Praying for White Lace: The Feast of Our Lady of the Snows in Turnhout

‘The Miracle of the Snows’. Late C15, probably Flemish painting.

A very belated post for the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows, which fell on 5 August.  One of the Virgin Mary’s many titles, her legend is set in 4th century Rome, where a couple wanted to leave their fortune to the Virgin but had not decided how it should be spent.  At the height of summer, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and this miracle was taken as a sign that a church should be built there – what is now the Basilica of St Mary Major.  Until the fifteenth century Our Lady of the Snows was a largely Roman cult, but during the Counter-Reformation it spread across the Catholic world.

Our Lady of the Snows was much celebrated by lacemakers.  Some Bruges lacemakers said a daily prayer to her to keep their lace snow-white, as money would be deducted from their earnings if their lace was tarnished.[1]  (Historically lacemakers had several ways of making their lace as white as snow; some, such as the use of white lead, were incredibly damaging to their health.)  Lacemakers in the same city carried a gift of lace to the statue of Our Lady of the Snows in Bruges cathedral on her feast day.[2]  Brussels lacemakers had done the same until her chapel was pulled down during the French occupation of the city.[3]  However, we only know of two places where she was the patron of lacemakers: Almagro in central Spain – to which we hope to return – and Turnhout on the Belgian border with the Netherlands, which is our focus today.

The model lace school in the Klinkstraat, Turnhout, founded in 1910. Old Postcard.

Unlike other Flemish centres, the lace industry in Turnhout seems to have thrived into the first decades of the twentieth century.  According to the American visitor Charlotte Kellogg, half the female population of the city were involved in the trade, including 1,800 girls and young women enrolled in the numerous lace schools.[4]  The largest of these were the religious institutions run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the model school established in 1910 by Father Berraly, but there were also many smaller, private institutions with 30 to 50 lace apprentices.  Turnhout lacemakers graduated from the supposedly easier ‘Engelsche grond’ (point de Paris) to ‘halve slag’ (point de Lille) to the extremely fine and very expensive ‘Ijsgrond’ (point de Malines).  Perhaps it was this specialism in difficult laces that kept the handmade lace business buoyant in the region.  A Dutch socialist newspaper in 1910 complained that the women workers earned only 9-10 francs a week for 70-80 hours work, but compared with salaries in other centres in the west of Belgium this was comparatively high.[5]  The trainees in the lace schools earned much less, of course.  None the less, lacemakers in Turnhout had a strong sense of their own skill and worth, which found expression in their songs and in their patronal feastday celebrations.[6]

A lace school working in the open air. Turnhout postcard

As we’ve seen in previous posts about Saint Gregory’s in Geraardsbergen and Klein-Sacramentsdag in Ypres, the feastday celebrations were led by the lace schools rather than lacemakers more generally – indeed in Turnhout the day was named ‘domineeren’, that is the teachers’ holiday (akin to ‘dominie’ in Scots).  On the morning of the Saturday nearest to 5 August, the lace apprentices, in costumes covered with ribbons and paper streamers, formed rows behind a ceremonial arch likewise decorated with paper flowers and coloured, blown eggshells, from which was suspended a life-size effigy of a lacemaker at her pillow.  Each school, led by its mistress, then marched through the city, ‘singing, skipping, laughing and chattering’ as they went according to one witness, towards one of the numerous chapels and wayside shrines nearby.  The most popular was the chapel of Our Lady of the Snows (Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Sneeuw) in Oosthoven.

The chapel of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ter Sneeuw in Oosthoven, near Turnhout

Here is one of the songs the lacemakers sang on their way:

Den dag is nu al aangekomen,
Den dag van O.L.V. Ter Sneeuw,
Hoe zullen wij dezen dag nu vieren,
Den dag dat wij nu feest genieten.
The day has now arrived,
The day of Our Lady of the Snows,
How shall we celebrate this day,
This day on which we enjoy a party.
Refrein: Het is maar voor de jonge jeugd,
De feest die wij nu vieren,
Dan roepen wij met een blij gemoed,
Dan gaan wij naar den doolhof toe.
Chorus: It’s only for the young,
The feast that we’re now celebrating,
Then we’ll shout with an eager heart,
Then we’ll go to ‘the Maze’ (a wilderness area near Oosthoven)
Als wij in den doolhof zijn gekomen,
Wat zullen wij dan eens gaan doen,
Wij zullen ons eigen goed gedragen,
En ons Meesteressen geerne zien.
As we come to the Maze,
What shall we do there,
We shall do ourselves some good,
And our mistresses see with pleasure.

Some schools visited the chapel of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Troost in Lokeren instead

After a brief ceremony at the chapel, where the lacemakers prayed to Our Lady of the Snows that their lace should always remain white, the group travelled on to one of the nearby country inns, such as ‘De Vrat’ which features in one song.  Here the mistress stood the workers a drink – beer for the older girls, sage milk for the younger – and many ‘mastellen’, a local type of cinnamon bun (which also is named in a song).

