Brioude (Haute-Loire): A Concert of Lacemakers’ Songs

Jean Dumas with Virginie Granouillet. Photo Dumas family collection.

If you happen to be in reach of Brioude, France, this coming weekend 18-19 September, we can recommend a visit to the Hôtel de la Dentelle where Éric Desgrugillers will be giving a talk and concert, on both the Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm, about the songs sung by lacemakers in the Haute-Loire.  This event is part of the annual French festival ‘les journées du patrimoine’.  In particular Éric will examine the repertoire of one lacemaker, Virginie Granouillet, known as ‘La Baracande’.  Virginie was born in 1878 in Mans, a hamlet adjacent to the village of Roche-en-Régnier which perches high above the Loire valley.  Unable to read or write, she worked as a lacemaker from her childhood into her eighties.  Jean Dumas, a professor of Italian at Clermont-Ferrand University, recorded 178 songs from Virginie between 1958 and 1961, the year before her death.  (Jean came from Vorey, another lacemaking village on the Loire.)  Virginie probably knew many more – as Jean put to one side her religious songs and songs in the local dialect of Occitan.

If, like us, you’re unable to get to Brioude this weekend, you can still hear 146 of Virginie’s songs, as well as some of her conversations with Jean, as they are available on the Base inter-régionale ‘Patrimoine oral‘.  (In theory they are also accessible on the website ‘Portail du patrimoine oral‘, but in our experience this is less reliable.)  Jean’s many other recordings of singing lacemakers, such as Virginie’s neighbour Marie Soulier, are available on the same website. Éric  has also written a book – Des chansons tissées aux fuseaux [songs woven with bobbins] – which includes a CD of Virginie’s songs.

Éric Desgrugillers

 

 

 

26 July in Flanders: ‘I wish every day could be Saint Anne’s Day’

‘Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary’, copy of work by Giovanni Antonio Galli, known as ‘lo Spadarino’. Sold at Christies in 2010.

Saint Anne’s day falls on 26 July.  As we know, lace has many patron saints but, in West Flanders, Saint Anne was particularly fêted.  According to the apocryphal gospels Anne was the mother of Mary.  It was she who dedicated Mary to the service of the Temple where the future Mother of God wove the veil which, as we have seen, is a textile of some importance in the legendary history of lace.  In Catholic iconography Anne is usually depicted teaching Mary to read the scriptures, but sometimes she is shown training her daughter in needlework, weaving and embroidery; Mary was exercising these domestic skills at the very moment she was visited by the angel Gabriel, hence the basket of linen beside her in depictions of the Annunciation.  Anne was, therefore, a suitable patron for seamstresses and everyone involved in the needle trades, whose skills and heritage were passed on from mother to daughter.  Flemish lacemakers were more likely to be trained in lace schools than at home, but these too provided a female-led pedagogical environment.  In Bruges, Poperinge and Bailleul, lace schools celebrated Saint Anne’s Day.

Jan-Frans Willems (1793-1846), ‘Father of the Flemish Movement’. Unknown C19 painter. From Wikipedia Commons.

We know of this tradition indirectly, from the attempts to record lacemakers’ songs.  The first person to draw attention to the lacemakers’ musical cult of Saint Anne was the philologist Jan-Frans Willems (1793-1846), known as ‘the Father of the Flemish Movement’.[1]  Willems sought to defend the imperilled position of Dutch within the new Belgian state by demonstrating that it too was a literary language with a noble history, but he also emphasised the moral qualities of one’s ‘mother-tongue’.  Knowledge and traditions – culture in other words – were passed on from mother to her nursing child.  One of the primary vehicles for both literary and popular traditions were songs.  Songs had taken on a huge significance as expressions of national thought and feeling in the romantic period.  Willems’ final – indeed posthumous – publication was Oude Vlaemsche Liederen ten deele met de melodieën (Old Flemish Songs, some with melodies), which was completed in 1848 by his friend Ferdinand Snellaert (1809-1872).  At the very end of this volume Snellaert included two lacemakers’ songs in honour of Saint Anne.[2]

‘Het vlaamsche lied’ (Flemish song). Relief adorning Isidoor de Rudder’s monument to Jan-Frans Willems in Ghent.

 

‘t Is van dage Sint Anna-dag,
Wy kijken al near den klaren dag,
En wy kleên ons metter spoed,
Om te gaen ter kerke toe.
Als de misse wierd gedaen
Wy zijn al blijde van deure te gaen.
Josephus is gekomen al hier
Met zijnen wagen en zijn bastier:
Today is Saint Anna’s day,
We look out for sunrise,
And we dress ourselves with haste,
To go to church.
As soon as the mass is over
We are glad to get outside.
Josephus is already there
With his wagon and its cover:
De provianden,
Koeken in manden,
De provianden
Dragen wy meê.
The provisions,
Cakes in baskets,
The provisions
We’ll take with us.
Die willen met onzen wagen meêgaen
Moeten ‘t geheel jaer hen mestdag doen;
En die ‘t niet en hebben gedaen,
Moeten ‘t huis blijven en niet meêgaen.
Those that want to go in our wagon
Must have completed their daily tasks
through the whole year;
And those who haven’t,
Must stay at home and not come along.

 

Sint Anna-dag is deure,
‘k Ben mijn geldetje kwijt;
Nu zit ik hier en treure
Met kleinen appetijt.
‘K En heb geen zin van werken,
Het werken doet my pijn;
‘k Wilde dat ‘t heele dagen
Sint Anna mogte zijn.
Saint Anna’s Day is done
I’ve spent all my money;
Now I sit here and lament
With little appetite.
I’m not in the mood for work,
Work makes me miserable;
I wish that every day
Could be Saint Anna’s.
De schoolvrouw komt te vragen :
Wel duiv’l hebt gy geen zin ?
Een perkment in acht dagen
Is dat geen schoon gewin?
Mijn kussen aen de galge,
Mijn boutjes aen ‘t perlorin.
‘k Wilde dat ‘t heele dagen
Sint Anna mogte zijn.
The school mistress comes and asks:
Hell’s bells, you’re not in the mood?
A pattern in eight days
Is that not a decent wage?
My cushion to the gallows,
My bobbins to the pillory.
I wish that every day
Could be Saint Anna’s.

 

These two songs had been sent to Willems in October 1841 by Edmond de Coussemaker, a lawyer, musician and a fellow enthusiast for all things medieval, who wrote to him from the Flemish-speaking corner of France known as the Westhoek.[3]  Although then living in Douai, Coussemaker had collected the Saint-Anne songs from the lace schools of his native Bailleul (or Belle to give the town its Flemish name).  In 1852, Coussemaker was moved to start collecting songs again, prompted by the new French government’s sudden enthusiasm for folk music, and its simultaneous desire to eradicate regional languages such as Flemish, which was banned from French schools in January 1853.  Shortly afterwards Coussemaker would help found, and then lead, the Comité flamand de France (The Flemish Committee of France) whose motto was Moedertael en Vaderland (Mother-tongue and Fatherland).  Coussemaker was not a Flemish nationalist, but he wanted to celebrate the Flemish contribution to French history and culture, and to demonstrate that Flemings too had a literature and a language worth preserving.[4]  His most important contribution in this undertaking was his 1856 volume of Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Folksongs of French Flanders).  This contains a whole section dedicated to ‘Sinte-Anna-liedjes’, including both the two given above and five more, together with a short description of the festivities arranged in the lace schools that day.

Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-76), lawyer, musician, folksong collector. Engraving by Isnard Desjardins, from the British Museum.

According to Coussemaker, Saint Anne’s Day was,

for the young women who attend the lace schools, just as it was for women of every age who shared this occupation, a feast that was celebrated with every sign of joy.  It was a veritable holiday in which the popular muse takes a large part.  The evening before Saint Anne’s Day, the schools and workrooms are decorated with flowers and garlands.  Early the next morning, all the young women, dressed in their best clothes, come to wish a happy holiday to their lace mistress; then they take themselves to the church, singing all the while.  After having heard the mass in honour of their holy patron, they return to the school where a breakfast of cakes is served.  The meal over, they get ready for a trip by wagon or coach to a nearby town or village.  Sometimes the pleasure-trip goes as far as Dunkirk.  Every July one sees, in the streets of Dunkirk or at the seaside, groups of young women from Bailleul, who are recognizeable from the equal simplicity of their dress and their manners.  If the weather proves inclement, they pass the day at the school, dancing and singing.[5]

Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (1856). Illustration depicting Saint Anne’s Day in the lace schools.

Some of the songs associated with this holiday directly honour Saint Anne, but most concentrate on the associated festivities.  From these songs we learn that the lacemakers got up early, drank coffee, went two by two from the laceschool to the church to offer candles to their patron.  When in the country they played ‘tir du roy’ (a verticle archery game) and danced with the villagers.  But the songs also acknowledge the fleeting nature of lacemakers’ pleasures.[6]

Jonge dochter, en wilt niet treuren,
‘t Is Sint’ Anna die komt aen;
En ‘t zal nog wel eens gebeuren,
En den dag die zal vergaen.
Laet ons dansen, laet ons springen,
Laet ons maken groot plaisier.
En dat met contentement,
Zoo een leven, zoo een eind’.
Young woman, don’t be sad,
Saint Anna’s Day is coming.
She’ll soon be here
And then the day will be gone.
Let us dance, let us jump,
Let us enjoy ourselves
As much as we can;
Such a life, such an end.
En Sint’ Anna die gaet deure,
Zy ga naer een ander land:
Eu wy zitten hier en treuren
Met ons geldjen heel van kant.
En wy zitten in de kamer
Met ons kussen op de knien.
Is dat niet een groot verdriet?
Geerne werken en doen ik niet.
Saint Anne has departed;
She’s gone to another country.
We sit here and lament
All our money is gone.
Here we sit in the workroom
With our cushions on our knees.
Isn’t it a great pity?
I don’t want to work anymore.

 

Despite Coussemaker’s reference to the ‘simplicity’ of Saint Anne’s celebrations, there is evidence that things could get out of hand.  In 1858, when Bailleul contained ten or more lace schools and almost the entire female population of the town was engaged in lacemaking, the mayor complained about disorders in the street and stipulated that from then on

dances and public merrymaking in the street cannot take place except on the days specially reserved for the celebration of this holiday, and should only include women and children, and no men.  These entertainments should not begin before 7 in the morning, nor continue after 8:30 at night.[7]

Such official restrictions may have restrained the celebrations, but a more important factor was the decline of domestic lacemaking; by the first decade of the twentieth century there was only one lace school still functioning, which had just 30 apprentices.[8]  Yet they continued to honour Saint Anne’s day.  The girls who attended the school run by Euphrasie Roelandt went to mass on that day, and then returned to the school for cakes and hot chocolate.  Then the teacher was crowned by her pupils: an enormous floral crown was slowly lowered onto her head while they sang a hymn to ‘Moeder Anna’ [a song present in Coussemaker’s collection].  The identification between the mother of the mother of God and the educator could not be more obvious.  Madame Roelandt rewarded each pupil with a five-centime piece.  In the afternoon the party walked up to a local beauty spot, the Mont Noir, to hold a picnic.[9]  (Mont Noir, or Zwarteberg, was the family demesne of the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, who has something to say about lacemakers in her memoirs.)  In previous years the girls from the lace-schools had also honoured the lace merchants on this day, by dancing round-dances outside their houses (probably in hope of a financial reward).[10]

 

The children from the Babelaarstraat lace school, Poperinge, run by Zoete Mène (Philomène) Matton (seen on the left), 1906.

Sometimes lacemakers from Bailleul and the surrounding villages met up with their fellows from Poperinge, a few miles away over the border in Belgium.  Again, our knowledge of events there largely depends on folksong collectors.  We have already consulted Albert Blyau’s collection of songs for information on Kleinsacramentsdag, the Ypres lacemakers’ holiday, but he also attended the lace school run by ‘zoete Mène’ (Philomène Delporte, b. 1845) in the Babbelaarstraat in nearby Poperinge, where they celebrated Saint Anne’s instead.[11]  Blyau’s ‘Sint-Annaliedjes’ have relatively little to say about lacemakers’ religious life, but rather concentrate on the fun they intend to have.  The repertoire contains a large number of soldiers’ songs because, for working women mired in poverty and domestic responsibilities, the soldier’s life represented an ideal of minimum labour with maximum personal autonomy.  In popular culture generally soldiers were compounded with the nobility as a leisured, feckless class, which is what lacemakers aspired to be on their holiday.  Some songs also poked fun at ‘kwezels’, a nickname for ostentatiously devout older women, precisely the kind of person who might run a lace-school.  In some ways Saint Anne’s celebrations were, like Saint Gregory’s Day in Geraardsbergen or Our-Lady-of-the-Snows in Turnhout, directed at the lace mistresses who might receive floral tributes or other acknowledgements of gratitude from their pupils, but these songs suggest an undertow of resentment.[12]

In Poperinge the festivities lasted two days: the first consisted of an outing to a nearby park but the highlight was the second day, when they went to the seaside.  The programme is laid out in one of their songs.

Courage, kinders al te saam,
En Sint-Anna die komt aan !
Wij zullen vroolijk spelen,
En wat dan!
‘t En zal ons niet vervelen :
En wat dink je daarvan ?
Come on children all together,
And Saint Anna is coming!
We will play merrily
And how!
And we won’t be bored:
And what do you think of that?
Onze sneuklaar is verkocht
En ons geld is thuis gebrocht.
Wij zullen taarten bakken,…
Van peren en van appels :…
Our snacks have been bought
And we’ve brought our money home.
We will bake tarts,
From pears and apples.
Alles is zeer wel bereid
Tegen dezen blijden tijd.
De koeken en de hespe, …
‘t Is alles van het beste : …
Everything is very well prepared
For this happy time.
The cakes and the ham,
It’s all the best quality
Eer wij van den tafel gaan,
Wij zijn van alles wel voldaan,
Van éten en van drink en,…
Van tappen en van schinken, …
Before we leave the table
We’ll be absolutely full
Of eating and drinking,
Drinks from the tap and the jug.
Maar als den eersten dag komt aan,
‘t Is om naar ‘t Koethof toe te gaan.
Wij zullen vroolijk wandelen, …
Van ‘t eene naar het ·andere: …
And when the first day comes,
It’s off we go to the Koethof [Castle Couthof, near Poperinge].
We will wander merrily,
From one thing to another.
Maar als den tweeden dag komt aan,
‘t Is om naar Duinkerk toe te gaan.
Wij zeggen ‘t zonder liegen, …
De scherrebank zal vliegen : …
But when the second day comes,
It’s off we go to Dunkirk.
We say it without lying,
The charabanc will fly.
Maar als wij in Duinkerk zijn,
Wij zullen stil. en zedig zijn;
Wij zull’n met goede manieren, …
Onze feestdag wel vieren : …
But when we get to Dunkirk,
We will be quiet and modest;
We will be well mannered
Celebrating our holiday:

Couthof Castle, near Poperinge, destination of local lacemakers on Saint Anne’s Day.

The last claim to quiet and modesty may be ironic, given the other song they sang boasted of their ability to make noise.  This song, which has been recorded by the Belgian folk groups Sidus and Kotjesvolk, is a powerful expression of local and craft pride, as lacemakers collectively took over the streets of Dunkirk for the day.  However, the boast that they made lots of money should be taken with a pinch of salt.

De kinders van de Babbelaarsstrate
Zoûn zoo geern naar Duinkerke gaan,
Om da’ n-hunder dust te laven
En naar Duinkerk toe te gaan.
Zoete merronton, merronton, merronteine !
Zoete merronton, de postiljon !
The children from Babbelaarstrate
Really want to go to Dunkirk
And there to quench their thirst
And to go to Dunkirk.
En wij zull’n de koetsen pareeren
Met de bloemptjes zoet en schoon,
En ons ook wel defendeeren,
G’lijk den keizer op zijn troon.
Zoete merronton, etc.
And we will decorate the coaches
With sweet, beautiful flowers
And we’ll stand up for ourselves,
Like the emperor on his throne.
En wij zull’n al omdermeest schreeuwen :
“Vivan van Sint-Annadag !”
En ons ook wel defendeeren :
‘t Is de spellewerkige’s feestdag !
And we will loudly cry
Long Live Saint Anna’s Day.
And we’ll stand up for ourselves:
It is the lacemakers’ holiday.
Maar als wij in Duinkerke komen,
En wij rijen al door de stad;
Iedereen zal buiten komen
En zal zeggen : “Wat is dat ?”
But as we come into Dunkirk
And we ride right through the town
Everyone will rush outside
And they’ll say: ‘What’s going on?’
“ ‘t Zijn de Poperingschenaren,
Die daar komen met geweld;
En ze werken heele jaren,
En ze winnen vele geld !”
It’s the girls from Poperinge,
And their coming out in force;
And they work the whole year,
And they earn lots of money!

 

Adeletje Deklerck making lace in the Bruges almshouse, August 1968. From Biekorf (1968)

The strongest concentration of lacemakers in Bruges lived in the parish of Saint Anne, but we have less information about Saint Anne’s Day celebrations there, suggesting that they may have been a fairly modern innovation.  Most of what we know depends on the oral history interviews undertaken in the 1960s by the folklorist Magda Cafmeyer with old lacemakers resident in the city’s almshouses.[13]  For instance Adeletje Deklerk explained that the young women in the lace school saved one or two centimes a week which they put together to pay for the wagon and cakes, but that for three weeks before they worked solidly on earning some drinking money.  As at Poperinge it was a two-day holiday.  On the second day there was a prize-giving ceremony in the school itself.  But the main event was on the first day, when the the lacemakers took a horse-drawn charabanc trip to Gistel and the shrine of Saint Godelieve (the pious wife of an abusive and, finally, murderous husband – a story familiar in many forms to lacemakers).  While on the way, they sang:

Wij zijn bijeen en we trekken naar Sint Annetje,
wij gaan op zoek al achter een ander mannetje,
wij zijn bijeen
en we zullen niet meer scheen,
wij zijn gezworen kameraden
en ze zien’ aan onze trein (bis)
dat we van Sint Anne zijn (bis)
We’re all together and we’re off to Saint Anne’s
We’re looking out for another man,
We’re all together
And we’ll never part no more,
We’re sworn comrades
And they can see from our verve
That we’re from [the parish of] Saint Anne.

The camaraderie of the lacemakers, their sense of collective identity, both local and occupational (which sometimes included, and sometimes excluded, the nuns who accompanied them on the trip) comes across strongly in these songs.

After the First World War there was a concerted attempt to revive lacemaking and its associated customs in Bailleul and the surrounding region.  The town was almost totally destroyed during the Ludendorff Offensive in the spring of 1918 but when a visiting American philanthropist, Richard Nelson Cromwell, toured the region in 1919, he was moved by the sight of lacemakers working among the ruins.  His support for the French charity ‘Retour au foyer’ (Back to the hearth) underwrote the establishment of lace schools in Bailleul and nearby Méteren and Saint-Jans-Cappel.  The underlying philosophy was that the traditions and values interrupted by the war should be renewed, including a proper gender order.  Lacemaking would enable women to contribute to the household budget without leaving their homes.  The charity not only funded the schools but also undertook the sale of their produce in Lille and Paris.

Le Petit Journal, supplement illustré, no. 1539, 20 June 1920 : ‘La Résurrection de la Dentelle des Flandres’. From Gallica.

Part of this ‘return’ involved reviving Saint Anne’s Day celebrations.  In 1921 the local organiser in Méteren, Marguerite de Swarte (1874-1948), wrote to the charity’s president Paul Dislère to explain how the children had passed the day.

On the day before, our young workers and brought in armlods of flowers with which they made garlands to decorate both the front and the interior of the school.  A [lace-maker’s] chair, a pillow, a support and an aune [used to measure lace] were festooned with flowers, you would think it was a flower festival.  In the evening, after work, the local lacemakers came to admire the charming school which reminded them of the holidays of yesteryear, they enjoyed themselves with the children and brought to mind the old Flemish songs…  The following morning our children, and all the lacemakers of Méteren, went to mass in honour of Saint Anne, then they returned to the school, singing their old songs.  There a meal of Flemish cakes and chocolate awaited them, which they enjoyed very much.  Then a bus came to take them to Ypres…  There they had a cold lunch of ham sandwiches, Flemish cake, pears and beer, and they walked among the ruins.  At 3:00pm they went on to Poperinge, to visit the lace school, and with the fifty young lacemakers they shared more local specialities, bars of chocolate and beer.  Then there were songs and round-dances in the school playground, until at 7:00pm the happy band climbed back aboard the bus to return to Méteren via Saint-Jans-Cappel.[14]

Marguerite de Swarte (1874-1948), patron of the lace revival in Méteren

Saint Anne celebrations continued throughout the interwar period, and there is even a picture of the crowning of the Méteren lace mistress, Hélène Loozen, in 1936, surrounded by the garlanded tools of the lacemaker’s trade.

Hélène Loozen, crowned lace mistress at Méteren, Saint Anne’s Day 1937. The lady with the pillow is Marie Delie, lace mistress of the school before the war and a well-known lacemaker.

 

 

[1] Ludo Steyn, Jan Frans Willems: Vader der Vlaamsche Beweging (Antwerp: De Bezige Bij, 2012).

[2] Jan-Frans Willems and Ferdinand Snellaert, Oude Vlaemsche Liederen ten deele met de melodieën (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1848), nos. 256-7.

[3] Jan Bols (ed.) Brieven aan Jan-Frans Willems (Ghent: A. Siffer, 1909), p. 452.

[4] Stefaan Top, ‘Chants populaires des flamands de France (1856): A Contribution to Comparative Folksong Research, France/Belgium : Flanders’ in James Porter (ed.) Ballads and Boundaries: Narrative Singing in an Intercultural Context (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1995), pp. 315-24.

[5] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des flamands de France (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1856), xii-xiii.

[6] Coussemaker, Chants populaires, pp. 307-19.

[7] Arreté, Maire de la ville de Bailleul, 2 juillet 1858

[8] Stéphane Lembré, ‘Les écoles de dentellières en France et Belgique des années 1850 aux années 1930’, Histoire de l’éducation 123 (2009): 55.

[9] Michel Le Calvé, Souvenir de Bailleul (Dunkerque: Westhoek, 1983), pp. 40-1.

[10] Eugène Cortyl, ‘La dentelle à Bailleul’, Bulletin du Comité flamand de France (1903) : 231.

[11] For information on ‘zoete Mène’ see https://westhoekverbeeldt.be/ontdek/detail/8d838922-bbc5-11e3-a56d-875083d05b38

[12] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek (Brussels: Commission royale du folklore, 1962), pp. 237-318 : ‘Het boek der Klein-Sacramentdagliedjes en Sint-Annaliedjes’.  See, especially, no. 124 ‘Sint-Annadag’ and no. 125 ‘De Kinders van de Babbelaarsstrate’.

[13] Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Oude Brugse spellewerksters vertellen: Adeletje in ‘t Godshuis’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 364-5.

[14] The story of the lace revival in Méteren and Bailleul is well told on the Méteren village website: https://meteren.pagesperso-orange.fr/IV.1%20Dentelles-%20Accueil%20et%20presentation.htm as well as in the catalogue of the exhibition Bailleul en dentelles: Exposition, 27 juin-15 octobre 1992 (Bailleul: Musée Benoît de Puydt, 1992).  Both quote the letter from Marguerite de Swarte.

War Lace Project at Huddersfield University

Dr Wendy Wiertz, a guest contributor to this site, has been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship to continue her research on war lace.  She’ll be taking her fellowship this autumn at the University of Huddersfield.

Wendy Wiertz (photo Romane Berti)

In her project Re-making the World: Women, Humanitarian Agencies and Handicrafts Programmes, Wendy focuses on humanitarian organisations who supported the renowned Belgian lace industry during the First World War. Lacemaking is an important part of Belgium’s cultural heritage, but the industry was in danger of disappearing forever in the war years: demand for the luxury handmade fabric plummeted, while the supply of materials was interrupted. Thousands of lacemakers faced unemployment. In response, humanitarian organisations developed lace-aid schemes with a twofold goal: saving an imperilled European tradition and ensuring the wartime employment of Belgian lacemakers, often women who supported themselves and their families. The schemes were highly successful, bringing unprecedented publicity to the industry and employing more than 50,000 women in German-occupied Belgium and among Belgian refugees in Holland, France and the UK.  The lace they made became known as ‘war lace’, as its unique iconography sometimes referred directly to the conflict.

Anonymous, Motive in needle lace with Belgian lion and the text ‘Belgium 1914’, 1914-1916. Needle lace, 5,5 x 7 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. BK-NM-14367-167

Through the example of war lace, Wendy aims to uncover the origins of humanitarian organisations attempts to preserve cultural heritage, while also examining what these programmes did for female emancipation and artistic expression. To achieve this, she will use a combination of archival, collection and practice-led inquiry that will take her to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the UK and the United States.

