic sources, and archaeological textiles), as well as non-Parisian sources to remedy the limitations of the French documentation and its lacuna on the techniques used in the workshops.

The book is organized into five chapters, illustrated by thirty black-and-white figures. Five tables appearing in the appendices summarize the information on which Farmer’s argument is based, thus making this rich material available to researchers and historians. The first chapter, “Paris, City of Immigrants,” draws a lively picture of medieval Paris: the largest city in Europe with a population that exceeded 200,000 inhabitants, the capital of luxury, and the residence of the court, the ecclesiastical elite and aristocracy. This wealthy clientele attracted not only Italian bankers and merchants but also many foreign artisans, some from the Mediterranean basin (Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Levant, etc.), who contributed to the arts and industries of the city (textiles, arms, leather industries, etc.).

In chapter 2, “From Persian Cocoon to Soie de Paris: Trade Networks and Silk Techniques,” the different production stages of a silk cloth are described in detail, from the moment silkworms were killed in the countries where cocoons were cultivated in Central Asia, China, and around the Mediterranean Sea to the moment the product is put out for sale in Parisian shops. To the question of what varieties of raw silk were in circulation in Paris at that time, Farmer manages to answer thanks to the analysis of a list of customs tariffs that were charged on goods sold in Paris at some point in the first half of the fourteenth century. The terms used at that time, soie escreue, ligée et catonière, or mermite de gerant et pampée are analyzed and hypotheses on their geographical origins are formulated (46–47). The lexicographic work carried out by the author is an essential contribution of this book (see, in particular, the paragraph about the term tavele and the identification of the technique mastered by women who carient la soie). Another major contribution of this chapter is to offer a global and comprehensive picture of the Parisian silk industry by considering the various professions, mostly female, involved in it: throwsters, pignerresses de soie (silk combers), fileresses dor (gold spinners), dyers, laceurs (ribbon and lace makers), weavers, etc. Taking into account the professions and the techniques used enabled Farmer to characterize the nature of the Parisian production at that time, which consisted of narrow-ware products: belts, hairbands, ribbons but also veils, silk cloths, and velvets.

The study of the mercers’ group, merchants who not only retailed silk threads and textiles but also, in some cases, organized the production itself, is the subject of chapter 3. A small, elite group of entrepreneurs involved in this trade was located around the rues Troussevache, Quincampoix, and de la Buffeterie. Among this group, some came from the major centers of silk cloth production and probably helped to convince skilled workers from the same countries to settle in Paris.

Highly detailed, chapter 4 deals with gendered hierarchies and the role played by Parisian women in the silk industries in Paris. As elsewhere in Europe, these professions were predominantly female. However, Parisian women had unusual professional opportunities, a characteristic with no equivalent, either in Italy or in the wool industries of northern France and the Low Countries. Some ascended to a relatively high status, ran their own workshops, and dealt with their clients in person (see, in particular, the example of Marie Osane, 128). On the other end of the spectrum, poor female workers struggled to survive and, on occasion, accepted alms. The few lines devoted to thefts and the biographies of Perrete d’Arencourt and Marion du Val (135–36) provide concrete insight into the living conditions of the most vulnerable in the population.

Finally, a last chapter looks at the relations between Parisian silk women and Jews and Lombard moneylenders from whom they sometimes borrowed. The book ends with the decline of the silk cloth industry in Paris at some point between 1397 and 1467. Even though silk yarn and haberdashery continued to be produced in Paris, the absence of the Court, who favored the Loire valley since the reign of Charles VII, seems to have put an end to the silk industries in Paris as they existed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

With this book, Farmer makes an important contribution to the history of textiles, women, and labor in the Middle Ages. Focusing on a detailed study of the various actors involved, from the most affluent to the more modest, it offers a renewed and lively vision of the silk world in medieval Paris. It also opens up interesting avenues on the means women had to support themselves and make their living, especially in the textile industries.

Astrid Castres
Postdoc, Musée des arts décoratifs / Institut national d’histoire de l’art

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