Mastellen in the oven. Eaten ‘without number’ by lacemakers on the feastday of Our Lady of the Snows

In return the lacemakers toasted their mistresses:

Vivat onze Meesteressen,
Zij hebben voor ons zooveel gedaan,
Zij hebben ons slagjes leeren maken,
En onze handjes laten gaan.
Long live our mistresses,
They have done so much for us,
They have taught us how to make stitches,
And let loose our hands.
Refrein: En zullen wij dan eens schoon palleeren,
En onze geldekens daaraan geven,
Als wij den druk der scholen zien,
Hoe wij de feest van de werksters zien.
Chorus: And then we shall doll ourselves up,
And spend our money,
As we see the schools busy,
That’s how we see the workers’ feastday.
Engelsche grond willen wij niet werken,
Dat is voor ons veel te gemijn,
Dat is maar voor de kleine kinderen,
Die eerst op ‘t werken gekomen zijn.
We don’t want to make ‘Point de Paris’,
That’s too base for us,
That’s more for the small children,
That’s the first work they do.
Wij kunnen allerhande kanten werken,
Zoowel ijsgrond als halve slag,
En daar een bloemeke in zetten,
Zoowel een rooske als eenen tak.
We can make all kinds of lace,
‘Point de Malines’ as much as ‘Point de Lille’
And set a flower in it,
A rose as easily as a sprig.
Wij hebben den naaam dat wij zijn lui werksters,
Wel lieve vrienden het is niet waar,
En komt dan Zaterdag’s eens kijken,
Of dat er een zonder cent zal gaan.
People say we’re lazy workers,
But friends that’s just not true,
Just come and have a look on Saturday,
Whether any of us is penniless.

But while the lacemakers celebrated their skill, as we have seen on other Flemish holidays they could also express frustrations with the demands the work placed upon them:

Een en dertig, twee en dertig,
drij, vier, vijf, zes, zeven en dertig!
Toujours,toujours
En mijnen boutenbak, mijnen boutenbak!
Toujours, toujours,
En mijnen boutenbak viel op den vloer!
One and thirty, two and thirty,
Three, four, five, six, seven and thirty!
Still, still
And my bobbin-case, my bobbin-case!
Still, still,
My bobbin-case lies on the floor!
Ongeneerd zoo zullen wij wezen,
ongeneerd zoo zullen wij zijn!
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen, vreugde rapen;
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen al onder ons!
Unabashed we shall become,
Unabashed we shall be,
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure, gather pleasure:
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure among us!

On the journey back to the city, the various schools taunted each other:

Al de scholen gaan te niet,
uitgenomen, uitgenomen,
al de scholen gaan te niet,
uitgenomen Lis Verwilt’es niet!
All the schools are rubbish,
Except, except,
All the schools are rubbish,
Except Lis Verwilt’s, that’s not!

But before they went home, there was one last symbolic act: the lacemakers’ burnt their festive arch and their lacemaker guy – a reprensentation of their teacher? – in a field, while singing:

En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!
En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!

Most of these songs were first collected by Canon Jozef Jansen, a priest and also later Turnhout’s archivist.  He noted that the custom was already moribund in 1910.  However, when another priest-cum-local historian Jozef Nuyts wrote an account of the feastday in 1939, he could still find living witnesses to tell him about it, while the radio producer Pol Heyns was able to record schoolchilden in Turnhout singing several of the songs.  Links to these recordings are provided here:

Een-en-dertig, twee-en-dertig

Al de scholen gaan teniet

En we hebben een boog besteld

Pol Heyns (top right) on his radio car, from which he recorded songs all over Flanders. From the website https://schrijversgewijs.be/schrijvers/heyns-pol/

[1] M[agda] C[afmeyer], ‘Leerschool en spellewerkschool te St.-Kruis’, ‘t Beertje (1969): 20-48, 34.

[2] Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.  This cult is mentioned in Guido Gezelle’s poem ‘Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne’, to which we dedicated a previous post.

[3] Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.

[4] Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium (New York, 1920), chap. 1.

[5] ‘Iets over huisarbeid’, De Proletarische Vrouw, 1 October 1910, p. 2.

[6] Most of the information in this post comes from two articles in the local historical journal: Jozef Jansen, ‘De kantvervaardiging in Turnhout: Haar geschiedenis en bewerking’, Taxandria 8 (1911), p. 117- 82; Jozef Nuyts, ‘Het Domineeren der Turnhoutsche Kantwerksters’, Annuaire de la Commission de la vieille chanson populaire (1939): 119-33.  A special issue of the journal Taxandria was dedicated to the Turnhout lace industry in 2003.

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.

 

 

 

On the ‘Street of Lacemakers’, Fontenay-le-Marmion, 1876

Lacemakers working on the street in Fontenay-le-Marmion, from a postcard c. 1900

After Argentan we stay in Normandy but move north to the ‘plaine de Caen’, and specifically the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion, a few miles from the city.  In the nineteenth century bobbin lace was the most significant industry in this region.  At its height it employed something in the region of 45,000 women, concentrated in the arrondissements of Caen and Bayeux.  ‘In the villages, in the towns, nay, even in the cities, you every day see people sitting before their doors working, especially the lace-makers… so inveterate their passion for shewing themselves’ wrote a British visitor in 1831.[1]  Fontenay too could boast its ‘rue des dentellières’, where lacemakers would gather to work together in the sun (in the case of the Fontenay it was officially the ‘rue d’Eglise’, now renamed ‘rue de la République’).[2]  The most famous product of lacemakers from this region of Normandy was ‘blonde de Caen’, a lace similar to Chantilly made from silk and usually destined for export to Spain or Latin America.[3]  For a variety of reasons the trade went into rapid decline from the 1870s onwards, and by the early twentieth century, despite some public investment in training, there were no more than two thousand lacemakers left.[4]  One of the few villages to escape this collapse was Fontenay, as will be explained below.

A ‘Blonde de Caen’. ‘Blondes’ could be made of white, black or natural silk.