 

Did men make lace? A social investigation from the ‘Flanders Hell’.

‘Kantwerkers’ [male lacemakers], photograph by Charles Lefébure from ‘Door arm Vlaanderen’ by August De Winne (Ghent, 1903)

In historical sources almost all the commercial lacemakers one encounters were women. But did men not make lace? It’s a question we’ve often been asked, and the answer is yes – but how many it’s hard to say.  Occasionally one discovers evidence of men making lace, but these reports usually concern periods of high demand when wages were very good, or periods when male-dominated industries had collapsed (such as the Breton herring fishing industry at the beginning of the twentieth century), and lace was introduced as a makeshift way for the unemployed to earn a living.  But it’s likely, not least because lacemaking was so clearly identified as women’s work, that official reports undercount the number of men who made lace on either a full-time or a part-time basis.

August De Winne (1865-1935, sometimes written Dewinne) was certainly shocked to discover that, in 1902 in Belgium, some men worked as lacemakers.  De Winne was a journalist for the Socialist newspaper Le Peuple.  The socialist movement was growing in Belgium in the period, but it had achieved greater success in the industrial towns of French-speaking Wallonia than in Flanders where the political influence of the Catholic Church still held sway.  In 1901 De Winne set out to discover the true conditions of the working population of Flanders, and the reasons behind their political attitudes. He particularly focused on the rural, inland regions of east and west Flanders which came to be known in the first decade of the twentieth century as ‘The Flanders Hell’, characterised by overpopulation, underemployment, poverty and misery. Here villagers did not work in factories, but laboured in their cottages at ‘sweated trades’ such as weaving, spinning, basket-making, rabbit-rearing (for fur rather than meat) and, of course, lace-making.  The collected articles were published as A travers les Flandres in 1902, and then again in 1903 in an extended Dutch language edition as Door arm Vlaanderen – ‘through poor Flanders’.  The title is an echo of an earlier novel of social protest, Arm Vlaanderen, by Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) and Isidoor Teirlinck (1851-1934). That novel was set during the first ‘School War’ which, as we know, directly concerned the lace schools.

The section below, focusing on male lacemakers, only figures in the Dutch edition.  De Winne’s interest had been piqued by a report on lacemaking in Belgium by Pierre Verhaegen. This was the first really serious Belgian study of workers’ conditions and pay in the industry, and although De Winne considered Verhaegen to be too close to the Catholic Church, he nonetheless thought his information was reliable.  Both De Winne and Verhaegen quote figures from the industrial census of 1896 which recorded that there were 47,571 lacemakers in Belgium, of which just 117 were men. But was that an underestimate?

Two other persons are named in the text: Charles Beerblock (1854-1914), a socialist activist from Lokeren; and Charles Lefébure (1862-1943), an engineer and amateur photographer who had accompanied De Winne and documented the social conditions he encountered on his visits. If you’re looking for Miere on a map, note that it is now spelt Mere.

‘Kantwerker’ [male lacemaker], photograph by Charles Lefébure from ‘Door arm Vlaanderen’ by August De Winne (Ghent, 1903)

“So it is true, there are men in Flanders who make lace?” I asked Beerblock.

“It was news to me. I discovered it from Monsieur Verhaegen’s report. I went with Monsieur Lefébure to meet the lacemakers from around Aalst; he took several lovely photographs. Would you like to go back there together?”

“Very willingly”.

On a lovely spring morning we made our way to Meire, a small township of about 3,500 inhabitants, in an out-of-the-way corner of Aalst district, beyond the main lines of communication, just on the local railway to Ronse.

The town appears rather sweet and charming, bathed as it is in light and warmth. The road, lined with small, very neat houses, meanders gracefully through the smiling fields. The buds are sprouting on the hedges. The houses are hidden behind a curtain of trees.

What a delightful spot!

We enter a house. Potatoes are boiling away on a Leuven stove. The tall fireplace is covered with very rough religious prints. And to think that this is the picture that poor folk have of the Mother of God and of the saints! Is there really any difference between this crude religion and idolatry?

  The mother, a little old woman, chats to a neighbor who has two children hanging from her skirt. By the window in a low chair sits an old man in a silk cap, a long beard like an apostle hangs down to his chest, in front of him a lace pillow.

At first, as I watch him turning the bobbins with his stiff hands, I find him a little ridiculous, but then I feel pity for this dignified old man, thus obliged to do women’s work, children’s work.

The mother stops chattering, the father and the young girls have turned to look at us. Beerblock is known here. He has come to show M. Lefébure’s beautiful photos. He takes them out of a large folder and displays them to the simple people. They marvel, utter cries of joy and surprise. “Look father! Look mother!” the young girls shout. “That’s John ‘the Frenchman’, that’s big Theresa, that’s Mary’s house!”

“How wonderful they are!”

We ask:“Old man, how long have you followed this occupation?”

“Since the age of six, sir. I have never done anything else and am now sixty years old.”

“What do you earn? How many hours a day do you work?”

“My wages vary between 70 centimes and 1 franc per day for 11 and 12 hours of work.”

“What would you say were the average earnings for the women of the village?”

“That depends both on the type of work and also on the skill of the workers. My daughters earn 1 franc a day for 12 to 13 hours of work. But a few steps further on from here lives a lace-worker who sits at her chair from 6:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening, with an hour of rest at noon. At the end of the week she will have earned just 3.80 francs.”

The amount earned in this house and in other houses in Meire is similar to that reported by Verhaegen. Here are some other figures quoted by that clerical writer: 1 franc per day for 13½ hours of work; 85 centimes for 10 hours; 64 centimes for 12 hours; 75 centimes for 8 hours; 48 centimes for 10 hours; 96 centimes for 13½ hours, and so on.

They are the figures for women’s earnings. Verhaegen only mentions a single male lacemaker, who was paid 70 centimes a day for 11 hours of work.

We leave the house in the company of the neighbour with her two children.

“They are good people, but under the thumb of the Church” she whispers to us when we have come a little way.

“Are there any villagers who are not of that persuasion?”

“People here have all kinds of convictions, sir: Catholics, Liberals, Christian Democrats and Socialists.” She adds, not without pride, “My husband is a Socialist.  He’s employed at the gas works in Brussels, where he earns 4 francs a day.”

“That’s better than making lace.”

“Certainly, but it’s not an easy life nonetheless. My husband has to leave at 3.45 in the morning, and gets to Brussels at 5am. In winter, when the works only open at 7am, he has to hang around for two hours, wandering through the streets or sitting in a bar. In the evening he gets back at 8.30. No, it’s no picnic his life!”

We say goodbye to the good woman. Beerblock tells me that about 40 gas workers, roadmen and masons live here, who travel to the capital every day. Those employed in the gas works have alternating shifts – one week of day work followed by one week of night work.  They prefer night work because the day trains provide better connection, so less time is lost.

Three hundred “Frenchmen” also live in Meire, so called because during the harvest season they go to France to find work. Some of these migrants also make lace during the winter. The same is true of the agricultural workers and the brickmakers who live in the village. We met some in the other houses we visited.

According to the industrial census [conducted in 1896], there are 114 men in Flanders who make lace, but Verhaegen thinks, with good reason, that the number of those who engage in this type of work in their free time, for whom it is an additional source of income, is much larger.

In Meire we also saw a number of boys sitting next to their mothers or sisters and who, like them, were working with bobbins. “It keeps them quiet” say the good people of the region.

Does a child actually need to play, to run about, to have fun, to go to school, to breathe the air, to strengthen his muscles, in order to develop? Why?

Later, as a man, he’ll become a farmer or a brick maker; maybe he’ll travel along the roads of France looking for work or he’ll sit in front of a lace cushion for thirteen hours a day. On Sunday he’ll first pray and then get drunk on gin.Work, prayer, and generating more members of their unfortunate race, that is the whole destiny of these men and women, and the destiny of the children of Flanders!

Poor people!

Emiel Jacques (1874-1937), ‘De Kantklossers’. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

A short film of a Wiltshire lacemaker

Amanda Boyd, working on behalf of the Windrose Rural Media Trust, has put together a short video, based around some footage of a lacemaker working in Malmsbury, Wiltshire, in the 1960s.  You can see the video here.  Amanda is a singer and song collector herself, which is one reason that topic looms large in the commentary.  We don’t know much about Wiltshire lacemakers, but we’re happy to learn more.

Bertha Newcombe (1857-1947), ‘A Downton Lace Maker’, Salisbury Museum. The watercolour is a portrait of the Wiltshire lacemaker Ann Martin, then aged 82. Her pillow and bobbins are very similar to those shown in the video.  Newcombe was a campaigner for women’s suffrage and on social issues, as well as an artist.  The illustration is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

‘The Young Girl at the Window’: Mystic Realism from a Dead City

Léon Frédéric (1856-1940), ‘The Flemish Lacemaker’, 1907.

A post for a rather depressing winter.  Some Flemish literature is written in Dutch, and some is, or at least was, written in French.  Despite his name, Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) identified as Flemish; yet, as was true of most of the Belgian upper classes at the time, his chosen mode of expression was French.  At the turn of the twentieth-century he was probably Belgium’s most famous author, and the most notorious in the country after his appearances before the courts for literary offences against public morality.  He was compared to Émile Zola not just for his social realism (or ‘naturalism’ as people termed Zola’s school) but also for his unabashed explorations of sexual desire, religious fervour and mental breakdown.  He was as frequently coupled with the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans.  In fact, Lemonnier embraced several literary fashions in turn, including symbolism.  But if one had to pigeon-hole him, perhaps one could locate him in the distinct Flemish school of turn-of-the-century ‘mystic realism’ which also includes Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898) and Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), ‘Camille Lemonnier in the artist’s studio’, c. 1900. Fondation Roi           Baudoin, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Lemonnier was a great promoter of Belgian painters.

Lacemakers do not feature often in Lemonnier’s fiction, nor even in his non-fiction guides to his native country.  The one exception is his prose-poem ‘La jeune fille à la fenêtre’, which appeared in the Parisian radical literary review Gil Blas in January 1892.  The setting is Bruges – the ‘dead city’ of Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, a crumbling labyrinth of medieval relics, dissolving into the waters of its silent canals.  Here the past, with its vanished promises and enduring regrets, weighs so heavily on the present that it crushes all life, all hope.  The population’s only motive force is the monotonous repetition of Catholic rituals.

Karel Boom (1858-1939), ‘The Lacemaker’. Medievalism was one facet of the symbolist movement, in art as well as literature.

The heroine of Lemonnier’s poem is a young lacemaker who we observe alternately working on her pillow or pensively watching evening fall across the city.  Although the precise nature of her heartache is not specified, it is clear that she has loved and lost.  She is working on a bridal veil she will never wear.  The bridal veil is a common theme in the literature of lacemaking, harking back to the legends of the origins of lace, whether located in Venice (another aqueous ‘dead city’) or Flanders.  Only one year before, in 1891, a younger albeit more traditional French poet, Charles Fuster (1866-1929), had told a very similar story in his poem ‘La dentellière de Bruges’.  Fuster’s lacemaker is employed by very person on whom she has set her heart to make a veil for his bride: she dies, of consumption, just as she completes the task, and her lace instead serves as her shroud in a ‘wedding of the dead’ (a custom we have discussed in a previous blog).  It seems likely that Lemonnier knew Fuster’s poem not least because it was regularly performed on the stage as a dramatic monologue.

Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939), ‘ A Canal in Bruges at Dusk’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Le Sidaner’s crepuscular townscapes capture some of the symbolist enthusiasm for the ‘dead city’.  Courtesy of ArtUK.

Death approaches Lemonnier’s lacemaker too, though the source of the danger is less clear.  The young working-class woman whose life-chances are cut short was a stock character of nineteenth-century literature – think of the Parisian seamstress Mimi in La Bohème.  But whereas social realists fulminated against the economic and sexual exploitation that caused these tragedies, symbolists luxuriated in their aesthetic possibilites, just as they relished the spectacle of the dead city (Rodenbach even campaigned against any modernisation of Bruges).  The church viewed through the lacemaker’s window is, as we have seen before in another blog post, a commonplace of nineteenth-century visual art.  But for the symbolist poet the exterior world is a projection of the protagonist’s interior, explicitly so in this poem where the young lacemaker’s heart is also a chapel, the mirror of the one she can see across the canal, and inhabited by the same sad and desperate characters who come to plead with the plaster saints.  Women’s suffering, infused into the making of lace, heightened the value of the lacemakers’ art for these fin-de-siècle writers.

Firmin Baes (1874-1943), ‘The Lacemaker’s Dream’.

Like Fuster’s poem, Lemonnier’s was also meant for the stage: the first performance of the monologue was given by Marguerite Rolland at the Salon des XX, an art exhibition, in Brussels in 1892.  Later it was set to music by the Belgian composer Eugène Samuel (1862-1942, better known as Samuel-Holeman after he added his dead wife’s name to his own in 1905), first as a simple piano accompaniment in 1903, then for an ensemble in 1906.  The piece remained quite popular both in Belgium and France through the first three decades of the twentieth century, but it has only been recorded once, in 2019, by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Claes, accompanied by Mathias Lecomte on piano and the Sturm und Klang ensemble.

The composer Eugène Samuel-Holeman, 1922.

Despite his fin-de-siècle celebrity, very little of Lemonnier’s work has been translated into English.  The translation offered below is our own, and we make no claims for its poetic qualities.  It is based on the version of the poem published in Lemonnier’s 1898 collection La petite femme de la mer.  The text utilized by Samuel-Holeman was a little different (and a translation of that is provided in the booklet accompanying the Sturm und Klang cd).

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE (THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW) BY CAMILLE LEMONNIER.

Par l’entre-bâillure des mousselines, à travers la vitre comme étamée d’un soir d’hiver, un canal s’aperçoit.  De l’autre côté du canal, les maisons sont bordées par un quai.  Une vieille arche de point, un peu au delà vers la gauche, érige un crucifix.  Il neige.  Dans la reculée, un chevet d’église s’ecorne, cassé par la perspective.

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE, faisant de la dentelle.

Mes mains, mes petites mains, mes pâles mains jamais nuptiales, les avez-vous fait danser toute cette après-midi, les fuseaux!….  C’est ma triste vie qui, fil à fil, s’enroule autour des épingles d’or, et les fils sortent de mon coeur, les fils vont de mon coeur à mes doigts, les beaux fils couleur de neige qui retiennent mon coeur captif.

Mes soeurs, s’il ne vient pas, Celui que j’attends, vous enlèverez les épingles, vous détacherez la dentelle, vous l’éploierez sur la nuit de mes yeux…  Je l’ai commencée avec les fils de mai…  Il neigeait alors de l’aubépine, les soirs avaient des tuniques blanches de petites filles; dans l’église, les orgues du mois de Marie chantaient.  Et mon coeur aussi était une église où, derrière les vitraux sous la petite lampe, mon Jésus resplendissait.  Son sourire me regardait avec la forme de mon propre coeur; et je lavais doucement ses plaies avec des larmes qui n’avaient pas encore pris le goût du sel!

Mes mains, mes joyeuses mains jamais lasses, c’était mon voile de mariée qu’en ce temps vous fleurissiez de marguerites et d’étoiles…  Le prêtre a quitté la chapelle; l’enfant de choeur a éteint les cierges de l’autel; les orgues se sont tues dans les soirs.  L’hiver était venu; et j’ai continué mon beau voile avec des fils de neige.  Mes mains ont filé la neige qui tombait dans l’hiver de mon coeur, elles en ont fait le fil avec lequel maintenant s’achève le triste voile.

Mon coeur est une église où, après la messe, il passe des visages aux yeux vides comme des chambres de trépassés.  Des mères intercèdent à genoux pour leur enfant malade.  Une très vieille jeune fille porte son coeur dans ses doigts et l’offre aux Saintes miséricordes.

Je suis cette mère, Seigneur, intercédant pour mon amour malade, je suis cette vieille jeune fille, Seigneur!  Je remets entre vos mains l’offrande douloureuse de mon coeur inexaucé.  Dévidez-vous, les fuseaux!  Mes larmes à la longue ont durci de leurs cristaux le fil; la dentelle sous mes larmes s’est gelée en dures et brillantes fleurs de givre.

Dites, dites, mes soeurs, le voile, en l’éployant, sera-t-il pas assez long pour s’étendre de mon visage à mon coeur?

(Les cloches sonnent à l’église.  Elle regarde s’allumer les vitraux dans le choeur.  Des mantes noires passent sur le pont.)

Je les reconnais: ce sont toujours, depuis que je travaille à cette fenêtre, les mêmes visages de soir et de prières; l’hiver aussi a neigé sur ces âmes.  Mes espoirs, vous vous êtres usés comme les genoux qu’elles vont fléchir devant les autels…  Chaques soir, elles passent au tintement de la cloche dans leurs grands manteaux; elles se signent devant le crucifix; elles vont vers les cierges et les chants, comme des oiseaux battant de l’aile du côté des volières.  Mon coeur, comme elles, porte une sombre mante…  Mon coeur passe sur un pont, mon coeur va vers une chapelle dont le prêtre est mort il y a longtemps.  Nulle lampe ne brûle plus par delà les verrières, nul encens ne fume plus sous les voûtes; et cependant mon Jésus y est couché parmi l’or et les aromates.

Silence!  Mon coeur a frappé à la porte; la porte ne s’est pas ouverte, la porte jamais ne s’ouvrira.  Ah! sonnez, les cloches! sonnez, mes glas!  Mes prières connaissent une chapelle muette comme un tombeau.

(Elle a laissé retomber les bobines et rêve, les yeux distraits, perdus dans la neige qui floconne lentement.)

Nous étions alors autour de la table quatre petites soeurs.  Une est partie, un soir qu’il neigeait comme à présent; elle n’avait pas quinze ans.  Celle-là sans doute, dès le berceau, avait été fiancée à un beau jeune homme pâle dans la lune…  Et ensuite, la table est devenue trop grande pour les trois autres.  Annie! ma chère Annie, pourquoi ne suis-je pas couchée à votre place dans la petite bière où vos lys ont fleuri pour l’éternité?  J’étais l’aînée de nous; il n’eùt fallu qu’un peu plus de bois au cercueil…

Et tant qu’elles furent quatre, les soirs, dans le jardin, les petites soeurs dansaient une ronde en chantant: “Il était un beau prince, et ri et ri, petit rigodon…”  Ah! je ne veux plus chanter cela.  Une princesse au fond d’une tour espère la venue du beau prince…  Le beau prince a passé par le pays; il a passé devant la tour; la petite princesse est morte de chagrin parce que le beau prince n’a pas trouvé la clef de la tour…  Annie, ma chère Annie, est-ce-que quand il neige, ce ne sont pas les pleurs gelés des pâles jeunes filles qui tombent des étoiles – des pauvres jeunes filles pleurant le bel amant qui n’est pas venu?  Dites, bonne Annie, est-ce que ce n’est pas la charpie que des petites mains de jeunes filles effilent au fond des étoiles pour panser les blessures de celles qui sont demeurées?

(Une lampe s’allume dans une des maisons en face.)

La bonne dame tout à l’heure descendra son chien à la rue, elle le regardera un instant courir dans la neige; ensuite elle le rappellera.  Et, à travers la mince guipure blanche, je verrai la bonne dame passer l’eau sur son thé, ajouter quelques points à sa tapisserie… (Ah! toujours la même depuis de si longues années!)… puis s’endormir, son petit chien sur ses genoux: ils n’ont pas connu le poids léger d’une chair d’enfant.

(D’autres fenêtres s’allument.)

Ah!  Des lampes encore!  Des lampes comme des yeux rouges de pleurs!  Des lampes comme des regards d’aveugles derrière la vitre d’un hôpital!  De vieilles gens sans doute, des âmes lasses d’infinies résignations!  D’anciennes douleurs de jeunes filles regardant neiger le silence à travers le cloître de leur coeur.  “Il était un beau prince!  Et ri et ri, petit rigodon!”  Pourquoi la triste chanson me revient-elle surtout ce soir?  Pourquoi grelotte-t-elle à la porte comme un vieux pauvre chargé des reliques d’un autre âge?  Il y a si longtemps qu’elle est morte, la princesse: le beau prince sans doute n’en a jamais rien su…  Mes mains, séchez les pleurs de mes yeux.

(Sur le pont tout à coup quelqu’un apparaît, un homme don’t on n’aperçoit pas le visage à travers la neige et la nuit.  Il s’arrête près du crucifix et regarde du côté de la fenêtre.  Elle rit.)

Le voilà, mon prince Charmant…  Il y a six ans qu’il passe sur le pont, tous les soirs, à la même heure.  J’ignore son nom; je sais seulement qu’il a des cheveux blancs.  Il passe, il regarde; nous ne nous sommes jamais rien dit.  Mes soeurs l’appellent: l’ange des dernières pensées du jour.  Et ensuite ce n’est plus qu’une ombre au bout de ce canal…  Il s’en ira dans un instant comme il s’en est allé tous les autres soirs.

Ah! qui aurait dit, quand nous étions quatres petites soeurs chantant cette antique ballade, qu’un si vieux monsieur s’arrêterait devant ma tour et que je serais la princesse des espoirs qui ne doivent pas se réaliser!  Je ne tiens plus au monde pourtant que par cette charité d’un regard qui se tourne vers ma vitre…

(L’inconnu fait un geste et quitte le pont.)

Parti!  Et ce geste encore depuis six ans, ce geste dont toujours il semble se résigner et prendre à témoin le ciel de l’impossibilité de franchir la distance qui nous sépare…  Il n’y a cependant là qu’une flaque d’eau, il n’y a que des silences d’un peu d’eau qui dort!  Mon coeur est une maison au bord d’un canal, avec une fenêtre derrière laquelle veille mon amour et où se réfléchit le regret d’un passant.

(La nuit est entièrement tombée; une douceur de sommeil pèse sur la ville.  Là-bas, les hautes fenêtres de l’église se découpent, étincelantes.)

Seigneur, je mêle ma voix à celles de vos humbles servantes…  Seigneur, prenez en pitié ma longue peine…   Donnez-moi la force de continuer jusqu’au bout ce voile de mariée, afin que, n’ayant pu servir à ma vie, il serve au moins à ma bonne mort…  Et vous, mes mains, mes pauvres mains flétries, si, à force de vider les bobines, le fil venait à vous manquer, prenez les lins de mes cheveux, prenez à mes tempes les fils sur lesquels a neigé l’hiver.

(Elle ferme les rideaux, allume sa lampe et se remet à sa dentelle.)

A gap in the curtains reveals, through a window, frosted as on a winter’s evening, a canal.  The houses on the other side border on a quay.  To the left, the arch of an old bridge, and on it is erected a crucifix.  It is snowing, in the distance the apse of a dilapidated church is visible, distorted by the perspective.

THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW, making lace.

My hands, my little hands, my pale hands, never a bride’s hands, you’ve kept the bobbins dancing all this afternoon!….  It’s my sad life that winds itself, thread by thread, around the golden pins, and the threads are drawn from my heart, the threads stretch from my heart to my fingers, the beautiful threads that hold my heart captive.

My sisters, if he doesn’t come, the One who I’ve been waiting for, you must pull out the pins, you must detach the lace, and you must spread over my darkened eyes…  I started it with the threads of May…  It was snowing then with hawthorn blossom, the evenings were full of little girls in white dresses; in the church, the organs sang the Month of Mary.  And my heart, too, was a church where, behind the stained-glass windows, under a little lamp, my Jesus was radiant.  He smiled at me with the true form of my own heart; and I gently washed his wounds with tears that had not yet acquired the taste of salt!

My hands, my joyous hands that are never tired, this was my bridal veil which, back then, you decorated with daisies and stars…  The priest has left the chapel; the choirboy has extinguished the candles on the altar; the organs are silent in the evenings.  Winter had come; and I still made my beautiful veil with snow-white threds.  My hands spun the snow that fell in the winter of my heart, they first made the thread with which they now complete the sad veil.

My heart is a church where, after mass, faces with blank eyes like the rooms of the dead pass by.  Mothers plead for their sick child.  An aged spinster carries her heart in her fingers and offers it to the merciful Saints.

I am that mother, Lord, pleading for my sick love, I am that old spinster, Lord!  I commit into your hands the sad offering of my unfulfilled heart.  Empty the bobbins!  My tears have long since hardened the thread into crystal; the lace has frozen under my tears into brilliant, callous frost flowers.

Tell me, tell me, my sisters, will the veil, when it is spread out, be long enough to reach from face to my heart?

(The church bells ring.  She watches as the stained-glass windows light up in the choir.  Cloaked figures cross the bridge.)

