Your e-mail was a pleasant surprise. Am in the process of planning to go to
Wienhausen and look at the Tristan tapestries myself this summer.
My hypothesis is that the Tristan tapestries, as part of the larger Tristan
text-image production, are somehow connected with Catharism. It sounds
preposterous, but the iconography may provide a clue. My dissertaion topic
is an interpretation of Gottfried's _Tristan_ through the lens of the
1) Do you know of very recent work on the Wienhausen tapestries? Have you
published on the subject? It sounds like you have been there. How are you
approaching the topic?
2) I am intrigued by the following and would like to know where to find out
The arms depicted on the Wienhausen I Tristan are those of various kingdoms
>of Europe, fictional arms of people like King Arthur (which isn't
>surprising) and some of local noble families, as well as a few which
>haven't been identified. While it is possible that the embroideries were
>commissioned for the noble families, it is also likely that these arms
>appear in the textiles because there were nuns from these same families in
>the convent. My feeling is that the arms are chosen, at least in part,
>because they fit iconographically with the images depicted in the
>narrative, which makes it difficult to use them as an indication of
>attribution for either their makers or potential owners.
Contextualizing the tapestry within the larger Arthurian narrative would
make the tapestry appear "secular" if it were in fact subversively
heretical. But I know most people would not agree and it is a long, long
way from being provable.
3) You wrote:
However, I think that the embroideries were made in Kloster Wienhausen, and
>that it is quite possible that they were made for the nuns' own purposes,
>although it is also possible that they were made for parts of the convent
>to be used by people other than the nuns (e.g. lay sisters, visitors,
At the recent Kalamazoo Conference, Stephanie Van D'Elden presented a talk
on "Tristan in the Dining Room?" She observed that the frescoes at
Runkelstein etc. and the large tapestries of Tristan appear to have been in
dining areas. Are you familiar with that idea?
Secondly, in one of the talks, I heard that some of the large religious
tapestries were hung in the chapel. It is clear, however, this could not
have been the case for Tristan tapestries with the theme of adultery.
Could the Tristan tapestries have been in parts of the convent where "lay
sisters, visitors, pilgrims" came that served a purpose which was quietly
subversive and even heretical? In Fichtenau's book on _Heretics and
Scholars_ he mentions that there were often reports of heretics who were
former priests, clerics and nuns, who were living in heretical milieus.
Could an unobtrusive group of women, whose families donated large enough
sums to the convent, have been tolerated, even though they were
The beginnings of the convent in Wienhausen are murky. I got the following
info from the Wienhausen website. The convent was founded through an
endowment by Agnes von Landsberg, daughter-in-law of Henry the Lion Heart,
then Duke of Saxony. The first documentary evidence for the convent dates
from 1229. However, the Wienhausen chronicle tells of early beginnings in
1221 in Nienhagen. According to the chronicle, in 1231 the convent in
Nienhagen was moved to Wienhausen due to "the swampy site" which "did not
have any healthy air." In 1229 there is already documentary evidence for
the existence of a nun's convent in Wienhausen involving Bishop Conrad II
of Hildesheim. He testified officially to the founding of the convent in
Henry the Lion Heart was also the son of Eleonor of Aquitaine, who had
encouraged the arts in her court in England when she was married to King
Henry. She brought troubadours to her court in England, in the legacy of
her father, Guillaume IX, the first known troubadour. She was also the most
likely patroness for Thomas' _Tristan_, upon which Gottfried claims to have
based his _Tristan und Isold_. This is admittedly a house of cards at this
point. Eleonor was clearly exposed to a Cathar milieu when she was growing
up, and her predilection for the East is well-known, but that doesn't prove
anything to a sceptic. If my hypothesis were right, however, "the swampy
site" without "healthy air" could be seen as a euphemism for heresy. There
probably is no way of proving it one way or the other.
>But that still leaves me with the issue of adultery as the central topic,
>and while I think that the first narrative could be read as disapproving,
>such a tone is not so clear in the third one, and there's not enough of
>second one to be sure. So I'm still stuck with the problem - what were
>nuns doing making these things?
I agree that this is the central problem to any explanation.
Hope to hear from you again soon.
Patricia McGurk Tel. (Home) 1-612-784-8710
Dept. of German, Scandinavian and Dutch
University of Minnesota
205 Folwell Hall
9 Pleasant St. S.E.
Minneapollis, MN 55455