 

Fontenay-le-Marmion was also the birthplace of Emile Legrand (1841-1903), probably the most important French scholar of Romeic – the language of post-classical Greece.  Son of a village joiner, Legrand’s path to the professorship of Modern Greek at the Paris School of Oriental Languages was long and tortuous.  His parents had originally destined him for the priesthood, and he attended the seminaries of Bayeux and Lisieux.  However, while studying at the Lycée de Caen he became obsessed with the modern Greek language, and in 1867 moved to Paris to pursue his studies.  The long Greek campaign for independence from Ottoman rule continued to fire the French cultural imagination in this period; Claude Fauriel’s Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne (1824) had done much not only to generate sympathy for the Greek rebels’ cause but to stimulate the collection of folk song within France.  The Cretan Revolt of 1866 may have made a similar impression on Legrand.  Yet as a scholar he seems to have been remarkably retiring; according to his pupil, Hubert Pernot, Legrand only visited the theatre once during the more than thirty-five years he lived in Paris.  Instead, he dedicated his time to editing volume after volume — nearly a hundred of them — of medieval, early modern and folkloric Greek texts.[5]  It was Legrand who, together with Constantin Sathas (1842-1914), published a rediscovered manuscript of the early medieval epic of Digenes Akritas, a sort of Byzantine El Cid, and demonstrated its relationship to much later ballads set on the frontier between the Greeks and their Muslim neighbours.  This was to prove one of the most important developments in post-classical Greek letters.[6]

The tomb of Emile Legrand, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Legrand returned every summer to his family home in Fontenay, where he continued to work on his transcriptions.  In the early 1870s, his focus was on folksong.  In 1874 he edited a Recueil de chansons populaires grecques, followed in 1875 by his edition of the Akritas manuscript, and then a further collection of Chansons populaires grecques in 1876, which drew on the recordings he had made during a five-month long journey through Greek-speaking Italy and then Greece itself — his first, and perhaps only visit to the source of his fascination.  Exotic though this material was, the experience of recording singers viva voce led him to think about songs closer to home — those sung by his mother and her neighbours.  In October 1876 he noted down 49 song texts, without music, which he later sent to the philologist Gaston Paris (1839-1903), who would publish them in the journal Romania in 1881.[7]

Legrand’s mother Célina (born in Fontenay in 1818) was the most important source for these songs, providing more than half of them.  The other singers were Adelaïde Le Paulmier (born in Fontenay in 1807) with nine songs, Delphine Lacroix with five (probably born in Fontenay in 1834), and then Clélie Péronne (born in Fontenay in 1838), Marie Roger, Blanche Lecarpentier and Marie Dausmesnil each with one, as well as a solitary male informant, Pierre Guillot.  Marie Dausmesnil was the village baker’s teenage daughter but all the other women, where they can be identified with certainty, were lacemakers, as was practically the entire female population of the village.  Neither Legrand nor Paris provide any information about the circumstances in which these songs were performed and transmitted, but it seems likely that we are, through Legrand, eavesdropping on the kinds of songs lacemakers sang while working together in groups, perhaps on the ‘rue des dentellières’ in the summer, or in the barns where they gathered to work on winter nights to benefit from the heat generated by the cattle.[8]

Lacemakers on the streets of a village in the vicinity of Caen. Detail from postcard c. 1900

As we’ve seen in previous posts, singing was an element in the work culture of lacemakers in various regions.  A handful of nineteenth-century writers about Normandy mention the practice, as do some Norman lacemakers themselves in their letters.[9]  However, whereas in the Velay and in Flanders folksong enthusiasts were making recordings of lacemakers’ songs, there was no significant attempt to do the same in Normandy.  Legrand’s is almost the only such collection.  Its contents differ markedly from the repertoire recorded later and in other parts of Normandy, with a substantial showing of the prized ‘great ballads’; so surprising is the presence of these songs in nineteenth-century Normandy that some scholars have doubted the authenticity of Legrand’s texts.  In 1920 Joseph Lechevrel sought out one of the singers named by Legrand (unfortunately he does not say which one), to see if he could obtain any more songs from her, but her only answer to his questions was ‘I don’t remember any more’.[10]  However, this answer was not quite the final word as we will see; the collective training and working practices of lacemakers goes a long way to explain the durability of a particular repertoire.

A couple of these song texts are unknown from any other source, and a couple of others are very rare, but the bulk of Legrand’s collection was made up of songs that could have been heard in other parts of France, indeed in some cases far beyond, because versions of the same songs circulated in Catalonia, northern Italy and francophone Canada.  This was not a repertoire restricted to lacemakers: none of the songs make direct mention of the trade.  Nor is there any evidence that Normandy lacemakers used ‘tells’ to count pins as did their counterparts in Flanders and the English Midlands.  In some ways these texts are at odds with what we know of lacemakers’ musical tastes, whether in Normandy or in other regions.  In 1839 the journalist Emile Souvestre described the lacemakers of nearby Aunay as singing ‘cantiques’, that is hymns, on their doorsteps, but there is not a single religious song among those recorded by Legrand.[11]  Conversely there were several in which ecclesiastics engage in sexual shenanigans – these were mostly sung by Legrand’s mother, who also voiced a forthright rejection of the convent in favour of the boy she loved.  ‘To love is not a crime,/ God does not forbid it’ she claimed in another song, and while it would be a mistake to assert that a singer’s words represent their own views, Célina certainly had a pronounced taste for such playful and slightly bawdy material.