I know them, they’re always the same, ever since I’ve worked at this window, the same evening faces, the same prayers: winter has fallen on these souls too.  My hopes are as worn out as their knees inclined before the alters…  Every evening they pass by covered by their large cloaks as the bells ring; they make the sign of the cross before the crucifix; they flock towards candles and hymns like birds flapping beside their aviaries.  My heart crosses a bridge, my heart approaches a chapel where the priest died long ago.  No lamp burns behind the windows, no incense drifts under the vaults; and yet my Jesus lies amidst gold and sweet-smelling herbs.

Silence!  My heart knocked on the door, the door did not open, the door will never open.  Oh! ring out you bells! ring out my death knell!  My prayers know a chapel as silent as the grave.

(She lets the bobbins fall and dreams, her gaze distracted, lost in the snow falling slowly in flakes.)

There used to be four of us, four little sisters around a table.  One left, on an evening when it was snowing just like now; she wasn’t even fifteen.  No doubt she had been, since she was in her cradle, afianced to a handsome young man as pale as the moon…  And then the table became too big for the other three.  Annie! my darling Annie, why am I not lying in your place in the little bier where your lilies flower for all eternity.  I was the eldest; it would have only needed a little more wood for the coffin…

When there four, in the evenings, in the garden, the little sisters danced a round singing “There was a handsome prince, tee hee, little rigodon…”  Oh! I don’t want to sing that any more.  A princess hidden in a tower hopes for the arrival of a handsome prince…  The handsome prince passed close by; he passed right by the tower; the little princess died of heartache because the handsome prince did not discover the key to the tower…  Annie, my darling Annie, when it snows, aren’t those the frozen tears of pale young girls falling from the stars – the poor young girls crying for the handsome lover who never came?  Tell me, sweet Annie, isn’t it the little hands of young girls that spin the lint up there in the stars to bind the wounds of those who have been left behind?

(A lamp lights up in the house opposite.)

The good lady will soon come down with her dog into the street, she will watch him for a moment running around in the snow, then she’ll call him back.  Then, through the thin lace curtain, I will see that good lady pour hot water on her tea, add a few stiches to her tapestry… (Ah! always the same one these long years!)… then she’ll fall asleep, her little dog on her knees: they have never known the light weight of a child.

(Other windows light up.)

Ah!  More lamps!  Lamps like eyes red with weeping!  Lamps like the eyes of blind people behind hospital windows!  Old people, no doubt, their souls worn out by countless renunciations.  The timeworn sorrows of young girls watching the snow fall in silence through the cloister of their heart.  “There was a handsome prince! Tee hee, little rigodon!’  Why does that sad song haunt me this evening?  Why does it tremble at the door like an old beggar burdened with the relics of another age?  She died so long ago, the princess: the handsome prince doubtless never knew anything about it… My hands, wipe away the tears from my eyes.

(Suddenly someone appears on the bridge, a man whose face is indistinguishable through the snow and the gathering night.  He stops by the crucifix and looks up at the window.  She smiles.)

There he is, my prince Charming…  For six years he has crossed the bridge, every evening at the same time.  I don’t know his name; I only know he has silver hair.  He’s going past, he looks up; we’ve never exchanged a word.  My sisters call him: the angel of the day’s last thoughts.  And then he’s nothing more than a shadow at the end of the canal…  He’ll be gone in a moment just as he does every other evening.

Oh! who could have known, when we were four little sisters singing that outmoded ballad, that such an old gentleman would stop before my tower and that I would be the princess of hopes that can never be fulfilled!  I am indifferent to the world except for the kindness of that glance up towards my window…

(The unknown man makes a gesture and leaves the bridge.)

Gone! And that same gesture all these six years past, a gesture that seems to say he is resigned and takes Heaven as his witness to the impossibility of surmounting the distance that separates us…  Yet it’s nothing but a pool of water, there’s just silences and a little stretch of motionless water!  My heart is a house by the edge of a canal, with a window behind which my love keeps watch and in which are reflected the regrets of a passer-by.

(Night has fallen completely; a sweet sleep enfolds the town.  Further away, the high windows of the church stand out, glittering.)

O Lord, I entwine my voice with those of your humble servants…  O Lord, take pity on my long suffering…  Grant me the strength to finsh this wedding veil so that, never having served me in life, it will at least serve me in death…  And you, my hands, my poor jaded hands, if after you’ve emptied the bobbins, you lack thread, takes threads from my hair, take from my temples the threads on which winter has snowed.

(She closes the curtains, lights her lamp, and takes up her pillow again.)

 

The lace industry = a cottage industry. A representation of a lacemaker’s work environment

For several centuries the Flemish lace industry was a cottage industry. Different generations worked together in their home. In this way, girls got an early grasp of the craft. They could also learn it in the numerous lace schools. After their training, they could choose to work in lace workshops rather than at home, but that was rare. Most girls, now adolescents, returned home to produce lace in the companionship of their female relatives.

In an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919, a photograph depicts three generations of Belgian lacemakers working together at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it might also be a staged montage. Belgium, Brussels, Art & History Museum. Photo: author.

During a visit to the Art & History Museum in Brussels, I was shown an album containing a black-and-white photograph. The photograph depicts three generations of lacemakers working indoors at the beginning of the twentieth century: an elderly woman and two girls are sitting in the front, while two young women have taken their place behind the girls. All except the youngest girl produce bobbin lace. They do so by sitting behind a lacemaker’s ‘horse’ (‘chevalet’ in French, ‘staantje’ in Dutch, though for all lace equipment there are a variety of local names), a specially constructed wooden stand, that is adjustable in height and contains a drawer. On top of this horse, the lacemakers have placed a lace pillow or cushion (‘carreau’ in French or ‘kussen’ in Dutch), to which they have attached a ‘pricking’ (‘patron’ or ‘piqué’ in French, ‘perkament’ in Dutch), a pattern drawn on parchment or card. The women replicate the pricking through the use of an even number of threads ranging from eight to more than a thousand. These threads are looped over pins arranged at the top of the pricking and wound at its lower end around a bobbin (‘fuseau’ in French, ‘klosje’ or ’boutje’ in Dutch). The elderly woman and the oldest child use a limited number of bobbins, while the two young women each seem to use around a hundred bobbins as is visible from the stacked bobbins on one or both sides of their cushions. All four of them cross over or twist the threads to produce lace. Thin strips of the textile are indeed visible on the cushions of the elderly woman and the eldest child. The work of the two young women cannot be seen as they sit behind the two girls. The youngest of the two girls doesn’t make lace, but ensures all the bobbins are full of thread. She takes care of this task with the help of a spinning wheel and a bobbin winder (a ‘dévidoir or ‘bobinoir’, or ‘kloswinder’ in Dutch). After the spools are wound with thread, she puts them in a box at her feet.

The five women work indoors, where on dark days a lit candle is placed behind a spherical water carafe or ‘flash’ (seen on the left, known as an ‘ordinaal’ in Dutch) to provide concentrated light. During the summer, the lacemakers work outside in the bright sunlight. At the end of the working day, they carefully wrap their product in blue paper – or in a white cloth as in this case – and put it in the drawer under their lace pillow. In this way, the textile remains snow-white, which is extremely important if it is to receive a good price. The use of bobbins also contributes to the whiteness of the lace as the lacemakers can manipulate the thread without touching it. The lacemakers even take additional measures to prevent any discolouration of the thread: they regularly wash their hands, put an apron over their clothes and keep their surroundings spotless in order to secure their payment in money or kind.

A closer look to the interior not only reveals the lacemakers’ commitment to their craft. It also proves their dedication to such virtues as ‘cleanliness, industry, family responsibility and domestic stability’.[i] At the left, the unlit hearth – complete with a decorated cast-iron fire back, trammel hook, typical blue-and-white Delft tiles and a curtain – functions as the traditional association between women and domesticity. The old grandfather clock registers the many hours the lacemakers industriously devote to their craft, while Christ casts a divine eye over their labours from his wall pedestal above the women and their work. A linen cupboard is placed against the right wall, storing the housewares and leaving no clutter. In short, the whole interior, including the white-chalked walls and the scrubbed terracotta floor, is presented as an examplar of cleanliness – the pride of every housewife.

At first sight, the photograph seems a snapshot from reality, yet it might also be a staged montage. There are a few clues to support that idea. First of all, the women sit in such a way that each nicely dressed individual is clearly visible for viewers. In addition, they have displayed all tools necessary for lacemaking. Even the water carafe and footwarmer are allocated a place, although they are not required in the clearly lit and seemingly warm room. A closer examination of the fireplace, the terracotta floor and white-chalked walls shows that they are without a sign of usage, suggesting a newly-built or reconstructed interior.

The homes of lacemakers were regularly reconstructed in the context of exhibitions focusing on home industries, including the lace industry. These exhibitions flourished in Europe during the first decade of the twentieth century. The first exhibition on home industries opened its doors in Berlin in March 1904, followed by further iterations in cities including London, Frankfurt-am-Main, Zurich and Amsterdam. Belgium followed and mounted three similar exhibitions before the First World War: Brussels and Ghent both organised one during the World Exhibitions in 1910 and 1913. Antwerp held one in 1913.[ii]

Just like those held abroad, the Belgian exhibitions both advertised the produced goods while simultaneously highlighting the labour conditions endured by home workers. These conditions were clarified through information on the number of workers in these industries, the hours they worked and the income they received, while workers practised their profession in the reconstructed homes, demonstrating to visitors the production process. Even though the workers put on their best clothes and the reconstructed buildings were in a much better state than the original ones, the visitors realised how precarious were the labour conditions in the home industries. The 1906 exhibition in London was even called the ‘The Sweated Industries Exhibition.’[iii] Everywhere, the initiators of such exhibitions were opposed to ‘the sweating system’ and strongly desired to ameliorate the workers’ conditions. But on the whole they were not opposed to the home industries as such. Especially for women and girls, the home was depicted as a safe, moral and desirable workplace. This idea is also propagated in the photograph of the three generations of lacemakers. Together they represent the past, present and future of the craft practised in domestic surroundings.

Even though, we cannot be completely certain if the photograph depicting three generations of lacemakers was staged or not, its current location does hint that it did serve both economic and ideological purposes. The image was inserted in an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919. The Baroness was an amateur artist, wife of the banker Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), and most importantly one of the core members of the Comité de la Dentelle [Lace Committee].[iv] The committee had been founded in Antwerp in 1909 as the Kantbloemen [Lace flowers]. Less than a year later, it moved to Brussels and changed its name to the Amies de la Dentelle [The Friends of Lace], before becoming the Comité de la Dentelle during the first months of the First World War.[v]

Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) with umbrella, her husband Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), their five children and their dogs. Photo: Wikiwand.

During the war years, the Lace Committee was primarily concerned about the survival of the Belgian handmade lace industry.[vi] Originally, the association, like its equivalents in other countries founded around the turn of the century, had aimed to revive the Belgian lace industry and to improve the fate of the overwhelmingly female workers. Its members were all philanthropists, predominantly women from nobility and the bourgeoisie like the aforementioned Baroness Josse Allard. Benefactors in other countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland took similar actions in order to preserve their local production of handmade lace.[vii]

In Belgium and elsewhere, the production of handmade lace suffered from the ever-growing menace of the machine-made lace industry. In just a few decades after its invention in the early-nineteenth century, machine-made lace looked just as attractive as ‘true lace’. Additionally, it was considerably cheaper, because it could be produced much faster. In order to compete, the already low wages of handmade lacemakers were cut. Many women subsequently left their bobbins and cushions in order to work in the newly built factories. In half a century, the number of Belgian lacemakers diminished from 150,000 in 1850 to just 50,000 in 1900.[viii] Those who continued to make lace, were compelled to produce more for the same price. The lacemakers became impoverished, while the laces’ quality deteriorated.[ix]

In the years following their foundation, the members of the Lace Committee, then still called the Amies de la Dentelle, developed plans to revive the Belgian handmade lace industry while also working to improve the lacemakers’ situation. They mainly sought to increase the quality of lace and the attractiveness of lace designs, thus creating demand for lacemakers’ produce. These goals were to be obtained by improving the training in lace schools and by commissioning new drawings, preferably by artists.[x] (An earlier post concerning The Irish Homestead’s ‘Lace Designs’ Series (1900-1902) focuses on the newly designed patterns aimed to revive the Irish handmade lace industry in the early years of the twentieth century, a comparable enterprise.) The members of the Lace Committee did not focus on the commercial aspects of the enterprise, such as demanding a higher and fairer price from the consumer, organising trade unions or negotiating with lace dealers and factories. Marguerite Coppens, the former curator of the Art & History Museum textile collection in Brussels, somewhat ironically stated: ‘The importance of sales was not denied, but deliberately obscured so as not to provoke manufacturers. Moreover, the ladies patronesses did not like to get involved in “the sale”.’[xi]

However, the existence of the album in which the photograph is inserted, proves these ladies patronesses did get involved in ‘the sale’, that is the commercial aspects of production. The album consists of photographs and drawings of lace samples accompanied by a short description and the price. The album thus functioned as a portfolio that was shown to potential buyers who could choose from a wide range of products and designs. The former included bedcovers, tablecloths, fans, umbrellas, doilies, handkerchiefs and lace by the yard. Most designs depicted characters from fairy tales, bucolic scenes, animals, mythical figures and, above all, flowers. Today, the wartime-produced lace is especially remembered for a much smaller, though highly publicised, number of designs that referred directly to the conflict. These were called ‘war lace’ and included names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces and the martyred cities of Belgium. (The blog post war lace recounts how a luxury fabric as lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.)

The black-and-white photograph of the three generations of lacemakers working indoors in the early twentieth century was meant to convince potential buyers of the importance – moral as much as economic – of their purchase. Every franc they spent would contribute to the revival of the Belgian lace industry and improve the lacemakers’ situation. But, at the same time, the photograph, and the album as a whole, demonstrate the Lace Committee’s nostalgia for an imagined past. A past in which they believed lacemaking had been economically viable and permitted women to work in their homes, where they committed themselves to their craft, their family and their household.

The Belgian lace industry continued to decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Many lacemakers were compelled to leave their bobbins and their homes for opportunities elsewhere. Since then, the album and the photograph serve as witness to the last generation of commercial lacemakers, and as a testimony to the efforts undertaken by the Baroness Allard, the Lace Committee and other philanthropists to revive the Belgian lace industry as a thriving cottage industry.

Wendy Wiertz, research fellow KU Leuven
wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be

 

[i] David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 215.

[ii] Anne Askenasi-Neuckens and Hubert Galle, Les derniers ouvriers libres : Le travail à domicile en Belgique (Brussels: Tournesol Conseils sa/ Éditions Luc Pire, 2000), 43-69.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020), pp. 2-3.

[v] The Lace Committee executed their plans during the First World War. Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace: Lace Designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943),’ Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989), pp. 73-90; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exh. cat. Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussels: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 109-16; Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff,’ Revue belge d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75; Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), p. 87.

[vi] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph, 4th ed. (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917), pp. 158-66; Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium. A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920); Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit België van de zestiende eeuw tot heden. Een keuze van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis te Brussel, exh. cat., Antwerp, Volkskundemuseum (Brussels: Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, 1981), p. 119, cat. nrs. 85-88; Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 116-32, cat. nrs. 62-76, 77a, 79-82; Martine Bruggeman, L’Europe de la dentelle. Un aperçu historique depuis les originaires de la dentelle jusqu’à l’entre-deux-guerre, exh. cat., Bruges, Arenthuis/ Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Bruges: Stichting Kunstboek, 1997), pp. 140-43; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 22-3, 87-97; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle (Paris: Racine, 2018), pp. 577-79.

[vii] Geoff Spenceley, ‘The Lace Associations: Philanthropic Movements to Preserve the Production of Hand-Made Lace in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,’ Victorian Studies 16, 4 (1973): pp. 433-52.

[viii] These numbers are estimates. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry,’ Textile 18:1 (2020), p. 55.

[ix] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 11-5; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 68-9.

[x] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 16-8, 109-13; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 87f.

[xi] The original text in Dutch is: ‘Het belang van de verkoop wordt niet ontkend, maar bewust verdoezeld om de fabrikanten niet te provoceren. Bovendien laten de dames patronessen zich niet graag in met “de verkoop”.’ Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, p. 112.

The lacemaker and the household in Canaan, Brazil

Guest post by Júlia Brussi, Federal University of Western Pará, Brasil

In late afternoons, when the sun has already “cooled down” and most of the daily domestic activities have been completed, the lacemakers of Canaan, a district of a small town Trairi, in the state of Ceará in the Brazilian Northeast, put their cylindrical pillows in front of their houses. Alone or in small groups, they handle their bobbins and make their laces while appreciating the refreshing breeze coming from the sea. However, that is not the only time of the day that they dedicate themselves to lacemaking. In fact, they use every single break between their many domestic activities to ‘knock’ their bobbins and make progress their lace (BRUSSI, 2015). During the hottest moments of the day, they search for more ventilated and well illuminated spaces in their house to work in, which usually ends up being the backyard or near the main door.

Lacemakers in the afternoon, while they make lace and chat in front of their houses.

The fact that the production of bobbin lace is mainly a domestic activity is evident to every visitor. However, there are less noticeable aspects that reinforce this relation between the domestic space and lacemaking. They range from the reproduction of the knowledge, the access, or the making of the tools involved in lace making to the commercialization of what has been produced.

A preliminary observation in this regard concerns the spatial distribution of the district of Canaan, which is divided in sectors that could be described as family-based, considering the high concentration of a given family relatives within the same neighborhood. Some of these locations are even named after the local family name, as in the “Ally of the Martins”. Such proximity ensures that a support and mutual help network is maintained between the residents of these places, aspects of which are revealed in the management of daily life, in the raising of children, in the production of lace, and in the reproduction of these skills. The relative isolation of some neighborhoods associated with kinship and gift relations that connect their inhabitants, is even reflected in the quality of the lace produced in each location. There is a family, for example, which lacemakers are known for been experts in doing the lace with a finer thread, that involves a more laborious process. Some families distinguish themselves for producing the lace with ‘half stitch’, which makes the process faster, saves thread, and results in a less firm lace. Others worry about doing the lace with the ‘cloth stitch’ considered by them as more well done lace, even considering that it wastes more thread, that it takes longer, and that these two kind of laces will be sold for same amount of money.

The house, besides being the locus of lace production, is also the main socialization space for children. The constant presence of the pillow in the environment and the daily use that lacemakers make of these objects, associated with the rhythmic movement of lacing, the colors of the threads, and the sound of the beat between the bobbins, raises the children’s interest and curiosity. By playing with bobbins, threads and pillows they learn how to handle the tools and, slowly, they incorporate the necessary skills to make lace. The playing and its daily repetition make them develop the ability to perform all gesture and elementary actions ((ROUX & BRIL, 2002) involved in the production of lace. As they grow up and become interested in the activity, girls are slowly introduced to the different processes that involve the production of a piece of lace. Although the bobbin lace can be learned by children of either sexes (and sometimes it is actually learned by boys), in Canaan, it is eminently a feminine activity.

Aunt and niece making lace on the veranda of a house.

Among the skills that must be learnt and trained by the apprentices, in addition to making the actual lace, there are a series of essential activities, such as the collection, production, or maintenance of the instruments necessary for working on the pillow and the commercialization of the finished work. The cotton thread is the only material that the lacemakers buy in the market, whereas bobbins are usually purchased from residents of the district who specialize in this production selling them from door to door. The bobbins are made from the seed of the tucum palm (Bactris setosa), which must be collected, cleaned, sanded, perforated, and affixed to a previously sculpted wooden spindle. The biggest difficulty is being able to access the palm tree, which is increasingly rare to be found around the district. Lace pillows are usually made by the lacemakers themselves, out of the fabrics of old hammocks, as well as the prickings, although there are also people on the district who offer these products. The banana straw, used to fill the pillow, and the thorns, used as pins, are collected in the vicinity of the district, amid native vegetation. These thorns, originating from a characteristic cactus (Cereus jamacaru) from the native vegetation, are collected once a year, during the dry season. The thorns are more advantageous than the pins, as in addition to leaving the household budget untouched, they don’t rust in the salty air of Trairi and thus, they do not run the risk of staining the lace.

Lacemaker in activity, producing one of the eight strips of lace that composes one shirt.

The sale of the finished laces can also be carried out without leaving the domestic space. It is important to highlight that most of the local production of lace is destined for middlemen, who resell it to market traders on the beaches and in the capital of the state, Fortaleza. Many of these middlemen are local residents, most are women, many of whom are lacemakers (active or inactive), whose economic condition allows them to buy laces to be stored and later resold. It is common for them to visit the lacemakers’ house, or to send their emissaries (daughters, cousins, sister-in-law), to find out if there are finished laces or to place specific orders. Each lacemaker maintains contact with a few of these intermediaries and, if necessary, they can use them even to anticipate small amounts of money.

The household therefore occupies a central place in relation to the bobbin lace activity. There, lace and lacemakers grow and constitute themselves mutually. It is worth remembering at this point about the relation Lave and Wengler (1999) established between apprenticeship, social participation and identity. As the authors point out, the learning process does not only involve the development of certain skills, but implies the formation of a “full participant”, a member of the group, a type of person (LAVE & WENGER, 1999, p. 53). As they are trained in the pillow work, the girls also learn lessons about everything that involves being a good lacemaker, in other words, a “good woman” according to the local conception.

Part of this ethics, this way of being in the world specific to lacemakers, is an aspect that is specifically related to the house. The ideal lacemaker is a woman who keeps herself constantly busy, whether with domestic care or with the lace pillow. The sphere of circulation of that woman should primarily be limited to the domestic space and its surroundings. Her time and body should be, for the most part, occupied and limited. In this perspective, lace is a very effective form of social control over women in Canaan. By remaining active on their lace pillows, the girls are under the supervision and control of their relatives and neighbors. They learn that ‘knocking’ their bobbins, and staying productively busy, is better than watching time going by or wandering in the streets. In contrast to home as known and safe place, the street represents a series of dangers from which mainly young women must be kept at distance.

This does not mean, of course, that there isn’t space for individual choices and actions or that every women conform themselves to these perspectives. The foundation of an Association, the Canaan Lacemakers and Farmers Association, focused on the interests of the lacemakers, in 2005, presents two interesting points in this sense. In the first place, it reflects the mobilization of a group of women whose principal aim was to increase the range of their consumers and the value of their sales. With that goal in mind they expanded their area of circulation, took courses, took part in expositions, and traveled to fairs. Many of them had to face the resistance of their families, who took a negative view of their dedication to the Association and the corresponding reduction of their time home. One lacemaker even separated from her husband since he did not accept her participation in the Association. If we look more closely to the group that takes part of this venture, however, we will see how the pressures of the household and gendered ideals are still effective. Most of those lacemakers who play active role in the Association are separated or widowed, and, thus, do not face the greatest source of resistance faced by the others, a husband. Many don’t have little children anymore, which is also a factor that maintains women at home.

Finally, it is important to highlight that every lacemaker, no matter the scope of their daily circulation or their attachment to the house, seeks though lacemaking a moment of distraction, entertainment, pleasure that, at the same time, allows them financial gain and a greater autonomy. We can suppose that lace constitutes both a form of social control and a potential of liberation, which in addition to contributing to the domestic budget, makes them forget their problems and everyday pressures for a while.

References

BRUSSI, Júlia Dias Escobar. “Batendo bilros”: rendeiras e renda em Canaan (Trairi – CE). Tese de Doutorado, Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social da Universidade de Brasilia. Brasília, 2015.

LAVE, Jean; WENGER, Etienne. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. (Learning in doing).

ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine. Observation et expérimentation de terrain : des collaborations fructueuses pour l’analyse de l’expertise technique. Le cas de la taille de pierre en Inde. In: ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine (Ed.). Le geste technique: réflexions méthodologiques et anthropologiques. Ramonville Saint-Agne: Editions Erès, 2002. p. 29–48.

War Lace

For centuries, lace was primarily produced by the poor for the rich, who ornamented themselves and their dwellings with the luxury fabric. This was also true for Belgian lace, but nevertheless it was promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.

I am a postdoctoral researcher from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium) and currently an academic visitor at the Oxford Centre for European History (Oxford, United Kingdom). My research focuses on war lace, lace produced by Belgian lacemakers during the First World War. Some of these lace pieces refer directly to the conflict. They include names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces or of the Belgian towns who suffered most during the German invasion. A few of the distinctive war laces have been designed by Belgian artists – such as Isidore De Rudder (1855-1943), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Juliette Wytsman-Trullemans (1866-1925) – whose exceptional laces have been studied for their iconography and their aesthetic quality, before being placed within the larger history of lace production in Belgium.[1] However, I am more interested to use war lace as a starting point to explore the relations between craft, women and humanitarian aid.

Juliette Wytsman (designer), Maison Daimeries-Petitjean (manufacturer and dealer), Monogrammed fan leaf with designer’s name, 1915-1916. Point de Gaze needle lace, 5 in x 17 in; 12.7 cm x 43.18 cm. Washington D.C., National Museum of American History.