Nonetheless, there are some similarities to the kind of songs we know lacemakers sang in other regions.  The most striking group of songs are those performed by Adelaïde Le Paulmier, Legrand’s oldest informant.  By the 1870s she was a widow living with two of her sisters, all lacemakers.  Her fancy was for long ballads, some full of the ‘lurid, gruesome, clammy or grizzly terrors’ that Thomas Wright observed was the preferred singing matter of Buckinghamshire lacemakers.  Such songs feel old, even if evidence for medieval origins is often quite tenuous.  In the ballad of ‘Jean Renaud’ (Coirault 5311), the eponymous huntsman is given a mortal bite by a wolf; news of his death and burial are kept from his wife in childbirth, but when she finally learns his fate she joins him in his grave.  In ‘Marianson’ (Coirault 9904), a ballad of thirty verses, the eponymous heroine is tricked into lending three gold rings that her husband Renaud (the generic name for male protagonists in French narrative songs) had gifted her when he went to the wars, which are then counterfeited.  On his return the unnamed villain shows the counterfeit rings to the knight to prove his claim that Marianson has been unfaithful and that the boy she has just borne is not his.  Without more ado Renaud takes the baby and dashes its brains out on the cobbles; he then ties Marianson to his horse’s tale and drags her from Paris to Saint-Denis, a distance of six miles, and between them ‘there wasn’t a hedge or bush that was not marked by the blood of Marianson’.  Her mother runs after, begging Renaud to return her daughter’s bloody body.  On her deathbed Marianson produces the real three rings, and thus proves her fidelity.  Renaud, overcome with remorse, burns his own face off, and both die within two hours of each other.

Popular woodcut image by the firm of Pellerin of Epinal, c. 1830, of the song of ‘Adelaide and Ferdinand’. The story is essentially the same as that of the ballad ‘Marianson’.  From the collection of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille.

An even more horrifying song concerns Marguerite who lives with her mother at the ‘castle of martyrs’.  By night Marguerite is a woman, but by day she is a white hind hunted through the forests by her own brother Julien and his men; no explanation is proffered for this metamorphosis.  She is finally caught, killed and served as the evening meal: Julien asks where is his sister, and she replies ‘Sit down, gentlemen, I was the first at the table;/ My head is on the serving dish and my organs are cooking,/ and my poor entrails are being torn to pieces by your great dogs.’

Scene from the story of Nastagio degli Onesti (Boccaccio), by Sandro Botticelli, 1483. Now in the Prado, Madrid

Célina Legrand knew and sung some similar ballads, but her preferred material was lighter: dance songs, songs of love – particularly illicit love – pastorals in which girls sometimes trick the boys and the boys sometimes trick the girls.  Her songs overflow with flowers and fruits to be planted, gathered or plucked.  Some are so pared down that their meaning is unclear; others combine lines from a number of different songs which disorientates the reader.  Such confusion is often assumed to be the result of faulty memory: the singer – entirely reliant on oral transmission – makes mistakes, skips lines and becomes lost in her own narrative.  All of which is possible, but Gerald Porter, in his study of English lacemakers’ tells, suggests another possibility.  Lacemakers’ songs are condensed and elliptical because they were performed so often by many members of the same group. ‘At each performance, the sung part stands metonymically for the whole’, the listeners able to fill in the gaps because they too were participants in this communal work culture.  For outsiders the songs were meaningless but that was part of the point: comprehension was restricted to insiders, the group of women who shared their working lives on the ‘street of lacemakers’.[12]

Singing was a way of passing the time, of enjoying oneself with one’s friends and neighbours, and finding pleasure in a repetitive task.  In their songs lacemakers travelled to Paris and Nantes, to England and Spain, visited palaces, encountered princes and magicians.  Given that several of their narratives turned on the suffering of women one couldn’t call these songs ‘escapist’, but they introduced fantasy and drama into their toilsome lives.  Yet while the settings may have been exotic, the issues addressed in these songs were not.  A king banishes his daughter’s suitor, another king marries his daughter against her will, a Duke departs for war leaving a pregnant, unmarried princess to face the consequences…; strip away the titles and these would be familiar situations in any nineteenth-century village.  In almost every song some domestic conflict is evoked that pitted daughters against fathers – and occasionally mothers – or wife against husband.  Lovers are sought, jilted and retrieved.  Many songs turn on the vulnerability of working women, for example as shepherdesses alone in the fields or market-women trying to make a sale: they are the prey of men, particularly men of superior rank.  Sometimes they find a ruse or clever words through which to escape the threat, sometimes not.  One could hardly describe these texts as a manual for inter-personal relationships, but they did allow singers and their audiences, to think through some of the difficulties that faced people like them – those who because of their sex or their social position were relatively powerless.  In their imagination they could consider the consequences of their choices.

Unlike other villages in the region where lacemaking had more-or-less died out by the turn of the century, one could still find groups of lacemakers gathered on the streets of Fontenay even after the Second World War.  At some point, and no one seems to know exactly when, they had developed a specialism: lace made from human hair which was used as the basis for wigs worn in Paris theatres.  There were two local producers employing twenty or so women in the 1950s.[13]  The survival of this domestic craft industry — and the work culture that surrounded it — enabled Marthe Moricet, curator of the Museum of Normandy, to collect songs in the 1950s that Legrand had noted eighty years before.[14]  Contrary to Lechevrel’s impression in 1920, the tradition had not been forgotten.  This is an intriguing example of the resilience of a work culture, even when there was no formal institution to uphold it.