In early August 1914, Belgium was violently invaded by German troops, who conquered the majority of the country and occupied it for the remainder of the war.[2] The years of occupation meant hunger and unemployment for the circa 7.5 million Belgian civilians.

The supply of food and its distribution became a problem almost immediately. The situation particularly deteriorated in the major cities and industrial areas.[3] In early September 1914, Brand Whitlock (1869-1934), the American minister to Brussels, noted: ‘Then we began to note a new phenomenon – new, at least, in Brussels – women begging in the street. Hunger, another of war’s companions, had come to town.’[4] Local and national initiatives were taken to relieve hunger and to avoid starvation, but they proved to be insufficient. Before the war, more than half of food consumed in Belgium had been imported.[5] This was now impossible, because the closure of the national borders and the installation of the Allied blockade cut Belgians off from the international food market. An international partner who could import food from abroad was sought and found in the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), newly established for the purpose. The CRB was an American relief organisation founded and chaired by the engineer, businessman and later 31st U.S. President Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964).[6] For more than fifty months, the CRB helped feed nearly ten million people, first in occupied Belgium and later also in occupied Northern France.  It collected one billion dollars and imported five million tons of food via the port of Rotterdam from where it was transported into the occupied areas. In Belgium their local partner, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CN), distributed the food to the towns and municipalities.[7] In spite of these impressive numbers, the food supply and distribution was inadequate. This was especially the case during the second half of the war. After a visit to Brussels in September 1917, the Belgian Countess Henriette de Villermont (1855-1940) noted in her diary: ‘All the fat people have disappeared.’[8] Nevertheless, actual starvation was avoided during the entire war.

Herbert C. Hoover, the later 31st President of the U.S. (1874-1964). Wikipedia.

In addition to food aid, the CRB set up employment schemes, as did other philanthropists, charity organisations and local, regional and national authorities. The need was great: a large part of the Belgian population was hit by unemployment, because many industries remained closed during the occupation. As the Belgian historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver explains ‘The restrictions on imports of raw materials and the exportation of goods, the impossibility of commuting, the ban on communication between citizens of different municipalities, the requisitionings of material, the war taxes and fines, the closure of factories and workshops unwilling to work for the occupiers, and the dismantling of infrastructure, all paralysed honest activity.’[9] Creating employment benefitted not only the worker who once again had an income, but also the CRB’s food aid programme. Unemployed Belgians would receive their daily meal for free, but employed ones were enabled to buy their food. If more people could pay for their foodstuffs, the CRB had more money with which to purchase, import and distribute food.

Employment schemes were particularly concerned with the large sector of women who had been wage-dependent before the war, because they suffered the most from job scarcity. The schemes focussed on women’s activities in the home and they included childcare, cooking, sewing and lacemaking.[10] Before the war the Belgian lace industry had employed circa 50,000 women, who were now (or threatened to be) unemployed due to the shortage of raw materials as well as the dearth of clients: Belgian lace had always been an export product.[11] Associations that had already concerned themselves with lacemakers welfare before the war – they were a notoriously poorly paid group – continued to interest themselves, while new initiatives were introduced to support lacemakers. However, these proved inadequate as the Allied blockade prevented the import of thread and the export of lace from occupied Belgium.[12] The American-born Viscountess de Beughem, née Irone Hare (1885-1979), one of the core members of the pre-war Comité de la dentelle, brought the fate of the lacemakers in occupied Belgium to the attention of Herbert Hoover of the CRB.[13] Years later, she recalled in an interview how she had insisted on meeting Hoover during his visit to Brussels in January 1915. When she did meet him,

‘[h]e said, “It appears you have something to ask me.” And I said, “Indeed I have, Mr. Hoover, and it’s very important.”‘ The viscountess then explained to him the condition of the lacemakers. ‘So Mr. Hoover saw me through, and I thought – there was no reaction whatever. You know how he would sit without any expression. […] And he finally looked and said to me: “I will do what I can.” And during the whole war he brought in the thread on the canals, on the boats that brought in the flour, and took out the lace.’[14]

Unknown maker, Collar with attached tag, 1914-1918. Lace, bobbin lace, Brussels, Droschel, overall, lace: 57 in x 2 1/4 in; 144.78 cm x 5.715 cm. Washington D.C., National Museum of American History.

The lace was exported to the U.S. and Allied Countries with France and the United Kingdom as the other main destinations. There the many qualities of the fabric, the wide range of products, the reasonable prices, the renown of Belgian lace, the deplorable situation of the Belgian lacemaker – who nevertheless made the best of her hardship – were pointed out to the buyer.[15] The Little Paris Shop located at the Huntingdon Avenue in Boston used a mixture of these sales strategies in their advertisement of Belgian lace:

Belgian Laces made Belgium Famous. Queen Elizabeth of Belgium has under her protection the Belgian lace makers because the village folks, old and young, mothers and even men make an honest living by it. Belgian laces are durable, washable, wearable for Christenings, marriages, gifts, etc. just beautiful and many times precious. Belgium laces: have a souvenir of it. They are for all pockets from 25c up. Lace makers work in groups from 6a.m. to 7p.m. year after year; they spend their days in work, songs, talks and prayers. They are happy when there is plenty of work.[16]

The Belgian lacemaker quickly became the primary focus of the propaganda (as we have seen in a previous post on their place in First World War poetry). An example is a series of postcards showing Belgian lacemakers practising their craft in their war-ravaged surroundings.[17] One of these postcards depicts a well-fed young woman dressed in simple dark clothes and a white apron, industriously making bobbin lace. Working quietly and seemingly unaware of the viewer’s gaze, she sits in a field with in the background the ruins of a church on the left, a large cross in the middle and seemingly intact buildings on the right. The other postcards show the same type of imagery: female lacemakers of different ages who are well-nourished – thus demonstrating the success of the CRB’s food relief programme – who continue their work proving the heroic stoicism of Belgians living and labouring under the German occupation.  The women are pictured in or nearby their lace schools, homes and churches, as if to demonstrate the women’s commitment to their craft, their families and their faith.

Cliché des ‘Amies de la Dentelle,’ A Belgian woman making bobbin lace in front of a destroyed church, ca. 1920. U.S., Palo Alto, CA, Hoover Institution, Commission for Relief in Belgium records, box 640.

Lace had always been a luxury item. In general during times of war or hardship, the production of luxury goods is normally discouraged or even entirely abandoned. This was not the case with Belgian lace, though it was a question raised at the time. After the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, opposition increased to luxury expenditure: witness the article ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’, published in Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers on 4th October 1917:

One of the very latest features of Belgian relief in which the American authorities are just now interesting themselves, aims to enlist the patronage of American women for Belgian lace workers […] Thus to encourage luxury production in one quarter and discourage luxury production in general in the United States would manifestly be an inconsistent, if not incomprehensible attitude.[18]

Lawrence Sterne Stevens, Belgian Lace is not a luxury, 1914-1918. Belgium, Brussels, National Archives of Belgium.

This kind of criticism explains why the CRB issued a poster for use in the UK stating ‘Belgian Lace is not a Luxury’. The drawing above the caption immediately pointed the contemporary viewer to what really mattered: the destitute Belgian lacemaker who could only survive in her war-ravaged surroundings thanks to her craft and her international supporters. This strategy diverted attention from lace as a luxury item. Belgian lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.

 

Wendy Wiertz, postdoctoral researcher KU Leuven | academic visitor Oxford Centre for European History

wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be | wendy.wiertz@history.ox.ac.uk

[1] Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff’, Revue belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace. Lace designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943)’, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989): pp. 73-90; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75.

[2] Antoon Vrints, ‘“All the Butter in the Country Belongs to Us, Belgians”: Well-Being and Lower-Class National Identification in Belgium during the First World War’, in Maarten Van Ginderachter and Marnix Beyen (eds) Nationhood from Below. Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), p. 234; Sophie De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog. Het koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog, 5th ed. (Antwerp/Amsterdam: Houtekiet/Atlas Contact, 2014), pp 13-125; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques with the corporation of Claudine Marissal, Enclyclopédie d’histoire des femmes. Belgique, XIXe-XXe siècles (Brussels: Racine, 2018), pp. 266-73.

[3] Antoon Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization: Contentious Food Politics in Belgium during World War I’, European History Quarterly 45:1 (2015): 234-5; Giselle Nath, Brood willen we hebben! Honger, sociale politiek en protest tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog in België (Antwerp: Manteau, 2013), 45-63; De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog, 114-16.

[4] Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton, 1919), vol. 1, p. 239.

[5] Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, 45.

[6] Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York: Macmillan, 1951-52); George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983-96); Kenneth Whyte, Hoover. An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).

[7] From the start of the food aid programme, the CRB sought publicize its activities through press coverage, posters, reports and overviews, while several American volunteer CRB collaborators wrote about their experiences in occupied Belgium during and shortly after the war. The latter include Tracy B. Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914-1917 (London: Crowther and Goodman, 1920); Vernon L. Kellogg, Fighting Starvation in Belgium (Garden City [NY]: Doubleday, 1918); George I. Gay, The Commission for Relief in Belgium. Statistical Review of Relief Operations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1925); Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, 3 vols (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959-61); These publications prioritized American perceptions and expectations of Belgian gratitude, which have sometimes been echoed uncritically by contemporary researchers: Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 (New York/London: New York University Press, 2010), pp. 189-92; Bruno Cabanes, The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 206-213; Barry Riley, The Political History of American Food Aid. An Uneasy Benevolence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 12-32. Multilingual research on critical voices of national and local committees and of the targets of aid have countered this one-sided American view, adding to a more multifaceted view of CRB food aid in occupied Belgium: Sophie de Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort: the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918’, in Remembering Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium (Brussels: Fondation Universitaire – Universitaire Stichting, 2006), 26-37; Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, pp. 45-63; Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization’: 83-107.

[8] Belgium, private archives, diary of Countess Henriette de Villermont kept between 1884 and 1918: ‘4 septembre 1917, les grosses personnes ont disparu’.

[9] De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, p. 32.

[10] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1917), pp. 127, 137-57, 167-78; De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, pp. 24, 32-35; Éliane Gubin et al., ‘Women’s Mobilization for War (Belgium)’, in Ute Daniel et al (eds) 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2016-09-21; Gubin and Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle, pp. 266-73; 577-79.

[11] The number of 45,000 to 50,000 are commonly cited. Yet, Isabel Anderson, author of The Spell of Belgium, wrote ‘[w]here a generation ago one hundred and fifty thousand women were employed, in 1910 there were barely twenty thousand.’ Isabel Anderson, The Spell of Belgium, 5th ed. (Boston: The Page Company, 1922), p. 149. There might have been more lacemakers as for many women, the craft was not a fulltime occupation. Therefore, they did not define themselves as lacemakers in the census. Nonetheless, the number of lacemakers diminished drastically in the second half of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry’, Textile 18:1 (2020): 55.

[12] Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), pp. 88-9.

[13] The Viscountess de Beughem was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977), an amateur artist and wife of a banker; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020): pp. 47-8.

[14] U.S., West Branch IA, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, oral history interview with Vicomtesse de Beughem by Raymond Henle, director, 16 November 1966, at 3945 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington D.C. This story was also mentioned by Herbert Hoover in the first volume of his publication An American Epic. Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, vol. 1 Introduction. The Relief of Belgium and Northern France 1914-1930 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959), pp. 410-11. The British were especially reluctant to open the blockade for the trade of Belgian lace. They feared the Germans, who had erected their own lace agency, the Spitzen-Zentrale, might succeed in their efforts to control a revived Belgian lace industry. Kellogg, Women of Belgium, p. 160; Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, p. 419; Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium, pp. 120-23; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exhibition catalogue Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussel: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 116-19.

[15] Jennifer D. Keene, ‘Americans Respond. Perspectives on the Global War, 1914-1917‘, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 40 (2014): pp. 266-86.

[16] Private collection.

[17] U.S., Palo Alto, CA, Hoover Institution, Commission for Relief in Belgium records, box 640: series of postcards.

[18] ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’ Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers, 4 October 1917.

‘I won’t describe it because I wouldn’t be believed’: Lacemakers’ celebrations on Kleinsacramentsdag in Ypres

Lancelot Théodore Turpin de Crissé, ‘Corpus Christi Procession leaving the Church of Saint-Germain, Paris’ (detail), 1830. From the website Schola Sainte Cécile.  We have not found any paintings of Corpus Christi from nineteenth-century Ypres, but this gives an impression of the occasion.

Continuing in our series on lacemakers holidays we arrive at Corpus Christi, the celebration of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which is a moveable feast.  This year (2020) it fell on Thursday 11 June, which means that this Thursday (18 June 2020) is the ‘octave’ of Corpus Christi, known as ‘lesser Corpus Christi’ or, in Flemish, ‘Kleinsacramentsdag’.  The period between was, in the Catholic sense, a week of indulgence, but for Ypres lacemakers it was a week of indulgences.  Kleinsacramentsdag was the lacemakers’ mass and feastday in this city, and in the mid nineteenth century they celebrated it enthusiastically.  ‘I won’t describe it because I wouldn’t be believed’, wrote one local journalist.[1]

Pinot & Sagaire, imagists of Epinal, ‘Corpus Christi Procession’, mid nineteenth century.  Note the array of lace on display.

When and why Kleinsacramentsdag became the lacemakers’ holiday we don’t know.  The custom was limited to the city of Ypres (and perhaps Veurne[2]).  In the early modern period Ypres was the seat of its own small bishopric (suppressed in 1801), and ecclesiastical authorities often shaped local festive calendars, but lacemakers in other towns within the diocese, such as Poperinge and Bailleul, followed the general West Flemish pattern of celebrating on Saint Anne’s day.  Perhaps it was because Corpus Christi processions – when the clergy, accompanied by congregations, confraternities, the military and others, paraded the Holy Sacrament through the streets – were major occasions for the display and purchase of lace as vestments and church ornaments.  But we know that the lacemakers’ celebration was already established in the eighteenth-century, because a local comic poet, Karel-Lodewijk Fournier, wrote to his niece, when she became a nun, to wish her a long life and that when she died she would be carried to heaven like the prophet Elijah in a ‘klein sacramentdagwagen’, the waggons lacemakers hired and decorated to carry them out to country inns to continue their partying.[3]

Louise De Hem, ‘After the Procession, Ypres’, 1892. Yper Museum

Despite this long history, it’s rather hard to find out much definitive information about the event itself.  Ypres newspapers began to mention Kleinsacramentsdag in the 1860s but usually to document its decline.  In 1867 the local paper De Toekomst reported that, while fifteen years earlier the ‘lacemakers’ mass day’ was generally celebrated, now only the children from the laceschools marked it: Kleinsacramentsdag was ‘dead… and buried’.[4]  And yet local papers were still complaining about lacemakers’ excesses on the day well into the twentieth century.

Lacemakers of Ypres, postcard c. 1912

We do know that preparations might start some weeks before the day itself, as lace-schools, of which there were about forty in the city in the mid nineteenth century, began to learn the songs they wanted to perform.  Local printers and streetsingers brought out new songs for the occasion.[5]  There was a special repertoire of Kleinsacramentsdag songs which we will discuss below, but lacemakers also sang topical songs, commenting on local politics and personalities.  Very few of these survive but we have already encountered one: the 1848 attack on French lace dealers and the Ypres prud’hommes.  Another lamented the introduction of machine-made lace net in 1830, a major threat to the handmade lace industry.[6]  It was still popular more than sixty years later:

‘t die wilt hooren in een lied,
wat dat ‘t jaar dertig is ‘geschied:
De kanten geen voor nieten,
Hoe dan!
Dat zoud’ een mensch verdrieten!
En wuk dink je daarvan?
Who wants to hear a song,
About what happened in 1830:
Lace goes for so little,
How then!
That would make a person grieve!
And what do you think about that?
Wuk dink je van den Ingelschman?
Hij brengt de tule al in ons land!
En dat bij g’heele hoopen!
Hoe dan!
Ondamme ze zoûn koopen!
En wuk dink je daarvan?
What do you think of the Englishman?
Who brings ‘tulle’ into our country!
And that by whole shedloads!
How then!
So that they can be damn well bought!
And what do you think about that?
Het is al tule lijk papier:
‘t deugt voorwaar ook niet een zier!
‘t Is goed voor twee, drij waschten,
Hoe dan!
Zijn dat geen mooie kosten!
En wuk dink je daarvan?
This tulle is like paper:
It’s not worth anything!
It’s good for just two or three washes,
How then!
That’s no bargain!
And what do you think about that?

 

The festivities really began on the Wednesday, which was termed ‘Mooimakersdag’.  To make something ‘mooi’ means to clean and decorate it, and in theory the afternoon before any feast could be a ‘mooimakersdag’, but the term is strongly associated with Ypres and lacemakers.[7]  Lacemakers’ homes were thoroughly scrubbed and the lace schools adorned with bouquets of flowers, ribbons and necklaces of blown egg-shells (this detail reappears frequently and so we assume it had some importance, though quite what we don’t know).  In the evening parties of lacemakers could be seen wandering through the streets, some in male attire, others in disguise, singing and dancing together.  Mocked up mannekins of lacemakers sitting at their pillows appeared at street corners, to which passersby would tip a penny.

Jozef Quisthoudt, Ypres ramparts by the Lille Gate, and the Sint-Pieterskerk beyond, 1949. Yper Museum

The following day, the apprentice lacemakers were led through the streets singing to mass in the church of St Peter.  Thereafter the festivities spread out again into the streets.  The children played Flemish bowls, with the winners being named ‘queens’ for the day.  Lace schools and other groups mounted their decorated waggons with picnics for trips to country inns.  Some, presumably the more religiously minded, went to the Church of Voormezele to see the Holy Blood of Christ.  In the evening lacemakers continued to sing and dance in pubs such as Den Hert, Het Smisken and Den Zoeten Inval, and the streets resonated with bawdy songs, and lewd behaviour, outraging local newspapers who pointed officials to a new 1905 law (‘loi Woeste’) which imposed major fines and imprisonment for offences against public morality.[8]  All these scenes were repeated the following Monday which was likewise termed ‘Mooimakersdag’.[9]

Paula Blyau, Portrait of Albert Blyau, her father, Yper Museum

The spirit of the celebrations are well encapsulated in the ‘kleinsacramentsdagliedjes’ that Ypres lacemakers sang.  Nearly forty of these were noted by the local teacher Albert Blyau, with the help of the musician Marcel Tasseel, in lace schools and from lacemakers in the 1890s.  We’ve translated a few items in this repertoire below.  Some of these were general festive or drinking songs, others were part of a specific repertoire of lacemakers’ feastday songs.  Many proclaimed the medicinal virtues of a ‘fresh young lad’, while a few took aim at clerical figures and ‘kwezels’ (religious bigots, or specifically beguines).  A substantial proportion were soldiers’ songs – in folklore soldiers were ‘devil-may-care’ types who enjoyed a life of little work and many liberties; hence on the few days lacemakers’ had leisure to enjoy they took on the character of soldiers.  Not many of these songs were so blatantly obscene that one could foresee them falling foul of the loi Woeste, but according to Blyau some were accompanied by gestures which made their meaning very plain.

This first song, which has been recorded by the Belgian folk group Sidus, sets the tone:

Wij hebben ons kusje in ‘t kasjen gesteken,
Boutjes en spellen en g’heel de boetiek.
We’n zullen dees’ week van geen werken meer spreken:
Boeravezeeve is onze muziek!
Tralala, lafaderalier’! Tralalalia, lafad’rala!
We’ve thrown our pillow into the shed,
Bobbins and pins and the whole caboodle.
This week we shan’t talk about work any more:
The tambourine is our music! 
Wij hebben ons mutsje doen optooien,
Ons kapje naar de mode gezet;
Wij dragen ons kleedje van voren in plooitjes,
Wij zullen dansen proper en net!
Tralala, etc. 
We’ve decked out our bonnets,
Our hats are the height of fashion;
We wear our dresses with pleats at the front,
We shall dance neat and proper! 
En als mijn moeder zal komen vragen:
Dochter, en doen je voetjes geen zeer?
Wel, moeder, zou ik durven klagen?
Morgen dans ik nog vele meer !
Tralala, etc. 
And if my mother comes and asks:
Daughter, don’t your feet hurt?
Well mother, can I complain?
Tomorrow I’ll dance a whole lot more! 

This was a popular song among Ypres lacemakers, though was also associated with other lacemakers’ feastdays.[10]  In another song the tools of the lace trade were not just put away, the ‘boutjes’ or bobbins were deliberately broken.[11]  Kleinsacramentsdag was really a revolt against work, and those who imposed work discipline.  Hence in another a magistrate asks a lacemaker if she’ll take a young man to be her husband, on condition he punches the lace mistress.[12]

As well as dancing lacemakers embraced food, drink and love.  Some of these songs were variants of widely sung tunes, such as ‘Zoete lieve Gerritje’:

‘’t Is Spellewerkersmesdag,
Zoete lieve Gerritje!’
‘t Is Spellewerkersmesdag,
Zoete lieve Mei !

The song continues that ‘these are the days of pleasure’, which the lacemakers will celebrate fully.  They will eat sausages and potatoes, drink sugared brandy, and make the first peasant who comes along pay for it all.[13]

Cross-dressing, one element in lacemakers’ celebrations (and which is mentioned in accounts of Catterns and Tanders in the English Midlands), was also a theme in their songs.  In one a young woman dresses as a sailor to follow her lover, the ship’s captain.  Her sex in revealed when she falls from the rigging in a storm.  By the time the ship returns to port, she is nursing a little baby sailor.[14]

Although freely spending money was essential to the spirit of this feast, the lacemakers did not forget that they were numbered among the poor.  This reworking of a French dance tune is one of the very few lacemakers’ songs for which we have an audio record, thanks to the Belgian radio presenter Pol Heyns, who recorded from Ypres schoolgirls in January 1939.

Klein-Sakermentdag die komt aan,
Vivo lajon !
En me gaan al met den char-à-bancs.
Van vivolee en marionnee !
Siliadono ! vivo lajon !
Berlabono ! Vivo lajon !
Kleinsacramentsdag is here,
Vivo lajon!
And I’m ready to go on the waggons.
Van etc
De rijken gaan naar buiten,
En den arme gaat om stuiten.
Van vivolee, etc.
The rich go out [enjoying themselves] And the poor bounce along.
Van etc!
De rijken dragen krullen,
En den arme draagt palullen.
The rich wear curls
And the poor wear rags
Den rijke draagt gelapte schoên,
En den arme-n en zou ‘t niet durven doen.
The rich wear fixed up shoes
Which the poor wouldn’t dare to do.
Den rijke zit up ‘t hooge lood,
En den arme met z’n billen bloot.
The rich are in the top positions
And the poor with their bare buttocks.
Moeder, den rijke-n en kies ik niet,
En den arme-n is m’n zoetelief!
Mother, I don’t choose the rich man,
The poor man is my sweetheart!

 

But all good things must come to an end: the celebrations closed and the lacemakers had to return to the lace school, not without one final complaint.[15]

Klein-Sacramentdag is deure:
Uus geldetje ben ik kwijt:
Nu zit ik hier en treuren
Met kleinen appetijt
Kleinsacramentsdag is expensive:
I’ve spent all my money:
Now I sit here and cry
With little appetite.
De boutjes aan de galge!
Het kusje aan ‘t perlorijn!
‘k Wenschte dat het alle dage
Klein-Sacramentdag mochte zijn!
The bobbins to the gallows!
The pillow to the pillory!
I wish that every day
Could be Kleinsacramentsdag!
De schoolvrouw kwam vragen
‘Wat, duivel ! heije in je zin?
E perkamentje in acht dagen,
Is dat geen groot gewin?’
The lace mistress came and asked
‘What, Devil ! Are you in your senses?
A pattern in eight days,
Is that not rich reward?

 

Ypres, lacemakers in the rue de Lille

 

[1] De Toekomst, 25 June 1870 ‘Stads Nieuws’.

[2] We have found a single mention that it was also the ‘spellewerkersmesdag’ in Veurne: Rond den Heerd, 4:26 (1869): 206.

[3] Karel-Lodewyk Fournier, Naergelaetene tooneelstukken en rymwerken (Ypres: Annoy-Vandevyver, 1821), Vol. 5, p. 354.

[4] De Toekomst, 30 June 1867 ‘Stads Nieuws’.

[5] Apparently the local printer Dedeyne produced a specific collection of ‘spellewerkliedjes’, but we have not been able to track down a copy.

[6] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek (Brussels: Commission royale du folklore, 1962), no. 120, ‘Kantwerksters Leed’.

[7] Leonard Lodewijk De Bo, Westvlaamsch Idioticon (Bruges: Edw. Gailliard, 1873), vol. 1, p. 711.