 

 

[1] J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 11.

[2] http://www.plainedevie.fr/spip.php?article34

[3] Claudette Bouvot and Michel Bouvot, Dentelles normandes: La Blonde de Caen (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2012).

[4] For the history of lacemaking in Calvados see: Georges Noé, L’industrie de la dentelle à la main dans le Calvados (Caen, 1910); Gabriel Désert, Une Société rurale au XIXe siècle: Les paysans du Calvados, 1815-1895 3 vols (Lille, 1975).

[5] Almost all the biographical information about Legrand comes from a sketch provided by Hubert Pernot in the introduction to Emile Legrand, Bibliographie hellénique ou description raisonnée des ouvrages publiés par des Grecs aux XV et XVIe siècles, vol. 4 (Paris, 1906).

[6] Roderick Beaton, R. and David Ricks, Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry (Brookfield, 1993).

[7] Emile Legrand, ‘Chansons populaires recueillies en octobre 1876 à Fontenay-le-Marmion, arrondissement de Caen (Calvados)’, Romania 10 (1881): 365-396.  A handful of texts collected by Legrand from his mother appeared in other dialect journals, for instance in Revue des patois 1 (1887): 120-125.

[8] J. Augustus St John, Journal of a Residence in Normandy (Edinburgh, 1831), p. 24.

[9] Mireille Bossis (ed.), Ursin et Ernestine.  Amours paysannes en Normandie (1863-1866) (Condé-sur-Noireau, 2006), p. 103.  Ernestine Lebatard was a lacemaker from Plumetot, north of Caen; her letters were written to her fiancé Ursin Thomas, then performing his military service.

[10] Joseph Lechevrel, ‘Le Folklore normand’, Bulletin de la société des Antiquaires de Normandie 36 (1924/1925) : 359-382.

[11] Emil Souvestre, ‘Pierre Rivière’, Le Journaliste 1 (1839) : p. 173.

[12] Gerald Porter, ‘“Work the Old Lady Out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers’, Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3 (1994): 35-55; Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter, Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic (Oxford, 2003), pp. 63-74.

[13] André Garnier, ‘Dans un village du Calvados, à Fontenay-le-Marmion, vingt paysannes tissent les perruques de la Comédie Française’, Paris-Normandie, 6 March 1953

[14] Michel Boüard, ‘Marthe Moricet’ (obituary), Annales de Normandie 10 (1960): 86-87.  Moricet died before she was able to publish any of these songs, and to date we have not been able to track down her archives.

SPECIAL ISSUE: Missing Persons and Hidden Heritages in European Lace Making

Image result for textile cloth and culture 2020

The first issue in 2020 of the journal TEXTILE. CLOTH & CULTURE is a special issue dedicated to ‘Missing Persons and Hidden Heritages in European Lace Making’.  We’ve put a list of contents below:

  • ‘Introduction: Missing Persons and Hidden Heritages in European Lace Making’ by Julie Botticello and Tom Fisher.
  • ‘Principles and Pilfering: Nottingham Lace Design Pedagogy’ by Rebecca Coles, Amanda Briggs-Goode and Gail Baxter.
  • Unravelling the Battle of Britain Lace Panel‘ by Carol Quarini.
  • ‘Hidden Hands and Missing Persons’ by Gail Baxter.
  • Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry‘ by David Hopkin. (Anyone who’d like a pdf copy of this can contact David at david.hopkin@hertford.ox.ac.uk )
  • Women and Children in the Machine-Made Lace Industry in Britain and France (1810–60)‘ by Fabrice Bensimon.
  • ‘Reflections on Bummock: The Lace Archive Symposium’ by Katherine Townsend.

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.

Lacemakers in the Poetry of the First World War

‘Remember Belgium’. American poster from 1918, by Ellsworth Young.

As we are not far off the final centenary commemorations of the war on the Western Front (1914-1918), it might be worth highlighting the place of lacemakers in the poetry of the First World War.  Why do lacemakers appear there alongside mud and shrapnel and barbed-wire?  Because lace was already associated with Belgium – even serving as a metonym for the country on postcards – and Belgium’s sufferings at the hands of the occupying German army were a key theme in Allied propaganda, particularly during the first year of the war.  It is important to state that these sufferings, and these atrocities, were real;[1] however, the way they were presented for propaganda purposes meant that the lacemaker occupied a particular place in the wartime imaginary.  The invasion of a neutral country was repeatedly described as ‘the rape of Belgium’, and the event was visualized as the assault of defenceless women by German soldiery.[2]  Lacemakers were usually pictured as either young apprentices or older women, and therefore seen as particularly vulnerable; they were associated with nuns, convents and beguinages – places of peace despoiled by the invaders; and the delicacy of their creative work made an arresting contrast with the destructive jackboot.

Louis Raemaekers, ‘Seduction’, 1916. Raemaekers was a Dutch illustrator whose anti-German cartoons were widely distributed in the first years of the First World War.

Alongside the violence perpetrated on civilians, propagandists also emphasized the destruction of cultural treasures, such as the deliberate burning of the library of Louvain University.  As lace was one of Belgian’s principal cultural exports, the fate of the product and its producers under occupation was a live issue throughout the war.  In November 1914 the wife of the American ambassador, Mrs Brand Whitlock, helped set up the ‘Brussels Lace Committee’, through which supplies and orders from American women philanthropists were channelled to Belgian lacemakers, starved of work and  resources.[3]

Much of this propaganda was aimed at the United States, and it seems to have had an effect, to judge by the two poems below, both written in 1915-16 by North American poets.  Neither, as far as I am aware, had any direct experience of the conflict; they were not writing from the trenches.  However, both were well-travelled and may have known the Belgian cities they evoke from first-hand experience (although I have not been able to document this).

Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was a Canadian academic and occasional travel writer who had visited Europe before the war.  His poetry is moderately well-known in Canada.  ‘The Lace-Maker of Bruges’ appeared in his collection In a Belgian Garden in 1917.  (It may well have appeared before in a magazine, but if so I have not traced it.)  It was reprinted in his more overtly modernist collection Acanthus and Wild Grape in 1920, when the date August 1915 was added.  Presumably the anniversary of the invasion prompted the poem: Bruges had been occupied since October 1914 so the tread of trampling German feet was no new event in August 1915.  Although Bruges largely escaped physical destruction, it became a German military (in fact naval) base and was subjected to the barrage of measures that made civilian life increasingly miserable in occupied Belgium.[4]  Call’s poem invokes pre-war literary theme of Bruges as an ancient and decayed city — Bruges-la-Morte as it was titled by the francophone Flemish writer Georges Rodenbach — a place where sunbeams go to die.[5]  Everything here is dim, grey, silent, peaceful; even the lacemaker’s hands are idle – an odd image in poetry, where the rapidity of lacemakers’ fingers usually invoke awe.  Or at least it was peaceful until the irruption of German noise and violence.  This lacemaker appears old, and as we have already seen in our post on Guido Gezelle, it seems difficult for writers to imagine Bruges lacemakers at any other age.  This is how they appeared on postcards, and in novels such as Gustaaf Vermeersch’s Klosjes, klosjes (1903).  The connection between lacemakers and religious monuments such as the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Notre-Dame) in Bruges, was, as we have seen in previous posts, well established in visual culture.

Josephus Laurentius Dyckmans (1811-1888) ‘The Old Lacemaker’ (1844).  This is one of the first images we have found in which a lacemaker is portrayed with a view of a church through her window, but it would become a commonplace by the First World War.  Note too the flowers on her windowsill.

 

The Lace-Maker of Bruges
By Frank Oliver Call

Her age-worn hands upon her apron lie
Idle and still. Against the sunset glow
Tall poplars stand, and silent barges go
Along the green canal that wanders by.
A lean, red finger pointing to the sky,
The spire of Notre Dame. Above a row
Of dim, gray arches where the sunbeams die,
The ancient belfry guards the square below

One August eve she stood in that same square
And gazed and listened, proud beneath her tears,
To see her soldier passing down the street.
To-night the beat of drums and trumpets’ blare
With bursts of fiendish music smite her ears,
And mingle with the tread of trampling feet

August, 1915

 

George Tucker Bispham (1881-1948) is less well known as a poet than Call: offspring of a wealthy Philadelphia family, he made only an occasional foray into literature.  After Princeton and a spell at Oxford he took a radical change of direction and set up the White Grass Dude Ranch in Wyoming.  Various of his pre-war poems appeared in journals connected to Princeton.  ‘The Lacemaker of Ypres’ appeared in the American journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1916.  As in Bruges, so in Ypres, lacemaking was the most important source of work for women before the war.  But unlike Bruges, Ypres, though unoccupied, was in the front line, for most of the war.  The remaining civilians were evacuated in May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, incidentally the first battle in which the Canadian Corps played a substantial part.  Thereafter the city was a ruin.  This poem utilizes some of the same tropes as Call’s.  Again the lacemaker appears old (or at least she has known her songs ‘for many a year’), and is placed in visual rapport with a church, here St Martin’s Cathedral.  She lives hard by Ypres’ flower-market, not as famous as that of Brussels, but nonetheless a location that connects the lacemaker to beauty and delicacy (some forms of lacemaking were known in Flanders as ‘bloemenwerk’ [flower work]).  As we know lacemakers were famous for singing while they worked, and Ypres lacemakers in particular had an extensive repertoire of ballads, some of which had been published around 1900.[6]  But lacemaker’s song is choked off in a ‘last scream’ as war eradicates all these feminine attributes of peace and fragility.

Poster for an exhibition of Belgian lace, to raise money for Belgian war orphans, held in Amsterdam in 1917. Note the church towers (drawn from a number of cities) that the lacemaker can see from her window. The flowers still retain their place on the windowsill.

 

Much of Ypres was rebuilt after the war, including the main market square and St Martin’s cathedral.  But despite the attempts of American and Belgian patrons, its lace industry could not be revived.

The Lacemaker of Ypres
By George Tucker Bispham

“Most of the houses in the Grande Place are in ruins.  The town is uninhabited.  Only the dead are left.  But the enemy keeps on bombarding – apparently to pass the time.”

She passed the hours
In a friendly solitude;
Heard the voices, wrangling shrewd,
In the market-place of flowers;
Clatter of cart-wheel; sounds that drifted—
From her open window, saw uplifted
Her cathedral towers.

While passed the hours
Her thoughts would find some little song,
Loved for many a year and long
In the market-place of flowers;
When days of summer drifted, drifted—
And in the peaceful sky were lifted
Ypres’ cathedral towers.

To pass the hours,
Since her last scream was choked in dust,
Shot and shrapnel spend their lust
In the market-place of flowers;
Smoke is drifted, drifted, drifted—
Lonely in the sky are lifted
Christ’s cathedral towers.