[8] ‘t Nieuwsblad van Yper en Ommelands, ‘Oneerbaarheden’, 15 June 1907, p. 1; Journal d’Ypres, ‘Une publicité efficace’,24 June 1911, p. 2.

[9] The two main sources for this summary are: De Toekomst, ‘Het speldewerk en Klein Sacramentdag te Ijperen’, 26 June 1871; and C.M. and L.D.W. [Maurits Cocle and Lodwijk De Wolf], ‘Ypersche Blijdagwijzer’, Biekorf 35 (1929): 273-8.

[10] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 87; M.C. [Magda Cafmeyer], ‘Spellewerk te Ieper’, Biekorf 56 (1955): 332.

[11] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 92.

[12] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 95.

[13] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 88; De Wolf and Cocle, ‘Ypersche Blijdagwijzer’: 278.

[14] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 111.  This song was very popular in nineteenth and twentieth century Holland and Belgium.

[15] Blyau and Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek, no. 123.  Variants of this song was also sung after other lacemakers’ feastdays.  The line ‘my pillow to the gallows and my bobbins to the pillory!’ featured on a Ypres postcard in the early twentieth century: Johan Ballegeer and Jean-Pierre Braems, Vlas, Kant en Spellewerksters in oude prentkaarten (Zaltbommel: Europese Bibliotheek, 1981), no. 34.

‘The Hunters of Pleasure’: The Lacemakers’ Feastday in Geraardsbergen, East Flanders

 

A view of Geraardsbergen, from the 1649 Atlas Van Loon, available on Wikipedia Commons. The chapel of Our Lady of Oudenberg can be seen atop the hill.

Saint Gregory’s (9 May) is a slightly belated entry in our calendar of lacemakers’ feastdays.

Saint Gregory the Great, the Pope who sent Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons, is the patron saint of teachers, schoolchildren and choristers.  Thus, by an association of ideas, he also became the patron of apprentice lacemakers in the lace schools of East Flanders.  His feast is held on 12 March.  According to Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, the German enthusiast for all things Belgian, on the evening before ‘the lace schools are decorated with garlands of flowers and greenery, and a crown is suspended from the ceiling.  Annual prizes are awarded to the most assiduous workers and best behaved girls.’[1]

However, in the far south of the province, in the towns of Ninove and Geraardsbergen, the lacemakers celebrated ‘Sint Gregoreken’ not on 12 March but on 9 May.  Why this shift of dates?  9 May is the feastday of another Saint Gregory, the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, but there is no obvious reason why this Anatolian theologian should be preferred to the Pope of Rome.  A further clue is that 9 May commemorates the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas, another Anatolian bishop, but more importantly an occasion honoured by the lacemakers of Lille in the great ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ (fête du broquelet).  However, the more simple explanation offered by a Ninove lace merchant to the puzzled folklorist Herman Baccaert was that the weather was usually too bad on 12 March, and if events were postponed then they ran into Easter celebrations.  Hence the new date was instated.[2]

Augusta De Clercq (1887-1944), daughter of a lacemaker and folklorist of Geraardsbergen.  From the local history journal Gerardimontium.

In the 1930s the librarian Augusta de Clercq (1887-1944) wrote three overlapping accounts of how the lacemakers of Geraardsbergen celebrated Saint Gregory’s sixty or more years before.[3]  There were still a few dozen lacemakers in the town during the interwar years but nowhere near the two thousand (roughly half the female population) at work during the mid-nineteenth-century heyday of the industry.  Geraardsbergen specialized in black Chantilly lace which was much in demand when crinolines were in fashion, but the arrival of first a match factory and then cigarette factories created a better-payed alternative for female labour, just as the market for black lace crumpled with the fall of the Second Empire.  De Clercq’s most important informant for this history was her mother, Rachel Anna Maquestiau (1850-1945), a lacemaker turned innkeeper: both occupations were relevant for the information she provided.[4]

Chantilly lace from Geraardsbergen, picured in Charlotte Kellogg’s ‘Bobbins of Belgium’, 1919.

Postcard of lacemakers on the Steenstraat in Geraardsbergen

It was the lace schools, attended by girls from aged five and six to eighteen, rather than lacemakers in general, who celebrated Saint Gregory’s.   There were many such establishments in nineteenth-century Geraardsbergen: two were run by nuns, the Augustinian Black Sisters and the Benedictines of the Priory of Hunnegem, but the majority were private.  In both types the day started at six (or seven in winter) and continued until seven in the evening, and in both songs were used to regulate work and enliven the passing hours, but the religious schools also included an hour’s lesson per day in reading, writing and arithmetic.  They also kept back more of the money earned by the apprentices, one reason for the continuing popularity of the private schools.  Most of that money went straight into the family budget, but the girls were allowed to keep a few centimes for themselves which they saved up for Saint Gregory’s.

Saint Bartholemew’s, Geraardsbergen, where lacemakers celebrated mass on St Gregory’s Day. Photo by Tim Bekaert, on Wikipedia Commons.

Preparations for the feast started the day before when the lacemakers covered their pillows with paper, washed and cleaned the entire school, bedecked the workroom with paper streamers and garlands.  They had the afternoon off to prepare their own clothes, but on the way home they might take an offering of pins to the statue of the Virgin Mary in the chapel of the Beguinage, to pray that the weather be good.   On the day itself the girls first went to school, all dressed in their Sunday best, and from there the mistress led them to the town’s main church of Saint Bartholemew for mass:

En als ‘t dan Sint Gregoreken was
Met blijdschap in ons herte,
Dan gingen wij naar de schole
En van daar naar de kerke,
En wij gingen paar aan paar
Met eene kaarse ten offeren dààr.
And as it’s Saint Gregory’s
With happiness in our hearts,
We went to school
And from there to church,
And we went two by two
With a candle to offer there.

A very similar song was sung in West Flanders during lacemakers’ celebrations of Saint Anne’s Day.[5]  Clearly the repertoire of festival songs was adapted according to local traditions.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Oudenberg. This building replaced the chapel visited by lacemakers in the nineteenth century. Picture by Jean-Pol Grandmont, available on Wikipedia Commons.

After the convent school girls had offered their candles they returned to their schoolrooms for a sedate party.  The others in groups climbed the hill that dominated the town to visit the chapel of Our Lady of Oudenberg (not the building now familiar to fans of cycle racing but an earlier seventeenth century construction).  Lacemakers had donated a mantel to the chapel’s statue of Mary in 1866, during a cholera epidemic.  After prayers each group would go out into the park surrounding the chapel to dance round dances and sing:

Sint Gregoreken van plezance
Serni bleu wat zullen wij dansen;
Wij en vieren maar éénen dag
Vivan Sint Gregorekensdag!
Saint Gregory of pleasure
Good heavens won’t we dance;
We only have one day to enjoy
Long live Saint Gregory!

The girls then went slightly down the hill to the Hemelrijk tavern (which still exists), where with fifty centimes donated by their lace mistress, they bought themselves each two ‘mattetaarten’ (milk curd cakes) or apple tarts called ‘schietspoelen’ and two glasses of beer.  And while they ate and drank they sang:

De negende van Mei
Dan zullen wij mogen drinken
De negende van Mei
Dan mogen wij mogen schinken
Goed bier, goed bier
Wij zijn de jagers, wij zijn de jagers,
Goed bier, goed bier,
Wij zijn de jagers van het plezier.
The ninth of May
Then we’ll be allowed to drink
The ninth of May
Then may we, may we serve
Good beer, good beer
We are the hunters, we are the hunters
Good beer, good beer,
We are the hunters of pleasure.

Mattentaarten, still a local speciality.

And:

In het Hemelrijk, daar is het zóó goed,
De bazinne draagt er een pluim op haren hoed
En de baas tapt zóó een Leuvensch bier,
En daarmêe roept hij al zijn kalanten alhier.
Hoerah! gedronken; Hoerah! geklonken,
Liever dan te komen in de slavernij.
Wie kent er ons, wie kent er ons?
Die ons niet en ziet, en kent ons niet.
At the Hemelrijk, it’s so good there,
The landlady wears a feather in her hat
And the landlord taps Louvain beer,
With which he summons all his customers here.
Hurrah! Drunk; Hurrah! Toasted,
Better than to fall into slavery.
Who knows us, who knows us?
Who doesn’t see us, doesn’t know us.

In the evening bands of lacemakers came down the hill arm-in-arm, and treated themselves to nuts or caramels from streetstalls. The large inns such as the Plezanten Hof and the Glazen Wieg, which was run by De Clercq’s parents, arranged for bands to play in their dance halls, where the lacemakers continued to drink, dance and sing:

Wilde van de mode zijn
Krinoline, krinoline,
Wilde van de mode zijn
Krinoline dat is fijn.’
Crazy about fashion
Crinoline, crinoline
Crazy about fashion
Crinoline that is so fine.

This song seems to have started life as a satire on the new look before ending its career as a playground skipping rhyme, but in this intervening period it seems appropriate that lacemakers celebrated the fashion that kept them employed.[6]

Another favourite went as follows:

Streep, streep, streep, streep!
Al de meiskens van de Reep
Streep, streep, streep, streep!
Al de meiskens van de Reep
Die dansen geren streep.
Stripe, stripe, stripe, stripe!
All the girls from the Reep [a working-class district of Geraardsbergen] They love to dance the line dance.

This is a local adaption of a contredanse more generally known as the ‘L’Ostendaise’, in which the girls usually formed ‘a line’ [riep] rather than came from ‘The Reep’.[7]

And:

De hemel is den onzen,
Vivan het goed bier!
En als de hemel en onzen is,
Dan hebben wij plezier.
Heaven is ours,
Long live good beer!
And as heaven is ours,
Then we have some fun!

This round dance, adapted from a religious song, was a favourite in other lacemaking districts, including Bruges and Bailleul.[8]

Finally the lace mistresses would give the signal for the party to disperse, and the lacemakers went off into the night, still singing:

Sint Gregoreken is vertrokken
Op zijn kousen en op zijn zokken;
Wij en vieren maar eenen dag
Vivan Sint Gregorekensdag.
Saint Gregory is gone
With his stockings and his socks;
We only celebrate one day
Long live Saint Gregory’s Day.

The excitement of Saint Gregory’s Day was in inverse proportion to the monotony of the lace apprentices’ working lives.  None the less, they wanted to be seen and heard as a collective — ‘Who doesn’t see us doesn’t know us’.  For one day, and night, these young women took over the streets and public places of the town, and celebrated their own status as young and unmarried, but also as lacemakers.  Lacemakers in Geraardsbergen, like those in other centres, had a strong collective work culture which is one reason why, despite the competition and despite poor wages, the profession still survived into the interwar period.

 

[1] Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Calendrier belge.  Fêtes religieuses et civiles (Brussels: Ferdinand Claassen, 1861), vol 1, p. 166.

[2] Herman Baccaert, ‘Bijdrage tot de Folklore van het kantwerk’, Volkskunde: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Folklore 21 (1910): 170.

[3] Augusta de Clercq, Kantwerksters en Kantnijverheid te Geeraardsbergen. Folklore en Geschiedenis (Geeraardsbergen: Victor van Niewenhove, 1931); ‘Sint Gregoreken, of het feest der kantwerksters, te Geeraardsbergen, in vroegere jaren’, Oostvlaamsche Zanten 11:4 (1936): 61-7; ‘Het Sint Gregorekensfeest der Geeraardsbergsche Kantwerksters’, Annuaire de la Commission de la vieille chanson populaire 1 (1939): 137-50.

[4] Dirck Surdiacourt, ‘“Hoe wonder is soms toch een menschenhart!”  Fragmenten uit het leven van Augusta De Clercq’, Gerardimontium 254 (2014): 19-27, and 255 (2014): 34-38.

[5] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des flamands de France (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1856), pp. 310-12.

[6] Laura Hiel, Kinderspelen en liedjes uit het land van Dendermonde (Ghent: Vyncke, 1931), p. 36.

[7] Laura Hiel, Kinderspelen en liedjes uit het land van Dendermonde (Ghent: Vyncke, 1931), p. 85.  The music for this dance can be heard here: www.liederenbank.nl/sound.php?recordid=76232&lan=nl

[8] Adolphe Lootens and J.M.E. Feys, Chants populaires flamands (Bruges: Desclee, De Brouwer, 1879), pp. 246-7.

Mary was a lacemaker! A post for the Feast of the Annunciation

Guido Reni, The Education of the Virgin, c.1642, now in the Hermitage. From Wikipedia Commons.

The 25 of March is the Feast of the Annunciation and we couldn’t let that pass without mentioning the Catalan song l’anunciació.  According to the leading Catalan folklorist Joan Amades, this was one of the most popular songs in Catalonia, and it was certainly sung in the lace schools in the region.  Amades heard a version from his own mother, Teresa Gelats.  Here is another, sung by Mundeta Botines, then 25, to the folksong collectors Josep Barberà and Pere Bohigas in Sant Marti Sesgayoles. around 1922.

La Mare de Déu, — quan era xiqueta,
anava a costura – a apendre de lletra,
amb son coixinet – i la cistelleta;
portava pa i nous – i alguna panseta.
En feia fusets – i teixia beta.
Ella n’ensenyava – amb dues santetes;
amb Santa Susagna – i Santa Pauleta.
Estava retirada – en una cambreta;
l’Angel n’hi va entrar – per la finestreta;
— Déu vos guard, Maria – de gracia sou plena;
parireu un fill – serà fill de verge,
se dirà Jesùs, — Rei de cel i terra.

While not claiming any competence in Catalan we offer the following rough translation.

The Mother of God, — when she was a young girl
Went to the sewing school — to learn her letters,
With her cushion — and a little basket;
She carried bread and nuts — and a few raisins.
She made some thread — and wove lace.
She taught it — to two little saints;
To Saint Susanna — and Saint Pauleta.
Having withdrawn — into a little room;
The angel flew in — through a little window;
“God bless you Mary — full of grace;
You will have a son — he will be the son of a virgin,
He will be called Jesus, — King of heaven and earth.”

This combines Saint Luke’s story of the Annunciation with elements from the apocryphal writings on the childhood of Mary, according to which she was dedicated to the Temple of Jerusalem when very young, and with her companions made ceremonial cloth for the Temple veil.  These apocryphal legends were popular among the female teaching orders who often ran the lace schools in Catalonia and elsewhere.  In the song Mary appears like any other young Catalan girl, carrying her lace cushion to the nuns’ school, the costura, to work alongside her young companions, as she appears in the statue below.

A statue of ‘The Mother of God when she was a girl’, with her lace cushion, from the school run by the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation in Manresa, near Barcelona.

La Mare de Déu has become an iconic Catalan song, performed by all the great Catalan singers such as Montserrat Figueras, as you can hear here.  Beautiful though this is, we’re going to recommend this version sung by Marina Rossell, because, as you’ll hear, she is accompanied by the rattle of lacemakers’ bobbins.

 

 

The Irish Homestead’s ‘Lace Designs’ Series (1900-1902)

Any mention of historic ‘Irish Lace’ is sure to call to mind a picture very much like the one that the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) lace expert, Alan Cole, described in his 1884 ‘Proposal for the Maintenance of the Domestic Industry of Lace-making in Ireland’:

The making of lace in Ireland is a domestic industry, practiced by some hundreds of peasants in their homes, by communities in convents, by children in Industrial and other Schools, and by others. Great skill in the work has been developed since the earlier part of the present century when the industry was introduced to the country through the efforts of Philanthropists.[1]

Alan Cole paints a picture of a rural cottage industry, presided over by philanthropically-minded individuals, but the fact that he is writing this proposal – and may other reports – hints that there is more to this story than first meets the eye. Cole was an employee of the British Government, and his reports were written to be read in Parliament. They discuss government-sponsored competitions, new training schools, policies, reports, and government acts, providing a window into a time when lace in Ireland was tangled up with broader questions about taste, education, autonomy and identity.

1. Limerick Lace Flounce (tambour on net), designed by Emily Anderson (Crawford Municipal School of Art, Cork) and made by workers at Vere O’Brien’s lace school in Limerick.
Published in Alan Cole’s A Renascence of the Irish Art of Lacemaking (1888).

I am a PhD candidate working in and between the Departments of Art History, Design, Art Education and Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. My research focuses on one Irish lace designer, Emily Anderson (1858-1948), following her from the new art college in Cork, to the South Kensington Museum in London, to a career in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland as a ‘Lace Inspectress’. She is not a well-documented historical figure, and I am not intending to write a biography. Rather, Anderson’s involvement with these various institutions draws previously unexplored links between them, and provides a way into thinking about how they all intersected, connected, and sometimes conflicted with each other, and what that might tell us about the relationship between design, education, identity, and politics… with lace as the case study at the centre of it all.

This year, I made an unexpected discovery that led me to investigate yet another player in the Irish lace industry. A distant relative of Anderson’s, now living in British Columbia, kindly shared with me some information about the family, including the fact that Emily’s brother, Robert Anderson, was a long-time secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and key figure in the Irish Co-operative movement. I wondered if Emily may have been involved too, and took a look at co-op reports and the movement’s widely-read magazine, The Irish Homestead. At this point in my research, Emily Anderson seemed only to have been a financial supporter of the co-ops, but the foray into the movement’s history revealed that it was much more intertwined with the Irish lace industry than I had thought.

The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) was founded in 1894 by the agrarian reformer and politician Horace Plunkett. It would prove a vital force in shaping Ireland’s rural identity and economy into the 20th century, and still operates today as the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. The organization was meant to promote co-operation in the dairy industry, but grew to encompass many other aspects of rural life and work, including, for a while, cottage industries. In 1897, the IAOS announced a new class of society that would provide employment for rural women whose traditional work in the creamery had been taken away by the larger, co-operative creameries. These collectives of craftspeople – mostly, though not exclusively, women – were known as ‘Home Industries Societies’, and operated on a co-operative model where members paid a small fee to join and participated in the profits.

2: “Castlebellingham Home Industries Society – a Group of Workers”
Published in Seventh Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited. For year ending 31st December 1901 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1902).

Many of the Home Industries Societies specialized in lace. Workers in Carrickmacross and Youghal, two towns that gave their names to varieties of lace (appliqué and needle lace respectively), formed co-ops as early as 1898.[2]  At the turn of the century, the Home Industries Societies were “almost altogether concerned with the production of lace and crochet.”[3] At the end of the 19th century, Irish lace – particularly the Irish specialties of needlepoint lace, embroidery on net, applique on net, guipure, and crochet – was enjoying a moment of popularity around the world, and no doubt workers were hoping to cash in on the trend.

However, in 1899, the IAOS reported that the Home Industries Societies’ sales were flagging. Their work was lacking in sophistication, and it was having trouble finding its way to a market.[4] Reports suggest that much of the work was done too quickly, with old patterns that were not only out of fashion, but also blurred and degraded by the pin-holes and folds of constant reuse.

Luckily, help was close at hand. The Irish Industries Association, founded in 1886 by the aristocratic philanthropist Ishbel Aberdeen to organize, aid, and promote Irish Home and Cottage Industries, had agreed to assist the IAOS Home Industries Societies in staying abreast of trends and connected to the market.[5] One way that they could do this was by circulating new, high quality lace designs.

And so, the 1900 IAOS annual report announced that: “The Irish Industries Association, as Trustees of the Branchardière Trust, have arranged to furnish the Homestead with lace designs for publication, and have contributed £10 to the cost of blocks [to print the images]. These designs are very useful to the Home Industries Societies.”[6] The Homestead refers to The Irish Homestead, the co-operative movement’s official publication, which was at that time the most widely read agricultural periodical in Ireland. Publishing lace designs here meant that they were incredibly accessible – a flounce designed by the top student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin printed beside recipes for curried rabbit and methods for preserving eggs.

The first design was published in The Irish Homestead on June 9, 1900. The large, crisp image – notable in a sparsely illustrated magazine – was accompanied by a descriptive text and a note that “working drawings, full size, can be obtained from the Secretary, Irish Industries Association, 21 Lincoln Place, Dublin, at a cost of three shillings each.”[7] Though some of the designs were more expensive, most were 3 or 4 shillings – pricey for a piece of paper, perhaps, but really quite affordable given the fact that they guided weeks or even months of work, and in some cases could have been reused. Presumably, the use of these designs also improved quality of work, which would have boosted sales. The IAOS published earnings reports for all of its co-ops, including the Home Industries Societies, and I would be curious to compare the numbers from 1899 to those from 1900-1902, the period when The Irish Homestead published the set of designs. I also wonder if some lace makers cheated the system by simply copying directly from the pages of the magazine. Though it would have been difficult to copy the forms and motifs exactly while also expanding them to the proper size, it wouldn’t have been impossible.

Design I was a ‘Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure’, ten inches deep, and ornamented with ribbons, floral and foliate motifs. The accompanying text, signed J.B., was almost certainly written by James Brenan, onetime Headmaster at the Cork School of Art, Headmaster at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and expert on lace design.[8]

3: “Copyright Design for Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure”
Published on June 9, 1900, in The Irish Homestead (pg. 373)

Brenan’s comments on this pattern, and on the forty-five other designs published between June 1900 and November 1902, are a window into the mind of a turn of the century Irish lace designer, and, to a certain extent, maker. He describes the strengths and weaknesses of the patterns, and points out passages that might be difficult for the lace maker to complete. He discusses the results of lace competitions, and which designs might fetch a higher price at market.

I am particularly interested in how he describes what ‘good lace’ looks like like. It can be difficult for me to understand what would have been attractive to a nineteenth or early-twentieth-century lace connoisseur. But Brenan’s commentary describes these features great detail. Of the first design, he writes: “the design has good construction and drawing, and possesses evenness of distribution, three important necessities in every design.”[9]

The balance between evenness and variety is particularly important. Though it appears to be symmetrical, the pattern is in fact slightly different on each side of the vertical line around which it is constructed; “the two sides will be seen to balance carefully, without being an exact repetition of each other.”[10] The designer alternates full views of the flowers with three quarter views, and uses odd numbered groups of motifs; “odd numbers compose better, as a rule, than even numbers.”[11]

4: “X.–Design for a Border in Carrickmacross Guipure”
Published on August 11, 1900, in The Irish Homestead (pg. 523)

Another design in Carrickmacross Guipure received almost the same commentary a couple of months later. Though the designs are quite different, Brenan commends the designer of the border, who “very properly made the two sides of the pattern to balance, without insisting on absolute symmetry, or, as it were, turning over the pattern to form each side; to do this would result in a mechanical appearance, which would ill accord with the characteristics of Carrickmacross lace.”[12] In this article. Brenan also notes that the designs have been enthusiastically received by lace makers, and that “numerous workers throughout the country are applying to the Secretary for full-size drawings”.[13]

5: “Lace Designs. No. XIII.–Design for a Crochet Border.”
Published on September 8, 1900 in The Irish Homestead (pg. 588)

‘Good design’ does not always look the same across the varieties of lace, because different materials and methods offer different opportunities and challenges. No. XIII, ‘Design for a Crochet Border,’ is commended for its simplicity and the ease with which it could be copied. Brenan points out the small circular motifs that the designer has incorporated into the sweeping curves of vine on either side of the central flower. Long, sinuous curves are difficult to render in crochet, as they are likely to be pulled in one direction or another by even the slightest change in tension, resulting in more of a zig-zag than a curve! However, the circles would disguise any wavering in the vine, making it easier to faithfully replicate the design even without perfect tension.

The IAOS had specified that: “the designs also should have certain common characteristics, which are necessary if the work is to be marketed as a definitely national product, and for this, if no other reason, it is better that the designs should come from one source with the best available inventive talent to create or guide in the designs.”[14] They, and other proponents of Irish lace, hoped that quality of design, but also a group of recognizable ‘Irish’ features and motifs, would come to characterize the lace; it was an exercise in branding.

6: “Copyright Design for Border in Innishmacsaint Lace.”
Published on July 7, 1900 in Irish Homestead (pg. 443)

Some common motifs do repeat in the patterns: conventional foliage and curved forms, lots of roses. But the shamrocks, ribbons and harps that I associate with these types of lace as they are made now are scarce. The patterns reflect the Irish lace industry’s origins in producing copies of continental lace; the design published on July 7 is a ‘Border in Innishmacsaint [sic] Raised Needle-point Lace’ which is “a reproduction of the Venetian Rose Point of the seventeenth century.”[15]

7: “Copyright Design for a Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour).”
Published on July 14, 1900 in The Irish Homestead (pg. 462)

Sometimes, the designs featured motifs with origins even further afield. The following week, the design was a ‘Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour)’, and Brenan writes that “the designer has selected as the motif a flower resembling a French marigold. It is a favourite flower of many Persian designs.”[16]

As I continue to go through these designs and their accompanying text, I’m tracking the repetition of motifs and the “common characteristics,” trying to figure out how the designs may have helped to shaped turn of the century Irish lace’s formal attributes. I’m even designing my own lace patterns as a way of thinking through the technical issues they discuss. However, I’m also interested in what James Brenan’s text reveals about the lace industry itself – the relationships between designers, makers, lace sellers, government and art college officials, and tastemakers.