 

[1] John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

[2] Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War’, American Historical Review 102:3 (1997): 714-747.

[3]  The work of the committee is discussed by Charlotte Kellogg in Bobbins of Belgium: A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co, 1920).

[4] Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War (Veurne: Hannibal, 2014).

[5] Donald Flanell-Friedman, ‘A Medieval City as Underworld: George Rodenbach’s Bruges-La-Morte’, Romance Notes 31:2 (1990): 99-104.

[6] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek: Teksten en Melodieën 2 vols (Ghent: J. Vuylsteke, 1900).

A lacemaker’s home in Milton Keynes. The reminiscences of Dame Joan Evans

‘the civilisation of an age may be recorded in the history of trivial things’

The lace case in the court of the Pitt Rivers Mueum

 

The lace pillow on display in the court of the Pitt Rivers Museum was donated by Dame Joan Evans (1893-1977).  The provenance is not certain, beyond the fact it came from Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.  Evans had strong connections to this village, as it still was before 1967, and in particular the lacemaking Hancock family.

Portrait of Dame Joan Evans, painted by Peter Greenham for St Hugh’s College, Oxford. See ArtUK.

Joan Evans was an expert on medieval decorative arts, especially jewellery.  She became the first woman President of the Society of Antiquaries in 1959.  She was the only daughter of the third marriage (to Maria Lathbury) of the archaeologist and antiquary John Evans (1823-1908), and was thus the half-sister to Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and excavator of the Minoan palace of Knossos (deeply loyal to both, she would write their biographies).  She grew up in the house attached to her father’s paper mill, Nash Mills near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.  As her parents were often travelling in pursuit of their shared archaeological interests, Evans was effectively brought up by her nanny Caroline Hancock (b. 1864), who arrived when she was eleven months old and would stay with her for the next sixty-seven years, until Hancock’s death in 1961.  Evans’ autobiography Prelude and Fugue, started in 1933 but only published in 1964, was dedicated to ‘Nannie’.  (For more on the Evans dynasty of archaeologists see the Ashmolean’s John Evans Centenary Project.)

Caroline Hancock’s mother, also Caroline Hancock (1824-1919 née Major), was a lacemaker.  (For some genealogical information on the Hancock family, see Nick Hubbard’s website, which also reproduces this chapter together with photos of some of the places mentioned.)  Every year from the age of two Evans would spend part of the summer visiting her nanny’s family in Milton Keynes.  The chapter dedicated to these annual holidays is worth reproducing in full, because it is by far the most detailed description we have discovered of the domestic arrangements of a lacemaking household in the English Midlands.  There are a few points we would highlight along the way: the reference to the kitchen spices reminds us of the spiced cakes consumed at Catterns and Tanders: the engraved bobbins gifted by suitors in her early years (if the bobbins donated to Evans to the Pitt Rivers Museum come from this source, then those suitors may have included a ‘Mark’, a ‘Hiram’, a ‘Thomas’ and a ‘David’); the geraniums around the windows are a regular feature in descriptions of lacemakers’ instinctive desire for beauty; the charity offered to beggars is a regular injunction lacemakers’ songs.  Evans’ assertion, after the destruction of the Hancocks’ home by fire, that archaeology requires imaginative reconstruction, is a reference to her half-brother’s controversial rebuilding of the Palace of Knossos.

 

Nash Mills was not my only home, nor my father’s wife the only woman I called Mother. When I was about two it became evident that both Nannie and I would sometimes need a holiday. My mother, however, was not willing to undertake any responsibility for me while Nannie was away; and so it was decided that I should accompany her on a visit to her family at Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Any decision my mother made was apt to become a binding precedent, and for the rest of my childhood the visit of a month or more was repeated at least once a year.

It is long since I went to Milton Keynes, but my memories of that corner of the earth are still vivid. We went by train to Bletchley, and there we were met by Mrs Claridge, the wife of a small farmer in Milton, with a dog-cart and an old horse that stumbled. Being packed in with some difficulty, off we went, through Bletchley and Fenny Stratford; to Simpson, which had its footpaths raised above the roads and protected by white railings because of floods; through the lanes, till we turned into a high road, and went along by Miss Pinfold’s spinneys to the village. It was – and is – a rather featureless but pleasant bit of England. The villages, with unromantic dissyllabic names – Simpson, Broughton, Woughton, Woolston, Willen – seemed each to be just over a mile from the next. Each clustered round a cross-road and an inn; each had its parsonage and church, its two or three farmhouses, its individual life, centring round the annual feast, when servants were hired and the women were paid for their staple industry of lace making.

Nannie had been born at Woolston, but soon afterwards her parents[1] had moved to an old cottage at Milton. It lay at the end of a path at right angles to the road, on the edge of a great pasture called Barn Close. The barn belonged to the cottage, and was called Babylon; the cottage had no name. You went through a neat green gate, past a small triangular box-edged flower-bed, gay with Shakespearean flowers, along a brick path shaded by damson-trees to the door. It sounds, and seems, an appreciable distance; I suppose it may have been twenty feet. The door was always open, unless it were pouring with rain; inside was the kitchen, with a floor of chequered red and blue tiles, that seemed a natural transition from the bricks outside. One of the joys of Milton was that there was no hard-and-fast line between indoors and outdoors. At Nash Mills we were removed by four long flights of stairs from the garden, and by an unbreakable law I could never go out of doors, even in summer, without changing my shoes. At Milton there was no such rule, and in summer the brick path seemed part of the house and the kitchen part of the garden.