I can see a glimpse of this in the article and image published on November 27, 1900, which leaves me with lots of questions about differences in taste, and the role of worker and designer. No. XVIII, ‘Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,’ was published in The Irish Homestead after it won first prize at the Art Industries Exhibition in late August, 1900 at the Royal Dublin Society. It appears to be the work of Emily Anderson, who had studied drawing, painting and lace design at the Cork (later Crawford) School of Art, and is listed in the Exhibition catalogue as winning a £1 prize for her ‘Deep Flounce or Alb’. Alan Cole, lace expert from the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), judged the competition for lace designs, while James Brenan had judged the lace itself, along with C. Harry Biddle.[17] In the The Irish Homestead, however, Brenan is able to make his own judgement on the design, and he is not impressed.

8: “Lace Designs. No. XVIII. –Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce.”
Published on October 27, 1900 in The Irish Homestead (pg. 700)

Though he commends it for “a considerable grace of arrangement,” “sufficiently large” motifs, and “satisfactory” balance (ouch!), Brenan critiques the designer for not paying enough attention to the needs of the worker.[18] Too much of the design is left up to chance: the beaded strings that loop over the vines (how exactly this is supposed to translate into lace is not specified), the scroll along the border (which could not be worked successfully the way it is). However, this concern for the maker might be more accurately described as concern for the lace – Brenan explains that “the question of expense alone precludes the idea of leaving anything in the rendering of the design to the caprice of the worker.”[19] He doesn’t trust that the lace maker is capable of making good stylistic decisions on her own. At the end of the article, he notes that working drawings of the design may be purchased, but that they have “the modifications referred to inserted”.[20]

The designs – and The Irish Homestead itself – were published for the workers, and early reports of their success mentioned members of the co-ops purchasing designs from the Secretary of the Irish Industries Association. Presumably, they did so after reading an article like this. What it would have been like to read this article as a lace maker and member of a Home Industries Society? To what extent were they able to exercise their own designer’s minds in altering and interpreting the working drawings of a lace design like this? I hope that further investigation of these patterns, and comparison with pieces of lace that still exist might help me to begin answering these questions.

Molly-Claire Gillett

molly-claire.gillett@concordia.ca

 

[1] Alan Cole, The Renascence of the Irish Art of Lacemaking (London: Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1888), 37.

[2] Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1898, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1898), 15.

[3] Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 17.

[4] Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1899, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1899), 26.

[5] For more on the fascinating Ishbel Aberdeen and the Irish Industries Association, see Janice Helland’s British and Irish Home Arts and Industries 1880-1914: Marketing Craft, Making Fashion (Irish Academic Press, 2007).

[6] Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 24.

[7] The Irish Homestead 6.1 June 9, 1900, 373.

[8] In January 1901, the lace patterns are interrupted by a pair of longer articles about lace entitled “Occupation for Winter Evenings.– Lace Work” and signed J. Brennan. The first lace design is replicated here, and they are written in a tone similar to that of the lace design articles.

[9] James Brenan, “Lace Designs. 1.–Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 1 (June 9, 1900): 373.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] James Brenan, “X.–Design for a Border in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (August 11, 1900): 523.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, for 1902 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1903), 25-26.

[15] James Brenan, “Lace Designs. V.–Border in Innishmacsaint Raised Neddle-point Lace,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 7, 1900): 443.

[16] James Brenan, “Lace Designs. VI.–Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour),” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 14, 1900): 462.

[17] Royal Dublin Society, Catalogue of the Art Industries Exhibition, held at Balls Bridge, Dublin, August 28, 29, 30, and 31, 1900 (Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1900).

[18] James Brenan, “Lace Designs. No. XVIII. –Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (October 27, 1900): 700.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

 

 

 

Legends of Lacemaking: Argentan Point Lace

Gaston La Touche, ‘The Legend of Argentan Point Lace’, 1884. Musée des Beaux-arts et de la Dentelle, Alençon

The Virgin Mary finishes the task of a young lacemaker, too exhausted to continue the work herself.  This painting, first exhibited in 1884, now adorns the walls of the Museum of Fine Art and Lace in Alençon in the Orne Department of Normandy.  The painter, Gaston La Touche (1854-1913), was of Norman descent and retained links to the Orne region throughout his life.  Although better known as a painter of society pleasures (he’s the man buying a drink in Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies Bergères’), La Touche sometimes liked to mix fantasy with the social realist eye for detail that he had employed as an illustrator of Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir.[1]

The painting is called ‘The Legend of Argentan Point Lace’ (‘La légende du point d’Argentan’).  The story goes that a young lacemaker living on the rue de la Vicomte, Argentan, was the sole provider for her two aged grandparents.  But when her grandfather fell ill, her efforts were not enough.  Working late into the night, she fell asleep even as she implored the aid of the Virgin Mary.  The Virgin descended from heaven and continued her work while the lacemaker slept.  She returned night after night, until the lacemaker had the means to support her grandparents; when the latter died, she entered the Convent of Saint Claire.  The best examples of Argentan lace are supposed to date from this period.  In another version of the same story, the Virgin appeared as if in a dream to the poor lacemaker, who closely observed her work and so, the following day, was able to recreate this novel lace: and thus Argentan point lace was born.

Our hunch is that this legend was, like Caroline Popp’s legend of Bruges lace, an entirely literary creation.  At least there is no evidence that the story was in circulation before it first appeared in print a decade before La Touche’s painting as a short story in the magazine La fantaisie Parisienne.[2]  The author was the marquis Eugène de Lonlay (1815-1886), a dandy poet and songwriter originally from Argentan.  He had already brought out a small volume of legends about his home-town in 1873.  He further developed ‘The Legend of Argentan Point Lace’ in a little pamphlet in 1874, asserting the divine origin of this lace.  Although this pamphlet seems like an afterthought, our supposition is that it was part of a more ambitious project to revive lacemaking in this part of Normandy.  Despite Lonlay’s claims, we doubt he heard this tale first from lacemakers.

The illustration accompanying Lonlay’s ‘Légende du point d’Argentan’ from the journal La fantaisie Parisienne (1874)

Although you wouldn’t know it from the illustration to Lonlay’s story, Argentan lace is a needle lace, similar to that of nearby Alençon, and like Alençon laces its success owed much to the mercantilist policies of Louis XIV’s minister of finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1618-1686), who objected to French aristocrats spending their money on foreign luxuries and thus enriching other princes.  If equally fine manufactures could be established in France, money would stay at home.  Particular suppliers in designated towns were granted royal privileges, including Argentan in 1665.  Tastes changed and Argentan lacemakers suffered numerous ups-and-downs: it was, apparently favoured by Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s ‘maîtresse en titre’, but not by Marie-Antoinette, known to prefer less heavily decorated laces.  Even so, in the last decade before the French Revolution, more than 1000 women were employed in lacemaking in Argentan and the surrounding countryside.[3]

The Revolution effectively destroyed the trade: needle lace is an even more expensive luxury than bobbin lace, and with aristocrats’ emigration, the Terror, war and ruin, there was simply no market for it.  Despite attempts to revive it under Napoleon I, all manufacture had effectively ceased by the first decade of the nineteenth century.  And with its demise grew the legend of a lost stitch, the ‘bride picotée’.  Over time the two legends — of divine intervention and the lost stitch — would fuse.

In January 1874 the sub-prefect of the arrondissement, Alphonse Béchard, in conjunction with the mayor of Argentan, Emmanuel Lebouc, launched a campaign to revive needle-lace in the town, primarily as an economic venture to support poor women and girls.  Béchard approached Ernest Lefébure whose family ran a lace business in Bayeux which had a reputation for revitalising old lace techniques.  Lefébure explained that, to discover the secret of making Argentan lace, he needed not only examples of old lace but also the patterns on which lacemakers worked.  As it happened, a few years before, the nuns of the Hospice de Saint-Thomas had discovered a load of old laces and patterns, at least one with some threads still attached, in an attic.  Lefébure passed these on to one of his most skilful employees, Désirée Hamel.  Once she had worked out the technique, Hamel was brought to Argentan to set up a lace workshop in the Benedictine convent.  The nuns also ran an orphanage and Hamel taught Argentan point both to the nuns and to the orphan girls.[4]  By 1878, when Hamel won a silver medal at the Paris World Fair, there were about forty lacemakers employed in the manufacture of Argentan lace, and the business survived, thanks to the active support of the chaplain of the order, abbé Leboulanger, until the First World War.  The Benedictine nuns of Notre Dame Abbey still maintain the tradition.[5]  Although we have no definite proof of this, we suspect Lonlay’s story was part of a deliberate campaign to generate interest in this venture.

As a response to female unemployment the project can only be viewed as a partial success; even before 1914 young women had turned their back on lacemaking as too poorly remunerated.  But the stories concerning Argentan lace took on a life of their own and were repeated in many different forms.  In 1883 a British writer with a penchant for stories about artistic French women, Margaret Roberts (1833-1919), brought out a novel Bride Picotée, named for the famous lost stitch.  Set in Burgundy during the French Second Empire (1852-1870), the story turns on the ardent desire of a young, disabled, orphan lacemaker Else to acquire the knowledge of this stitch from an elderly neighbour, La Brisarde, the last practitioner of Argentan point, who is equally determined never to give up her family’s birthright: ‘when engaged with those points of her craft which were her special secret she locked the door, and even stopped up the keyhole with jealous care.’[6]  She had already resisted the blandishments of one would-be aristocratic patron who had hoped to revive the manufacture.  We may return in another post to this lace-obsessed novel which, despite many implausibilities, does at least explain how a particular technique could become a family secret.  Because needle lace is so time consuming, individual makers only worked on their own particular part of the pattern, as a ‘réseleuse’ or ‘remplisseuse’ or other specialist.  There were few ‘assembleuses’ who could put the whole together.

The aged lacemaker La Brisarde refuses to teach Argentan point to the orphan Lise, an illustration from Margaret Roberts’ novel Bride Picotée (1883)

In 1904 the legend of the Virgin’s intervention was revived in musical form.  Léon Boschet’s two act play combined the story with another Argentan legend, about a Parisian merchant who had come to the town to buy laces, and made a vow to build a clock-tower for the church of Saint-Germain (at the end of the rue de la Vicomte) if he should escape brigands on his return journey to Paris.[7]  Boschet was from the region, and this was not his only musical celebration of the lacemakers of Normandy.[8]

Boschet’s operetta does not appear to have taken off, but perhaps it inspired an altogether more successful work, the one act operetta ‘La légende du point d’Argentan’, which was first performed in December 1906 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris.  The composer was Félix Fourdrain (1880-1923) and the librettists Arthur Bernède and Henri Cain.  Although in a romantic idiom that was passing out of fashion, it remained part of the repertoire of the Opéra-Comique for many years afterwards, as well as being regularly performed around the country.[9]  Oddly, the piece is set not in Argentan but in a hovel near Granville on the Normandy coast where a desperate young lacemaker, Rose-Marie, is nursing a sick, indeed dying child through a storm.  Her sailor husband, luckless in his search for work and so incapable of buying the necessary medicine or even food, threatens murder-suicide as the only resolution to their plight.  Rose-Marie, however, puts her trust in the Virgin and her hope that she can rediscover the ‘magic stitch’, the secret of Argentan point lace.  The cardinal de Rohan has promised 1000 gold écus to the person who can make the lace he wants to present to the queen (there is a vague echo here of the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’).  Although her eyesight is failing, Rose-Marie hopes to win the prize, and vows to cover the steps to the Virgin’s altar with her bobbins if she succeeds (Fourdrain, like Lonlay, was under the impression that Argentan point is a bobbin lace).  An old beggar woman comes to her door and Rose-Marie, despite her poverty, offers her food and shelter from the storm.  The old woman tells her the miraculous origin of Argentan lace: three centuries before spiders’ threads had woven themselves into a diadem that adorned a statue of Mary.  But Rose-Marie is exhausted and falls to sleep over her pillow.  Then the stranger reveals herself as the Virgin: while the lacemaker sleeps, angels come and take threads from Mary’s headdress to weave into celestial lace, singing an ‘Ave Maria’ while they work.

Marcel Mültzer’s costume design for Rose-Marie in Fourdrain’s ‘La légende du point d’Argentan’, available on the BNF Gallica website

Regular visitors to this site will recognize many of the motifs in this representation of a lacemaker.  Lacemakers’ special relationship with the Virgin has already been explored in the poetry of Guido Gezelle and the legend of Serena of Bruges.  Rose-Marie sings a lullaby to her sick child not unlike Desrousseaux’s ‘le p’tit quinquin’.  That lacemakers’ suffering and sacrifice can redeem men is a motif in much nineteenth century literature, such as Dickens’ ‘Mugby Junction’.

Some of the same themes were picked up in two French silent films which seem to have some connection to Fourdrain’s operetta, though both are set in the Middle Ages rather than the pre-revolutionary period.  In the film ‘La légende du point d’Argentan’ (Radio, 1907), a poor girl must complete her lace for the grand lady Anne d’Argentan before the morning or she will not have the money to find food for her grandmother.  When she is too exhausted to continue, a statue of the Virgin comes to life to finish the work for her.[10]  ‘Le rêve de la dentellière’ (Lux, 1910) offers a very similar narrative in which a lacemaker falls asleep and is replaced at her pillow by the Virgin, who then carries the product to the castle herself, and returns with the money while the girl is still sleeping.[11]  (We have not been able to view either of them in their entirety: we’re relying on summaries, but some scenes from the latter film can be found here.)

A still from ‘Le rêve de la dentellière’ (Lux, 1910), Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, catalogue des Films restaurés et numérisés

There are many lace legends, but to date the legend of Argentan point lace is the only one we’ve discovered that inspired painters, musicians and film-makers, alongside writers.

 

[1] Selina Baring Maclennan, Gaston La Touche: A Painter of Belle Epoque Dreams (Woodbridge, 2009).

[2] Marquis Eugène de Lonlay, ‘Légende du point d’Argentan’, La fantaisie parisienne 6:16 (September 1874): 7-8.

[3] Jean Moulinet, La Dentelle à l’aiguille en Basse Normandie (Argentan, 1912), p. 97.

[4] Ernest Lefébure, ‘Point d’Argentan. Se fait-il par les anciens procédés? Est-il aussi beau que celui d’autrefois? A-t-il conservé une grande valeur?’, Annuaire normand 46 (1880): 145-154.  To understand precisely what it was that Hamel recreated, consult Brigitte Tambrun and Veronique Thomazo, ‘La technique du “ point d’Argentan ” dévoilée’ (2019).

[5] Danièle Foury, ‘Les bénédictines, garantes de la tradition de la dentelle d’Argentan’, Ouest-France (22 July, 2019).  See https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7du7v5

[6] Margaret Roberts, Bride Picotée (London, 1883), p. 18.

[7] We have not yet tracked down a copy of this text, we are relying on a short summary in Bulletin de la Société historique et archéologique de l’Orne 23 (April 1904), p. 230.  It was performed in April 1904 at the Theatre Athénée-Saint-Germain in Paris.

[8] See his ‘Les Dentelles de l’Orne’ (Argentan, 1902).

[9] Félix Fourdrain (music), Henri Cain and Arthur Bernède (lyrics), La légende du point d’Argentan (Paris, 1906).  Fourdrain also set André Alexandre’s poem ‘La dentellière de Bayeux’ to music in 1914.

[10] Christel Tailllebert, ‘Collection Alan Roberts (II): Films primitifs et messages religieux. Regards sur différentes strategies cinématographiques’, 1895, revue d’histoire du cinema 19 (1995): 59.

[11] François Amy de la Bretèque, ‘Présence de la littérature française du Moyen Âge dans le cinéma français’, Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes 2 (1996): 157.

“Lace Tellings”, a new play about the lace makers of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire

 

Singer Jackie Oates sporting a lace collar

Jackie Oates, a folk singer who was, until recently, in residence at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, has created a play with songs about East Midlands lacemakers.  There are two performances coming up in the new year: at South Street Arts Centre in Reading on 25 January 2020 at 7.30; and at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, in London on 29 January 2020 at 7.30.  For further details see the Society’s website.

Jackie’s is not quite the first play to make use of lacemakers’ tells for dramatic effect.  We’ve discussed the pageants organized by Prudence Summerhayes which included performances of tells in a setting by Greville Cooke in a previous post.  Another, much less celebratory play is Shirley Gee’s Ask for the Moon, first performed in 1986 and published in 1987.  Gee’s play emphasises the continuity in women’s working experience as the lives of Devon lacemakers from the 1840s and London sweatshop workers in the 1980s interweave.  From time to time the lacemakers sing a tell, though as regular visitors to this blog will know, this is inaccurate, because Devon lacemakers did not use tells (to our knowledge!).

Problems of Price, or Who Buys Coloured Laces?

Snuggled amongst the thick forests and hilltops of the Low Tatra Mountains, Central Slovakia, the village of Špania Dolina appears to have an isolation ideal for preserving centuries old craft traditions like bobbin lace making. Accessible only by a single, small road that winds its way from the steep valley below, it is full of picturesque stone cottages built up the steep mountainside. Public transport to and from the village is sparse and in winter heavy snowfall cuts it off from the outside world for days at a time.

Špania Dolina was founded in the mid-thirteenth century, when the discovery of an exceptionally high content of copper and silver in the local rock led to the establishment of primitive mines in the local area. In the early 15th century, the powerful Augsburg banking family, the Fuggers, formed the world’s first mining corporation together with the Hungarian Thurzo family, in order to invest in and exploit the riches beneath Špania Dolina (and other villages in the local area). Seeking qualified labour, the Fugger-Thurzo corporation invited German and Bohemian miners familiar with the newest technology of the era to settle in local villages. Špania Dolina – known then as Herrengrund – became the site of a very successful mining business with two large shafts, one accessed directly from the centre of the village. It is thought that the technique of bobbin lace making was brought to the area by the wives of these miners. While the mining industry provided a steady employment for local men for almost three centuries, lace making established itself as a local cottage industry as women supplemented the income of their husbands by making and selling lace.

The lace produced in mining villages tended to be white or cream in colour, made of finely spun linen and metal thread. As lace was a commercial product, the styles produced followed the dictates of fashion. While most of the lace was meant for the rising urban bourgeoisie, lace makers in mining villages also had regular markets among certain villages in rural areas where peasant women relied on a steady supply for the decoration of their costume.

By the mid-19th century, however, the local rock was depleted of valuable metals and the mining boom was well and truly over. Both of Špania Dolina’s mining shafts were closed, starting a long, slow decline of the community into poverty and hardship. The lack of local employment led villagers to seek a life elsewhere; some emigrating as far away as North America. Well into the middle of the 20th century, it was common practice for male villagers to work as migrant labourers in mines and factories elsewhere, leaving behind their wives and children. According to the village Kronika – a record of the village complied by schoolmasters and mayors over more than a century – Špania Dolina’s population fell from 1106 in 1893, to 706 in 196, and eventually having only 150 inhabitants in 1990.

During this time, lace making remained the only constant source of income available within the village. The cottage industry helped keep families afloat, and children were often required to make lace to help support their families until they could leave school at the age of fourteen for jobs as servants or as unskilled labour in the nearby city of Banská Bystrica. Lace making was an integral part of the socialization of children and part of social life: in the evenings, women would gather at the homes of friends and family and make lace in small groups – a custom known as priadky. It was also sold to the owners of the village shop and to shops in Banská Bystrica. A few lace makers, called ‘flagniarky’, would purchase lace from their fellow villagers and travel across Slovakia, and beyond to Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Slovenia to sell their wares. These travels were often undertaken by unmarried young women in small groups who were relatively free from household responsibilities. In other words, without lace these communities would not have remained financially and socially viable.

Ironically, Špania Dolina today prospers on its past marginalisation. The end of the mining business allowed the recovery of the local ecosystems which had been destroyed by the industry, granting Špania Dolina much of the pleasant, romantic charm that attracts domestic and foreign tourists alike. Declared an architectural heritage site by the socialist Czechoslovak government in 1965, the fact that most villagers lacked the funds to modernise their homes now plays to the village’s advantage. Lace making, for so long associated with poverty, has now become a celebrated local craft. Indeed, by the time I started doing fieldwork in the village, craftswomen in Špania Dolina were already used to getting attention from not only from ethnographers, but also the local and national press, as well as domestic and international television crews:

I am always getting letters, because many people know me as a lace maker. From America too. Now Polish TV came when the Pope was here in Bystrica [visit of John Paul II in 2004]. Well, they came here first of all for the lace. And I asked ‘what did you come for?’ And they said for our Holy Father and for lace and please make some lace. And they filmed me. They were interested in it, because they make lace in Poland too. They make a lot of lace there. People are interested, because it is handicraft. When they see those bobbins, well that alone says something’.

Lace and lace making offered a window to the outside world for these craftswomen, most of whom were elderly, spoke no foreign languages and had travelled little beyond the borders of Slovakia. As lace diffused out of the village and – quite literally – into the wider world, lace makers would find themselves receiving postcards, letters of thanks and photos from Europe and beyond.

Lace also facilitated cross-cultural encounters within the village itself. Many lace makers made a large amount of smaller, relatively inexpensive lace edged doilies, furniture covers and tablecloths for the tourist season. They chose designs that were not laborious, but had proven popular with clients in the past. One lace maker who I visited frequently made all her lace in one design, and selected the colour of her materials according to what she perceived was the taste of German tourists. Local lace makers claimed that while Slovaks preferred their lace white, cream or the colour of unbleached linen thread, Germans and Americans liked pieces where brightly coloured threads were used to create or encircle motifs in a neutral hue. Indeed, it was generally acknowledged amongst the craftswomen I knew that Germans and Americans loved brightly coloured lace, and gaudy artefacts. However, despite their regrettable lack of taste, they were thought to be the nations most partial to buying lace and having the deepest purses.

Tourists were always welcome clients. Attracted by Špania Dolina’s architectural heritage, the mountain scenery, paths marked for walking and hiking, or the lace itself, both Slovak and foreign tourists wandering into the village usually had little prior knowledge about the number of craftswomen working there, how to approach them or indeed, whom to approach. They most often bought from the first (and only) lace maker they encountered and were unaware of the individual variations on the local style that marked out the product of one lace maker from that of her colleagues. Lace makers saw no incentive to change the relative lack of information for visitors. In fact, in some ways, it worked to their advantage: tourists did not spend much time deciding on which piece they would like, they generally payed willingly and were not very knowledgeable in terms of quality or skill. Best of all, tourists disappeared taking their piece and the secret of the price away with them.

Price – and sales in general – were a touchy subject. Most of the lace makers I encountered appeared to negotiate the price of their products at the moment of sale, working with a ratio of social distance (that is, acquaintances were charged least for a piece, strangers more, and foreign tourists the most). When tourists tried to haggle with them, however, they were accused of wanting to buy the lace ‘for nothing’. Lace makers did not agree on any general pricing system, or advertise and sell their laces together. Rather, every lace maker worked for herself, leading to the feeling that they were all competing for the same clients and income. Sales were the stuff of local gossip. Lace makers I visited would speak of their own sales as lamentably few and far between and then wonder out loud whether their friends and neighbours ‘were working’ (probably hoping I might provide the answer). The assumption was that any women who were making lace were doing so for a client.

Because sales were such a difficult subject, lace makers constantly sought to deflect attention from their commercial endeavours. Sales involved an elaborate ritual of verbal disclaimers and a display of specific body language. Typically lace makers would excuse themselves with financial problems or told the client that sale ‘covers the cost of materials’, and they made sure to underline their own incompetence in retail matters by saying that they didn’t ‘know how to set a price’. The sales I observed were generally accompanied by squirming, cast-down eyes and phrases such as ‘I really don’t know what to ask’ and ‘I don’t sell expensively, I’m not that sort of person’.

However, this was more than simply a performance designed to protect lace makers from criticism or make the buyer feel they got a nice discount; many craftswomen found sales genuinely shameful and delegated commercial transactions to a friend or relative. These people usually worked voluntarily to facilitate orders and relay payments for finished pieces, making use of their own social and professional connections in order to place lace artefacts in commercial outlets. Such work was understood as ‘favours’ and ‘helping out’ amongst friends and family, and never paid. In this way, sales remained hidden from public view and lace makers could feign disinterest in the commercial aspect of their practice. However, it also meant that the line between favours and commercial transactions became blurred, complicating their relationships with friends and family.

All images by the author; except the blue/white lace sampler (sourced from http://laceioli.ning.com).

The Revolution that Never Was: Ypres Lacemakers in 1848

18 August 1848, and all seems quiet on the main square of Ypres. This watercolour of Ypres Town Hall (the Cloth Hall) by Justin Ouvrié (1806-1879) can now be found in Ypres Museum.

In the spring of 1848, as revolution spread from Palermo and Paris across large swathes of the continent, one country remained conspicuously quiet: Belgium.  The reasons for this are not immediately clear.  Belgium had come into being through revolution only a few years before in 1830.  The country clearly possessed a revolutionary history and tradition.  It was close to the epicentre of events in France, and Belgian exiles in Paris were busy organizing propaganda and recruiting among the large number of Belgian migrant workers in France to form a Belgian Legion which might carry armed revolution back over the border.  The economic conditions in Belgium were, if anything, even worse than in France, and so ostensibly more propitious for civil conflict.  This was especially true in the provinces of East and West Flanders.  British competition had effectively wiped out the most important in the region, the linen industry, during the 1840s.  The potato blight had ruined three harvests in a row, undermining the peasant farmers’ and smallholders’ ability to feed themselves.  Even before 1848 local and national government recognized that the labouring populations of Flanders were suffering a crisis of hunger, poverty and unemployment.  As we have seen in previous posts, one of the answers to this crisis was to invest in lace schools.  However, the revolution of February 1848 in Paris would deal a blow to this industry too.  Flemish lace was made for export, mostly to France.  But luxury trades were always the first to suffer during political turmoil.  The French fashion houses weren’t buying, which meant the Belgian merchants were left with stock on their hands, which meant that they stopped putting out work to their domestic female workforce.[1]

This crisis affected the countryside but also towns like Courtrai, Bruges and Ypres where lace remained the most important employer of female labour.  The local authorities were particularly worried because, as much male employment was seasonal, over winter whole families depended on the wages that lacemakers brought in.  On 13 March, little more than a fortnight since news of the Paris revolution arrived in the city, the lace merchants of Ypres got together to lobby the government in Brussels on behalf of their industry.[2]  They sent a deputation to the Minister of the Interior, telling him that in the borough of Ypres alone there were more than 20,000 lacemakers, that lace was the sole industry of any importance to survive the crisis years of the 1840s, but that now this population too was threatened with misery.  They warned of ‘grave disorders’ if something was not done.[3]  And something was done, as the Government provided 60,000 francs of credit to the lace merchants, so that they could keep putting out orders to their workers.  Or at least that was the idea, there is some dispute about what actually happened to the money.[4]

‘Lacemakers don’t protest’ wrote one of their foremost Belgian chroniclers, explaining their invisibility in history.[5]  And so it proved in 1848, despite the fears of the authorities in Ypres and elsewhere.  West Flanders in general remained remarkably calm, despite occasional incursions by radicals and armed groups from France.  The border, only fourteen kilometres away from Ypres, was reinforced, adding an extra layer of difficulty for lace exporters (and smugglers).

However, there were some attempts to provoke lacemakers to action.  Thursday 26 June 1848 was ‘Kleinsacramentsdag’, the Thursday following Corpus Christi (a moveable feast).  This was the holy day of Ypres lacemakers, and the Wednesday preceding was ‘Mooimakersdag’, the lacemakers’ holiday which in previous years had been celebrated in some style.  The lace schools were festooned with garlands of flowers, while troops of lacemakers in fancy dress, and led by their ‘queen’, were carried off on great waggons to picnics in the surrounding countryside, much like those pictured in Watteau’s painting of ‘The Feast of the Bobbin’ in nearby Lille.  In preparation for this holiday, printers would produce new songbooks which were sold in the market-squares and other public places by street-singers.[6]  On 25 June 1848 one such broadside song drew the attention of the authorities, and it is reproduced below, followed by a rough translation.

An 1864 etching of the Antwerp streetsinger Belmont by Hendrik Frans Schaefels (1827-1904). Many nineteenth-century streetsingers became quite famous characters but we have found no portraits of Ypres singers from the period.

 

Stemme van den Boterpot no 1 of den Brabanson

A la vrienden wilt hier aenhooren,
En blyft een weinig staen,
Ik zalt u in korte gaen verklaeren,
Hoe het in dese stad zal vergaen,
Kantwerkster, gy mag het wel weten,
t’ Is van onze kante marchands,
Zy hebben lang genoeg ons herte uitgefreten, Bis
Deeze verkens moeten nu van kant. Bis, Bis.

De kleermaekers zynder espres gekomen,
Uyt de groote stad Parys,
Zy hebben het nieuws nu al vernomen,
Zy kreygen daer van den eersten prys,
Al voor de kazakken te keeren,
Van plaidons en kanten marchands,
Zy zullen haest de fransch tael gaen leeren, Bis.
Dees verraeders moeten uyt ons land. Bis, Bis.

Dat zullen deze capoenen gaen vaeren,
De plaidons zyn nu afgeschaft,
Want wy beginnen daer op te dinken,
Dees verraeders hebben te veel gemaekt,
Zy maeken met ons geld veele plaisieren,
Om te marcheren met trommels en muzik,
Wy zullen klouk op hun kazakke vieren, Bis.
Tot een exempel voor ons Belzyk. Bis, Bis.

Wy zullen onze mode doen floreeren,
Door het maeken van een nieuw kazak,
En wy ambagsheden zonder mankeren,
Hebben ook deeze mode aengevat,
Wy zullen drinken en glaezen doen klinken,
Tot floreeren voor weird en weirdin,
En de marchands van kanten te doen springen, Bis
Dat hebben wy al lang in onzen zin. Bis, Bis.

Spellewerkster laet het u niet verdrieten,
Om tegen dees barbaeren op te staen,
Zy zullen ons bloed niet meer doen vergieten,
Wy zullen stryden voor ons vaen,
Al voor het geld dat zy ons hebben genomen,
Van onze kanten en gaeren-bak,
Die schoone francs moeten weder keeren, Bis.
Dat zy van ons hebben afgepakt. Bis, Bis.

Kantwerkster al voor het letste,
En laet deeze zaeke niet meer staen,
Want ik raent u voor het alderbeste,
Eer dat zy bancroute zouden slaen,
En laet ons nu defenderen,
t’Is voor ons eygen vleesch en bloed,
Dan zullen wy ons plaisieren doen ernemen. Bis.
Al met het geld van onze kanten zoet. Bis, Bis.

Eynde.

To the tune of ‘The Butterpot’ no 1 or The Brabançonne

To friends who want to listen
And stay a while here,
I shall explain to you directly
How things fare in this city.
Lacemaker, you know it already,
It’s about our lace merchants
They have been feasting on our hearts long enough,
These pigs need to get out the way.

The tailors [buyers] have come on purpose
From the great city of Paris
They have heard the news,
They expect to get the best price,
Ready to turn the coats
Of prud’hommes and lace merchants
They’ll quickly learn French,
These traitors must be expelled.

To send these capons packing
The prud’hommes are now abolished,
Because we’re beginning to think
That these traitors have made too much,
They have had too much fun with our money,
Marching around with drums and music,
We should boldly celebrate on their jackets
As an example for our Belgium [?]

We should make our fashion flourish,
By making a new jacket,
And then we’ll celebrate without stint,
If we get a hold on this fashion,
We should drink and clink glasses
And so let innkeeper and his wife flourish,
And the lace merchants can go take a leap
We’ve wanted that for a long time.

Lacemaker, don’t let it grieve you
To face up to these barbarians,
We won’t let them shed our blood anymore,
We will fight for our standard,
And for the money that they took from us,
For our lace and thread casket,
The beautiful coins must return,
That they snatched from us.

Lacemakers, finally,
Don’t let this situation continue,
Because I urge you for your own good,
Before you go bankrupt,
And let us defend ourselves,
It’s for our own flesh and blood,
Then we can enjoy ourselves,
With the money from our sweet lace.

 

We must admit that some elements of this song, which was discovered by the archivist Joseph De Smet, remain opaque to us.[7]  We don’t really understand the author’s interest in ‘kazakken’ or jackets (perhaps it had some dialect meaning).  We don’t know the tune ‘The Butterpot’, though we assume den Brabanson refers to the revolutionary anthem of 1830 which is now the Belgian national anthem.

However, we can explain who were the ‘plaidons’ or ‘prud’hommes’ mentioned in the text.  The conseil des prud’hommes was an early form of industrial tribunal whose members were elected from both the employers and, in theory, workers.  The Ypres tribunal, set up in 1842, consisted of seven members, of which at least two had to be lace-merchants and one a male foreman or senior employee in the industry.  In practice almost all the elected members represented the employers, no employee representatives could be found for the simple reason that there were no male employees or tax-paying artisans of the kind designated by the legislation.  No female lace merchant (of which there were several) nor any female lacemaker (of which there were thousands) could participate either as electors or as members of the tribunal.  Yet almost the entire business of the tribunal was taken up by the lace industry: in 1846, of the sixty-two cases it judged, sixty-one involved lacemakers; in 1847 out of forty-three cases, forty-one involved lacemakers.[8]  And the lacemakers of Ypres were not happy with its rulings.  As the local papers observed, whatever the merits of such a system in an industrial town with clearly defined employees and employers, it was ‘clearly not fit for the lace industry’.[9]  If merchants cut lacemakers’ remuneration, claiming the work was shoddy or dirty, the lacemakers could only seek justice from the conseil des prud’hommes, where they found the same merchants sitting in judgement.[10]  In particular lacemakers complained that lace merchants were attempting to force on them the dreaded ‘livret’, or workbook which would effectively end their limited ability to negotiate wages by tying them to a single employer.[11]  In June the agitation had grown so great that the Mayor of Ypres placed public notices in the newspapers (unusually in Flemish) stating that he had written to parliament and to the ministry of Justice to make them aware of the lacemakers’ concerns.  In October 1847 a tailor, Pierre Maerten, organized a petition on behalf of the lacemakers against the prud’hommes.[12]  Neither action seems to have brought a positive result: of the seven members of the tribunal elected in January 1848, five were lace merchants.[13]  This is why the song links lace merchants and prud’hommes together as enemies of lacemakers.

The authorities soon got wind of this would-be rebel anthem.  The state prosecutor sent a copy to the Governor of West-Flanders on 1 July.  The author was identified and arrested: his name was Auguste Plancque, a former NCO in the Belgian army, but by then a day-labourer.  We do not know what punishment Plancque suffered but it was probably not too serious because when he died, in 1885, he was described as a retired postman, the kind of job that was often thought suitable for military veterans.[14]  The Ypres register of births, deaths and marriages also provides an explanation for Planque’s particular interest in the lace industry: in February 1843 he had married Marie de Graeve, a lacemaker.[15]

It seems Ypres lacemakers did not take up this song on Mooimakersdag in 1848.  However, they did have a whole repertoire of other songs to mark that day, and we have included the first verse of one such song below, so that readers can get a feel for lacemakers’ celebrations.[16]  And you can hear the whole song performed by the Belgian folk group Sidus on Youtube.

Wij hebben ons kusje in ‘t kasjen gesteken,
Boutjes en spellen en g’heel de boetiek.
We’n zullen dees’ week van geen werken meer spreken:
Boeravezeeve is onze muziek!
Tralala, lafaderalier’! tralalala, lafad’rala!

We’ve thrown our pillow into the shed,
Bobbins and pins and the whole caboodle.
This week we shan’t talk about work any more:
The tambourine is our music!

 

A streetsinger hawks his wares in Wervik, a town close to Ypres. This illustration by Emile Puttaert (1829-1901) appeared in Eugène Van Bemmel’s ‘La Belgique illustrée’ (1879).

 

[1] Brison D. Gooch, Belgium and the February Revolution (Amsterdam, 1963); For West Flanders in particular see Joseph De Smet, ‘De weerslag van de Franse Omwenteling van 1848 in West Vlaanderen’, Handelingen van het Genootschap voor Geschiedenis 89 (1952): 24-38.

[2] Le Propagateur, 15 March 1848, p. 1.

[3] Le Propagateur, 18 March 1848, p. 1.

[4] Le Propagateur, 4 August 1849, p. 1.

[5] Guillaume De Greef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 5.

[6] Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique, vol. I (Brussels, 1870), p. 298.

[7] Joseph De Smet, ‘De crisis in de westvlaamse kantnijverheid in 1848’, Biekorf 53 (1952): 174-8.

[8] Le Propagateur 24 February 1847, p. 1; Le Progrès, 3 February 1848, p. 1.

[9] Le Propagateur, 10 February 1847, p. 2.

[10] Le Propagateur, 10 March 1847, p. 2.

[11] Le Propagateur, 28 April, 1847, p. 1.

[12] Le Progrès, 23 December 1847, p. 2.

[13] Le Progrès, 6 February 1848, p. 4.

[14] Le Progrès, 11 January 1885, p. 2.

[15] Le Progrès, 26 February 1843, p. 4.

[16] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch oud liedboek.  Teksten en melodieen uit de volksmond opgetekend (Brussels, 1962), pp. 237-318, here 238-9.

Prudence Summerhayes and the hunt for tunes for lace ‘tells’

Castle Ashby

Castle Ashby, scene of the 1949 Northamptonshire Rural Community Council Pageant

Regular visitors to this site will know of our interest in lace songs and ‘tells’.  Tells were rhymes used in Midlands lace schools, seemingly as a means to increase the pace of work and to count pins.  We have the text of about 80 English lace tells recorded by folklorists and other visitors to Midlands lace villages from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century.  But in almost every case we have the words but no tune, the collector not having the technical knowledge or recording device necessary to capture the music.  In some cases, because the words of the tell are adapted from some familiar rhyme or ballad, one can offer a reasonable guess as to how the tune went, but for others the hunt still goes on.

Prudence Summerhayes, c. 1950

We are not the first to engage in this hunt.  The following encounter between a song enthusiast and a lacemaker appeared in the magazine The Countryman in 1964.  It was written by Prudence Summerhayes (1906-1984), a writer and occasional radio producer married to J. Alan Turner, the Clerk to Northamptonshire County Council.  Prudence had been writing plays and novels since childhood, several of which were published in the 1930s, but after the war, as wife of an important local government official, she became more involved in cultural patronage.  She wrote short plays for use in schools and was an active organizer of historical pageants in the East Midlands, performed in places like Delapre Park, Rockingham Castle and Hatfield House.  Some of these pageants involved the Women’s Institute and other women’s organisations.[1]  As we have seen, such short plays and pageants were a significant vehicle for popularizing a particular history, or rather legend, of lace, such as the role of Katherine of Aragon.  Lace was certainly a theme in some of Prudence Summerhayes’ pageants.  In the one she organized on behalf of the Northamptonshire Rural Community Council at Castle Ashby (home of the Marquess of Northampton) in July 1949, and largely built around moments in the history of the Compton family, one scene presented lacemakers singing their tells while working.[2]  This section was apparently based on a short play about Flemish migrants bringing lace skills to the region, and had originally been written by local schoolmistress at Yardley Hastings.

Prudence had certainly done some research about tells.  She gave talks about the history of lace to local W.I.s and indeed contributed a section about them to Woman’s Hour on the radio in 1954.  And the lack of tunes clearly bothered her because she wrote about it in her memoirs: ‘To this day it is uncertain whether there were tunes for the words, though I had two fairly good proofs that they were, though in spite of all my efforts I never tracked them down.’[3]  The encounter related below was presumably one of these efforts; it probably dates to the period when she lived in Northamptonshire.  In the 1950s and 60s it was still possible to order handmade lace from the leading department stores in these Midlands cities, if one was prepared to wait a long time for delivery.  The article illustrates a recurrent trope of folksong research, ‘the one that got away’.  Almost every memoir of a song collector contains a similar moment when vast melodic treasures were on the verge of discovery, only to be stymied by the death of the singer.

However, if one can’t find the original tunes, one can always invent one’s own.  Serving alongside Prudence Summerhayes on the Drama Committee of the Northamptonshire Arts Association was the clergyman and composer Greville Cooke (1894-1989) whom Summerhayes described as ‘a rather high-church canon’ (of Peterborough Cathedral).  Cooke set seven of the tells to music; ‘difficult somewhat modern music’ in Summerhayes’ opinion.  For the first performance at Castle Ashby in 1949 they were sung by fifty-seven girls from the Rockingham Road School, Kettering, ‘while country-women worked pillow-lace’ according to the report in the Northamptonshire Mercury.  In 1953 Cooke published these tells and they were ‘broadcast and sung all over the county where I went until I got heartily sick of them’ said Summerhayes.  But up till now we have not discovered a recording of them.[4]

 

Prudence Summerhayes, ‘A Country Lacemaker’ The Countryman 62 (Summer 1964), pp. 261-4.

[261] I had been scouring the neighbourhood for someone to make a bit of pillow lace for me; and there she was all the time, only a stone’s throw from where I lived.  It was not in any romantic stone cottage that I found her, but in a drab street of an industrial town.  An odd current of life had stranded her there.  She was quite alone in the world, her husband long since dead and all her children grown up and gone away.

I looked up and down the street in doubt; dust and dirty newspapers blew along the pavement.  This did not seem at all the place for a country lacemaker; but somebody had said she lived there and, as soon as I reached her window, I guessed I was on the right track.  Everything about the house was spotless; the step was freshly scrubbed, the door-handle shone and, as if I had not already guessed it, there in the window under a vase of paper roses was an immaculate lace mat.  Lacemakers are always scrupulously clean.  They have to be by the nature of their work, which also exacts infinite patience and a delicate sense of precision.

When my lacemaker opened the door I saw that she was very old.  She appeared frail too; but her skin was smooth and fine, and she was still astonishingly beautiful.  She looked at me uncertainly as I tried to explain who I was, until I mentioned the magic word ‘lace’ and a delightful smile touched her eyes. I was immediately welcome, and I was not surprised, for lacemakers are invariably enthusiasts.  Otherwise no doubt the craft would have died long ago; the slowness of the work prevents it from being an economic proposition in a machine age.  You do it, in the end [262] as you do most of the arts, simply because you love it.

It as soon obvious that this lacemaker loved it. Almost at once we found ourselves talking away about the delights of our mutual interest.  Then followed the time-honoured ritual which I had come to know so well in my encounters with lacemakers all over the East Midlands, and in the Auvergne, Spain and Italy as well.  Out came the dumpy patchwork pillow covered with its fresh-laundered cloth.  There were the bobbins carved with the names of dead sweethearts – ‘Nance’ and ‘Betsy’ – or touchingly inscribed with mementos of bygone days and with naïve sentiments: ‘Marry me quick and lowly speak’; ‘Mother, when shall I marry?’  There they all were, the winders, the pins, the parchments and the inevitable stories of lace made for royal households and great historic occasions.

It is an odd thing; wherever there is lace, you will find royalty.  And it is not only lace; many crafts appear to have these traditional associations, real or imaginary, which are most persistent.  Indeed these traditions are such treasured possessions that one would hesitate to destroy them, even though at times one suspects they are largely fictitious.  Some of the tales, of course, are perfectly genuine; but true or not, the fact is that generation after generation love to think they are true.  Naturally my lacemaker had her own special royalty story of a grandmother who had made lace for a princess’s petticoat.  Finally, to wind up the ritual, out came the precious odds and ends of lace, carefully wrapped in blue tissue paper to protect them from the light; there was old lace as fine as a spider’s web, and a Honiton handkerchief with tracery like a feathery fern.

‘But they’re exquisite’, I cried, caught afresh by their loveliness, as always.  She smiled and, at my [263] request, sat down at her pillow to work some lace for me.  Her hands flew as swiftly as a bird.  They were astonishingly white, almost transparent, with beautifully kept fingernails.  I watched and was fascinated by the complicated movements as she worked away, throwing the bobbins over each other with the quick staccato action and the little turn of the wrist that makes good quality lace.

For it was good lace, and she knew it.  There was a touch of charming vanity about her – the contented look of a person who knows she is doing something worth while and doing it well.  Besides, she was the proud owner of a gift which gave her a sense of importance and even power.  Were there not always plenty of people bothering her for bits of lace to go round table-cloths and baby clothes and handkerchiefs?  Far more than she could ever undertake.  Certainly she made little money out of her orders but she did not really mind; it was enough to cover the cost of materials and provide a little pocket-money, and she was satisfied.

‘What design are you doing?’ I asked, bending over work that was as filmy as gossamer; but she did not know.  These old lacemakers seldom do, though they may call the pattern by some such fancy country name as Wedding Bells, Honeysuckle or Bunch o’ Nuts.  Usually it is something mother or aunty ‘learned’ them; something they had been taught as girls in the village, where anyone made lace as a matter of course, and the great day of the week had been when the pedlar came round selling new parchments and thread.  This lacemaker knew only that she had to make certain movements, largely dictated by the colour of the beads which hung on the bobbins.  She did not know that the design she was doing had perhaps travelled from far across Europe and was similar to one brought over [264] to England by Catherine of Aragon.  She knew that the yellow beads went over the scarlet, that the wrists must be kept so and the thread tight, just as her mother had done and her grandmother before her, for these skills often run in families.

‘Ah, they were happy days’, she sighed.  ‘Though mind you, we had to work real hard, me and my sister. Up at six and on till dark, it was a long day; but there, it wasn’t too bad, we used to while away the time singing.’

‘Singing?’ I broke in quickly, and my spirits soared.  For a long time I had been searching for the authentic lace tells, which were sometimes sung in the old country lace-schools and whose rhythm is thought to fit the movements of the work.  Although I had come across the words of these songs fairly frequently, the airs still eluded me.  ‘You don’t mean you know the actual tunes?’ I asked, trying not to frighten her with my eagerness.

But she did mean it.  ‘Yes’, she said sedately.  Her grandmother had learnt them, tunes and all, in the lace-school which once stood at the corner of their village street.  There had been quite a number, and though she could not remember them all, she had the words written down; she could not mind just where.  She began rummaging about in a somewhat confused way through her cupboards, and I did not like to press her.  Our enthusiasm had exhausted us, so I said I would come back another time, and she promised to look out the songs and sing them to me ‘with the chorus and all the verses’.  But I was not to hear them.  I had to go away for a while and on my return, a few weeks later, the blinds of the house were drawn.  I have continued my search ever since, and I have still to find those lost airs to the Midland lace tells.

 

 

 

 

[1] I am extremely grateful to Derek Turner, the son of Prudence Summerhayes and Alan Turner, for providing bibliographical and biographical information about his mother, including sections of her unpublished memoir ‘The Raging Dream’.  Summerhayes’ archive has been donated to Headington Girls’ School, though so far I have been unable to access it.  For further biographical information on the Summerhayes family see the blog http://tacadrum.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-summerhayes-first-world-war.html

[2] See the report in The Northampton Mercury and Herald Friday 15 July, 1949.

[3] ‘The Raging Dream’, p. 116.

[4] Greville Vaughan Turner Cooke, Seven Lace Tells of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. For 2-part Treble Voices (Joseph Williams, London 1953).  On Cooke’s other work see http://www.duncanhoneybourne.com/articles/greville_cooke

 

Legends of Lacemaking: Serena of Bruges and Caroline Popp

40 Zuidzandstraat in Bruges is now a perfume shop, but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was home to the lace firm Houpelyne-Mulier.  Above the shop windows four bas-reliefs depict the invention of lace, which legend ascribes to a local girl, Serena.  Of course, other lace centres dispute this claim.  Serena’s tale appears in several versions, what follows is a summary of what is probably the original version.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Serena’s story is set in the Middle Ages, the high point of the the city’s fortunes.  But twenty-year-old Serena did not partake in that wealth.  Her father, a sailor (and Bruges was then a port) had died at sea; her mother had charge of four other young children, and so it fell to Serena to support the entire family from her spinning.  She loved, and was loved in turn, by her neighbour, Arnold Van Oost, son of a rich merchant and an apprentice sculptor.  But, as poverty threatened her family, Serena made a vow before an image of Our Lady of Sorrows: ‘Holy Virgin, give me the means to aid my family and I will renounce all the joys and hopes of my heart’.

That same day, Serena’s family, accompanied by Arnold, went for a walk in the countryside.  It was a beautiful spring morning, and the fields were covered with the gossamer threads that in French are called ‘les fils de la Vierge’ [threads of the Virgin].  As she sat pondering her vow some strands floated down onto her black apron, making a beautiful pattern.  For Serena, this was a lesson from the Mother of God; if spiders could create wonderful shapes with their threads, why might not she?  Arnold knocked together a makeshift frame to carry the apron home and Serena set about trying to recreate the pattern with her own thread.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Her first attempts were hopelessly muddled but the use of a pin-cushion and Arnold’s rapid invention of bobbins to weight the threads enabled her to find her way, and soon all the great ladies of Bruges were demanding this new textile to adorn their heads.  Serena taught her younger sisters the secret and so the family’s financial problems were solved.  Arnold, in what would be an enduring division of labour within the lace industry, supplied the drawings on which they worked.  In the meantime, he had submitted his masterpiece and become a full member of the guild of sculptors.  Now in a position to marry he rushed to Serena’s house to ask for her hand.  But she, of course, was bound by her vow to refuse.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

A year passed in mutual pain as Arnold nursed his anger and confusion and Serena became listless and pale.  On the anniversary of the miracle Serena took herself once again into the fields and prayed that Arnold would recover from the hurt.  In answer the gossamer strands arranged themselves again into a pattern, a crown of orange blossom.  Serena exclaimed, ‘If this is a martyr’s crown I accept, but all others are forbidden to me’.  And in response words appeared within the crown: ‘I relieve you of your vow’.  Soon after the couple were married.

Serena and Arnold had many children, all girls, who learnt the art of lacemaking from their mother, and thus was established the industry that spread the name of Flanders far and wide.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Because lace is a relatively modern invention it is feasible to imagine that it originated with a historical personage at a particular moment.  And as it was associated with the Church – because religious institutions were responsible for teaching and spreading lace skills – it was equally feasible to imagine a miraculous origin. The legend of Serena is only one of several that ascribe a role to the Virgin Mary in the inception of lace.  However, while such stories encapsulate the notion that lacemakers were engaged in a blessed occupation (a view we have seen expressed by, for example, Guido Gezelle), they are not necessarily as old as the craft itself.  They do not appear to have their origin in narratives that lacemakers told among themselves, but in the efforts to defend or invigorate the handmade lace industry in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  Although Serena has passed into folklore, and her story told and retold by Bruges city guides and lace aficionados, her origins are literary.[1]  We can be fairly certain she was the invention of Caroline Popp, who dated her text 12 May 1867.

Bas-relief of Caroline Popp, by her grandson-in-law Julien van den Broeck de la Palud.  Popp edited the ‘Journal de Bruges’ from her home in place Hans Memling (now Woensdagmarkt). Memling’s statue appears here in the background. Note Popp’s lace collar!

Caroline Popp (1808-1891) was a figure of some importance in nineteenth-century Bruges.[2]  Her father, Félix Nicolas Joseph Boussart, came from a military family from Binche who, having served the Austrians then fought against them, first in the Brabant Revolution of 1789 and, when that revolt was crushed, as a volunteer in the armies of the French Revolution (he would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel under Napoleon; his brother, André-Joseph Boussart, became a general[3]).  It was her marriage to Philippe Christian Popp (1805-1879) which brought her to Bruges, when he was appointed the surveyor of the region.  She was co-owner of the newspaper Le journal de Bruges which she founded in 1837 alongside her husband and then edited for fifty-three years.  She was succeeded by her daughters.  Le journal de Bruges was a bastion of francophone liberalism in clerical West Flanders, having been set up in opposition to the Catholic newspaper Le Nouvelliste de Bruges.  It was a campaigning newspaper on both local and national issues, such as the establishment of a museum in Bruges, the re-establishment of the city’s port, the abolition of the death penalty, and women’s education.

The story of Serena and ‘The Legend of Lace’ was published in her 1867 collection Récits et légendes des Flandres, a book which was admired by Victor Hugo, among others.[4]  Later he would make the acquaintance of the Popps, who were hospitable to visiting writers and encouraging of local ones (including Frans Carrein).  These legends have sometimes been cited as examples of local folklore, but in fact most were fictions inspired by the topography of Bruges.[5]

Popp was under no illusions about the reality of the lace trade, nor the lives lived by lacemakers.  The Journal de Bruges had warned about the spread of lace-schools as the only solution to the linen crisis in the 1840s; was not a new crisis of overproduction being hatched?  The paper also campaigned against the abusive use of advances (the theme of Carrein’s Eliza de kantwerkster) and the exploitation of apprentice lacemakers by religious orders.  Like Joanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp complained of the conditions and hours of work in the lace-schools.  So it is perhaps surprising that she created such a romantic origin legend for this industry that was, in her own time, a breeding ground of poverty and ill health.  Given her liberal credentials it is even more surprising that she ascribed the invention to a religious miracle.  But we can perhaps unravel her motivations.  In the histories of lace written in the nineteenth century, Flanders vied with Italy, and Venice in particular, for the honour of inventing lace.  The weight of opinion favoured the latter, and history was supported by a legend which ascribed the inspiration to a woman from the Venetian lagoon who attempted to recreate an algae gifted by her sailor fiancé.  Popp mentions this story in the introduction to her own which is clearly a retort on behalf of the north.  And while Popp was critical of the way in which the lace industry was presently organized, she was indefatigable in her attempts to revive her adopted city including its native industries.  Her watchword was ‘en avant’; she looked back only to find the direction to go forwards.  Bruges had been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the Middle Ages; she might be again.  It is no surprise then that Popp located the invention of lace in this period (a century earlier than any historical evidence might allow).  And just like Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp saw no incompatibility between her liberalism and her Catholic faith.

There are still a few signs of her liberal politics in ‘The Legend of Lace’.  Serena’s mother, like Popp, believed in the importance of fresh air and exercise for young bodies, hence the walk in the fields that led to the miracle.  When Arnold joined the guild of sculptors, Popp cannot resist the opportunity to condemn these medieval monopolies.  And finally, she releases Serena from her vow of chastity to embrace another destiny as wife, mother and creative worker.  It is unlikely that Popp’s contemporary and fellow Bruggeling, the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, would consider that an appropriate ending.

‘Serena, de legende van de kant’, a Dutch retelling by Jean Vercammen, illustrated by Dora Rommelaere, published in 1945.

 

[1] See, for example, the websites of Bruges storyteller Marc Willems: http://brugselegenden.blogspot.com/2014/10/de-legende-van-serena-en-de-brugse-kant.html

[2] On Caroline Boussart-Popp see Éliane Gubin et al, Dictionnaire des femmes belges : XIXe et XXe siècles (Brussels, 2006), pp. 73-4.

[3] See the pages dedicated to the Boussart brothers on http://napoleon-monuments.eu/

[4] Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp. 163-205.  An English translation of this tale was published in 1937 by Mrs L. Paulis.

[5] So says the Flemish folklore expert Hervé Stalpaert in Westvlaamse kantwerkstersfolklore (Courtrai, 1956).

Lacemaking as slavery in ‘Aunt Klara’s Cabin’ (1864)

Joanna Desideria Courtmans-Berchmans, by Jules van Biesbroeck, Letterenhuis Antwerp

For Johanna-Desideria (Désirée) Berchmans (1811-1890), often known by her married name Courtmans, the purpose of literature was to make a difference to society.  The novel was moralisation and enlightenment by other means.  (Louise Otto-Peters, whom we looked at in a previous post, took a similar approach but it was even more prevalent in Belgium due to the absence of a substantial educated public for literature in Flemish.)  There were other women writers connected to the Flemish Movement, such as Marie Doolaeghe,[1] but Courtmans-Berchmans was probably the most important female author active in the Flemish literary revival of the mid-nineteenth century.  Although she only turned to prose in her 40s, she became a prolific novelist, producing a book every year and sometimes more.  As her father was a teacher, her husband was a teacher, her daughters were teachers, and she herself attempted to run a boarding school in Maldegem, it is perhaps not surprising that schools feature regularly in her novels.  But education was not just her theme, it was her mission.  Schooling, and particularly girls’ schooling, was a political battleground in nineteenth-century Belgium, and both in her life and her fiction Courtmans-Berchmans was a combatant.  Her novel De hut van tante Klara (1864) was an indictment of the lace schools: her title – with its deliberate echo of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – implied that children’s lacemaking was a form of slavery.[2]

As discussed in our previous blog about Father Constant Duvillers and the lace-school in Middelburg, the 1840s were the ‘Hunger Years’ in Flanders, a situation brought on by overlapping crises in the linen industry and in agriculture.  Famine was only averted by the coordinated action of local elites, particularly the Catholic Church and landowners, with the aid of the Belgian state.  They sponsored lace-schools, which provided an alternative source of income to a population which had previously been dependent on flax-spinning.  However, this was not a purely charitable endeavour; lace-schools, even those that received philanthropic support or subventions from the local authorities, needed to make money to remain open.  A few provided some hours of basic teaching in the three Rs, but most were more workshops than schools, and the persons in charge – usually members of religious orders but sometimes private individuals – were also intermediaries in the lace trade, bound up in a network of commercial relationships.  In consequence, the schools were regularly denounced for economically exploiting their young charges, while damaging their bodies and minds in the process.  The Roeselare Chamber of Commerce, for example, used its annual report for the year 1864 to the Belgian Government to condemn the lace-schools: ‘The false mask of devotion to the working class fails to hide what is in most cases the spirit of avarice, pushed to its most extreme limits and which sacrifices the health, the education and the future of these poor slaves, wretchedly deceived and abused, to this greed.’  The American Civil War was still being fought in 1864 so the use of the term ‘slaves’ was deliberate.  1864 was also the year that Berchmans-Courtmans published her novel De hut van tante Klara.

How did she become involved with lace?  To answer this we need to go back a little in her biography.  Her father had been mayor of the village of Mespelare near Dendermonde in East Flanders (he was the model for the hero of her eponymous novel De burgemeester van 1819 [1861]).  At the age of nine she was sent to a boarding-school in the French speaking part of Belgium; at the time a good education for a woman meant first and foremost learning French.  In 1835 we find her lodging in Ghent with Coleta Tanghe, a lacemaker and dealer.  (In her letters Berchmans referred to her as ‘Aunt Colette’, but the precise family relationship is unclear.)  Also lodging in the same house was the young teacher Jan-Baptist Courtmans (1811-1856), and in very short order the pair fell in love, married and started a family, all while living with ‘Aunt Colette’, as they would for most of the next decade.  Courtmans was secretary of the Maetschappij van Vlaemsche Letteroefening [The Society for Flemish Literature], which united many of the leading writers in the nascent Flemish movement such as Jan Frans Willems, Prudens Van Duyse and Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert.  The Courtmans family played host to visiting German writers such as the folklorist Johann Wilhelm Wolf, and Désirée narrated some of the folktales that made up his Niederländische Sagen (1843).[3]  She was also launching her own writing career.  As with almost all Flemish authors in the wake of Henrik Conscience’s De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (1838), her first poems drew on Flanders’ romantic, medieval past, although she particularly highlighted the contribution of women, especially queens, to the cause of national independence.

In 1843 the Courtmans moved to Lier when her husband took a position as professor of Flemish at the Teacher Training College.  For the next decade, as the family continued to grow, her literary output shrank, but when Jan-Baptist became too ill to work (he would die in 1856), she took up her pen again, in part to earn money.  After her husband’s death, and with eight children in tow ranging in age from three to nineteen, she moved to the small town of Maldegem.  Why she chose this location is a bit obscure, but she had a definite plan: she would open a girls’ boarding-school with herself and her elder daughter as teachers.  She placed adverts in the local newspapers.  The house she chose was on Noordstraat, directly opposite the lace-school run by Father Vinckier, Maldegem’s priest from 1832 to 1872.  The two quickly, indeed almost immediately, became bitter opponents.  Noordstraat Maldegem was one of many small-town front lines in the culture wars between clericals and liberals that divided Belgium politically.[4]  Courtmans-Berchmans considered herself a good Catholic, but she was a liberal in political matters.

Noordstraat Maldegem, c. 1909. Fifty years earlier this was a frontline in the Belgian ‘culture wars’

Like Duvillers in Middelburg, which was only a walk away, Vinckier intended to dominate his parish, and the lace-school was one of the means to achieve this end.  It had been founded as a private initiative in 1842 but was taken over by Vinckier in 1845 or 1846.  (Perhaps he had been inspired to do so after paying a call on Duvillers’ school: visiting priests were common characters in the latter’s songs.)  In the mid 1850s more than 300 girls, the bulk of the available juvenile, female population, attended.

More than one story is told about Vinckier’s first encounter with Courtmans-Berchmans, but the gist of them all is he told her that Maldegem had no need of educated women and so she had better set up shop elsewhere.  Her reply was ‘ik blijf’ [I’m staying].  However, she lost the first battle in her personal ‘culture war’ when her boarding-school was wound up in 1858 due to, as she explained to the local council, ‘malicious obstruction’.  As it was around this time that she started seriously writing again, the cause of literature gained by the failure of her boarding-school ambitions.  But in 1857 a new front opened up.  Municipal provision of some sort of primary schooling had become law in 1842, but in the 1850s the Liberal government began to put pressure on councils to build separate schools for girls.  Unlike the lace-schools these would not be places of work but would teach reading, writing and other skills.  They would be free to those unable to pay, which was the majority of the population in Maldegem.  The ecclesiastical authorities were worried that these public schools would compete with the lace-schools, and thus draw the female population away from their control.  One solution was, therefore, to convert the lace-schools into public schools by introducing a few extra lessons in reading and writing.  This was the strategy suggested by the Archbishop of Bruges and initially followed by Vinckier.  He proposed that Sophie Westerlinck, the mistress of his lace-school, should be appointed Maldegem’s first teacher of the girls’ public school, which would succeed the lace-school.  However, Courtmans-Berchmans was simultaneously lobbying hard to ensure that her daughter Mathilde got the post.  After much dithering by the council, she gained the cause, and Mathilde Courtmans was appointed on 3 February 1858.  Several of her sisters would join her as teachers in due course.

Yet this was not the end of the struggle.  Education was provided, but parents were not obliged to take it up.  Through the 1860s and 70s the lace-schools, both Vinckier’s and other establishments in Maldegem, continued to attract more pupils than the public school.  Girls in the lace schools earned money which helped support their families, and in ‘Poor Flanders’ this support could be vital to a family’s survival.  But the Church had other ways of exerting control.  In 1879 a new Liberal government attempted to laicise primary education in Belgium but the Church hierarchy fought back, threatening to excommunicate all teachers and all parents of pupils attending state primary schools.  In rural Catholic Flanders the effect of the first ‘School War’ (Schoolstrijd) from 1879 to 1884 was to empty the state primary schools and thus put the Courtmans sisters out of work.

However, this defeat lay some years off.  During the 1860s Courtmans-Berchmans was battling for decent schooling for Flemish girls on several fronts: with the local council (to whom she complained about the condition of the school buildings, and especially the playground, as she was convinced of the need for physical activity and fun as part of a rounded education), in the local papers such as De Eecloonaer where she berated her fellow citizens for their parish pump politicking, and in her novels, such as De hut van tante Klara.  No works by Courtmans-Berchmans are available in English (to our knowledge) but sections of this novel were translated by Brenda Mudde, and commentated on by Lia Van Gemert, in the latter’s collection Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam University Press, 2010).

The eponymous heroine, Klara Roman, is a herb-gatherer and the widow of a supposed ‘jacobijn’ barber-surgeon (Jacobin was a term of abuse aimed at anyone with liberal or anticlerical ideas).  Living with her are two orphaned granddaughters, Mieke and Roza, or Mieken and Rozeken as they usually appear in the text (along with their father, an unimportant character).  An industrial accident will soon rob her of her other son-in-law, and her other daughter with her tiny children will also take up residence in her crowded cottage.  At first, though, all seems idyllic, the six-year-old Mieken and Rozeken playing in the healthy outdoors while Klara picks her herbs for the apothecary.  Yet there is a presentiment of tragedy: the girls weave crowns of flowers that make them resemble two virgin martyrs.  Into the scene walk the agents of misfortune, the sisters Ludgarda and Rosanna Devroede, offspring of a disgraced notary.  They have come to persuade the local landowner, Mevrouw Van Dooren, to set up a lace-school which they will run.  Van Dooren wants to help a population suffering through the linen crisis.  But she is also an enlightened philanthropist, so the rules she lays out for her lace-school specify that children under nine should only work for three hours a day on lace, that there should be lessons in other subjects, plenty of play-time, and that the children themselves should receive the profit from their work.  This is not at all to the Devroede sisters’ liking, but they accept the position, and soon the old village spinning house is converted into a lace-school.

The school is not an immediate hit.  The poorer inhabitants want their daughters to start earning, three hours work is not enough.  The village notables object to the common people learning to read.  The most influential man in the village, Mr Hardies visits Mrs Van Dooren to warn her:

You are undermining the pillars of society.  You drive the insignificant upwards in order to bring down the great.  You wish to give the vermin wings so that they may rise up with the eagle, and you don’t even seem to understand that one swipe of its claws can crush thousands of these insects…  Artificial reading will grow into exercises to develop the mind, and then what – what will become of society once we get that far?  Oh, Madam, I am saddened, saddened to the soul when I think of it.[5]

Although not a priest, fat Mr Hardies with his sanctimonious shows of piety, is a thinly disguised portrayal of father Vinckier.  Mrs Van Dooren, fortunately, is equal to this pressure.  For three further years (we are now in the late 1840s), until they are nine, Mieken and Rozeken continue at the school with Klara’s blessing.  They learn, they earn and they remain healthy.  But then their benefactor dies, and a new regime is established in the lace school.  All the poor girls in the parish are obliged to go, or their families will cease to receive charity: within a month there are 400 girls in the school.  All other classes are stopped, as is playtime.  The children are charged for the thread and other equipment, which had previously been a cost of the establishment.  According to Aunt Klara the luckiest are those who die young, but those that survive this ‘kinderslavernij’ [child slavery] will become feeble housewives, with their twisted hands.

The fate of her two grandchildren under this new order is very different.  Mieken is constantly punished with the ‘zottekap’ [dunce’s cap] and the ‘lange tong’ [a wooden board hung on a pupil’s back as a mark of shame] for not fulfilling her lace quota, she is beaten with rods and made to sit near the door, far from the warming fire; soon she is coughing and fading.  Rozeken, however, with her ‘downcast eye’ [a regular sign of hypocritical submission and devotion in the literature of lacemaking] adapts to the Devroedes’ bigotry and greed, and so is rapidly promoted.  She transfers designs onto the parchments used by the pupils, particularly the ‘Brusselsche bloemen’ [Brussels flowers, or Duchesse lace], a specialist job.

Meanwhile Hardies has forced the Devroedes to accept his ‘protection’ and has become a silent partner in the school.  The miser estimates that each girl earns at least fifteen centimes profit a day: 600 or more girls equals 100 francs a day, divided equally between Hardies and the Devroedes.  The three plot to dispatch Rozeken to the convent at Zwijbeke, in order to improve their relationship with this important intermediary in the lace trade.

The other girls are becoming pale, thin, pinched and ill.  In fact they are dying of consumption (and this mirrors the reality: between 1852 and 1856 twelve pupils in the Vinckier lace-school died of consumption, and two others of typhus: the mayor of Maldegem wrote in 1857 that ‘the cause of death of the lace apprentices is a wasting disease to which the parents have given the vigorous name “schoolsickness”’).  Their ill-health becomes very obvious on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 15 August, when the school parades through the town.

They were headed by the two school mistresses in their black silk dresses, lace-edged coats, and pretty, white silk hats decorated with purple violets.  Each had a fat gold chain with a precious watch around her neck, and there was nothing to find fault with in their beautiful attire. Then came the pupils.

A sigh of pity escaped each breast on seeing these pale creatures, these stunted limbs, these thin bodies, which seemed to be fighting a stubborn battle of life and death.

Never had poverty made a more painful impression than it did now that so much trouble had been taken to adorn it.

The school’s older pupils looked very neat in cotton dresses, and it was evident that their parents had done the impossible to fulfil the needs of their money-earning daughters.  Among these children, the granddaughters of Aunt Clara were to be found.

They were followed by the smaller children…. Hundreds of clogged little feet came clattering by.  Some few were in new clogs, but many wore old ones, dripping with water and sand, and the clunking, rattling and clattering of the clogs mingled with the monotonous church hymns in such an unpleasant way that it saddened all attentive viewers.

[…]

Shamelessness had never shown itself more plainly than on that procession day.  Those who, by forcing them to labour well beyond their years and strength, had transformed blooming children into creatures whose weakness would be passed on to the next generation, and had turned golden youths into pale flowers bending towards the grave even in the morning of life, they were not shamed to put the misery of these child-slaves on show as a foil to their own wealth.  They braved the looks of the crowd, which seemed to call out to them:

‘Your pomp, your wealth, is the fruit of your slaves’ labour.  It is the purchase price of the victims you drag to an early grave.’

‘Lost souls! Are you not afraid that He, who is the strength of the weak and the ealth of the poor, will one day call you to account for the fate of those unhappy creatures whose bodies and souls were entrusted to you?  You have prematurely killed their spirits, and their bodies you have tortured, so that they will never regain the strength to rekindle their extinguished spirits.  No, you are not afraid, for you recognise no other virtue for the people than ignorance, as it is ignorance on which you have built the throne of your rule.’[6]

Mieken is one of the fatalities.  Although she rallies for a while, long enough to start a romance with her neighbour Paulus, her funeral will also be her wedding.  Her father, long since too ill to work, soon follows her to the grave.  Although Rozeken’s wages would now really help Aunt Klara’s household, she follows the plan laid out by her employers and joins the convent as a novice.  Aunt Klara’s other two grandchildren are now also in the lace school and one is already showing signs of the wasting sickness.  At last Aunt Klara, who perhaps understandably is given to weeping, now turns defiant: she removes her grandchildren, even though this means the family cannot receive poor relief from the council, which is under the thumb of Hardies.

Georges Laugée (1853-1937), Enterrement d’une jeune fille à Étricourt. Musée de l’Échevinage, Saintes. This is an example of ‘the wedding of the dead’.

But times have changed.  The Crimean War knocks the bottom out of the handmade lace market; the wages of the lace mistress employed by the Devroedes is halved, and even the sisters themselves cut back on their consumption of eau-de-cologne.  Punishments increase in an attempt to squeeze more work out of the children, but still wages decline.  For the men a new opportunity has opened up as migrant harvesters in France, so the poorer villagers are not so dependent on the lace-school.  Other women start to follow Aunt Klara’s example and remove their daughters.  The partners in the venture have started to bicker when Hardies drops down dead of a heart attack; he returns like Jacob Marley as a ghost, weighed down with account books and banknotes.  The sisters’ father is released from prison and with him they slip away into the night.  The lace-school building is put up for sale.  Aunt Klara has one last task to fulfil: she goes to the convent to persuade Roza to renounce her noviciate and come back home.

In her introduction Berchmans-Courtmans made explicit that this novel had a social purpose, to expose the exploitation of young girls in the lace-schools, because such institutions ‘disgraced a civilized country’.  She was not against the idea that girls engaged in some work that could contribute to the household income, but that they should also receive an education that expanded their mental horizons, that they be taught useful lessons in tasks that would help them later as housewives (sewing, knitting), and that their bodies be allowed to bloom in exercise and fresh air.  The campaign against the lace-schools would grow, picking up themes rehearsed by Berchmans-Courtmans, such as the impact on the reproductive potential of the Flemish population.  In 1876 the sociologist Guillaume de Greef launched a newspaper diatribe against the lace-schools run by religious orders and not just because they exploited their charges and condemned to poverty, ill-health and early death, but also because they sapped the intellectual and moral strength of the female population: ‘they are not even slaves, because slaves can rise up, but not they’.[7]  However, during the ‘School War’ clerical Flanders rallied to the defence of the lace-schools, which survived well into the twentieth century.  Thus they remained a theme for later Flemish writers such as Virginie Loveling (in Sophie 1885, where the Darwinian implications of a stunted female population are brought to the fore) and Reimond Stijns (in Hard Labeur 1904).  Of course the fate of the ‘hard worked, half-stifled little girls’ in the lace schools was not just a campaigning matter for Flemish writers, as we have already seen in the case of Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, published the year after De Hut van Tante Klara.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Funeral of a Young Woman at Damvillers, c. 1880.

 

[1] Doolaeghe (1803-1884), to whom we may return, wrote an encomium for ‘my noble friend’ Courtmans-Berchmans in 1883, in which she praised her efforts to ‘enlighten the people through her writing’ [Het volk verlichtend door zijn woord]: ‘Hulde aan mijne hooggeachte vriendin Mevr. Courtmans, geboren Berchmans’, De Vlaamsche Kunstbode 13 (1883): 261-2.

[2] There are several biographies and other studies of Courtmans-Berchmans: I have drawn mostly on Hugo Notteboom, Rik Van de Rosteyne and Michiel de Bruyne (eds) Over Mevrouw Courtmans Leven en Werk (Maldegem: Mevrouw Courtmanscomité, 1990); and Jules Pée, Mevrouw Courtmans, een letterkundige studie, (Antwerp: Ruquoy, Delagarde, Van Uffelen, 1933).

[3] Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Niederländische Sagen (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1843), p. xxi.  German philologists such as Wolf played an important part in the Flemish revival.

[4] For the ‘culture wars’ in Belgium, see Els Witte, ‘The Battle for Monasteries, Cemeteries and Schools: Belgium’, in Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (eds), Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Lia Van Gemert (ed.), Brenda Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam, 2010), pp. 523-4.

[6] Van Gemert (ed.), Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, pp. 525-6

[7] Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 8.  The 1886 volume is a new edition of his newspaper articles.

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