Just inside the door was a wooden table, where the food was prepared, that was scrubbed till it seemed made of no known wood. Above it was an old sweet-smelling corner cupboard, where Mother kept her spices. What cottage nowadays would have the spices Mother kept? Mace and cinnamon, cloves and caraway, nutmegs and black peppers, in a japanned box with radiating compartments; tins of ginger and mustard, dried herbs like fennel and lime (but mint, thyme, and marjoram were used fresh from the garden); sweet and bitter almonds in their skins, tins of currants, sticky blue paper packets of raisins, and vanilla pods in a long glass tube, which were simmered in the custard, dried and used again and again. On the top shelf was the sugar, in tall loaves wrapped in grey paper, that had to be cut with tong-like scissors and broken into lumps with a pestle in the mortar when it was wanted for use. Mother told me once that when she first married sugar cost a shilling a pound, and she had to use honey for sweetening.

Beneath the spice-cupboard was always kept a pail of cool spring water drawn from the well in the garden. Along the other wall stood a noble seventeenth-century chest of carved oak, where linen was stored; and opposite was the open hearth where the cooking was done. Alongside it was the bread oven, in my day only rarely used. It had its own ritual. First you took a faggot of small twigs and burned it in the oven; then you raked out the ashes and cleaned the oven with a wet mop; and then you put the loaves in on a peel, and the cakes in their round tins and the biscuits and ‘little men’ on a tin plate and then the door firmly shut. The ‘little men’ were made from the oddments of pastry. With arms and legs and currant eyes (and, if they were big enough, coat-buttons); they were for the delight of children. All the work involved in shaping them and sticking them with currants makes me realize how rich Mother contrived to be in the most precious commodity of all: time to spend on those she loved.

On the other side of the hearth a passage as long as the chimney was deep led into the living-room. The old windows had been replaced by larger modern ones, and though geraniums (the old-fashioned kind with purply-black spots on the leaves) and calceolarias blossomed on the sill, the room was full of light.

Somehow I was never bored at Milton, though in truth there was not very much to do. Books were few and for the most part pious; fiction was represented by The Story of the Robins, Christy’s Old Organ, Jessica’s First Prayer, and the first two volumes of an old three-volume edition of Richardson’s Pamela. But the garden was solitary enough and wild enough for there to be always something to discover in it: the bloom on a growing apple, that is like powder over the delicate pores of the skin; the early dewberries that grew in one part of the hedge, and the nightshade that climbed over another; the strange ancient smell of hot box; and the fuchsia buds that one could pop with one’s fingers. Musk in those days still smelt sweet, and columbines (which we called straw bonnets) still grew strong and stocky. One may learn to observe as well in lazy hours alone in a garden as among the apparatus of a scientific laboratory.

The end of the garden was called Calais, presumably because it was at the farther side of a wide path. In my day it was derelict; but Mother told me that until lately it had been under corn, and that the grain from it, ground at the mill at Woolston, had provided the flour for her bread.

Nannie’s father had been a carpenter and builder. Years before, when she was a baby, he had fallen from a scaffold and as a consequence of his injuries he had lost his sight. When I knew him as an old man, he sat much in a great chair of his own making by the fire in the living-room; a heavy, massive man, a little slow but very kind. He and I used to go for solemn walks together up and down the bricks, or sometimes he would let me lead him a little farther afield. His eldest daughter, Amy, was blind too, also as the result of an accident; when she was five she had fallen from a swing on to a stone floor, and the optic nerve had gradually perished as a result of the blow. But in her case blindness seemed hardly a disability; she was up and down the house, cooking, cleaning, washing; in and about the garden, digging and picking fruit; in the henhouse, feeding the hens and collecting the eggs; in the barn, to find a tool or whatnot; at the well, to draw water. When she sat down she was just as busy, knitting, crocheting, sewing, making rugs of rag. She had a vigorous character, and might have been a dominating woman but for the love she bore her mother, and her immense generosity of heart to all the world.

Mother was small and neat and nimble. She came of rather better family than her husband; the Majors had been farmers on their own land, and her mother had lived in a house with a French window opening on to the lawn. But the agricultural depression of the forties had hit the Northamptonshire farmers hard, and nothing of this prosperity remained but Mother’s tradition of gentility. She always wore a black lace cap with heavy side-pieces and a kind of crest in front; since her day I have only seen it in the Velay. Over it, if she were working in the garden, she would put on a heavily corded sun-bonnet of lilac print. She wore plain bodices, with a little frill of lace of her own making at the neck, and long full skirts; a print apron in the mornings, and a black silk one and a little three-cornered shawl in the afternoon. She smelt of lavender and fresh air. Her hands were the fine hands of a lace maker; it seemed as if it were by magic that she wove the delicate patterns on the lace pillow, appearing hardly to look at its crabbed pricked parchment pattern and its forest of fine pins. Her bobbins dated from her girlhood; their bone flanks were adorned with the names of the admirers who had given them to her, and some had love-mottoes. Their shanks were wound with bright brass wire in patterns, and the heavier ones for the gimp were dyed red and green. From each bobbin hung a circle of wire weighted with curious red and white glass beads, pressed into half-angular shapes. She excelled in making the fine net ground that had characterized Buckinghamshire lace in the eighteenth century. She had a tolerant contempt for the later Maltese patterns, though she admitted that they gave a better living to the lace maker; yet even so the profit was small, and the cost of the fine linen thread heavy.

Mother was a woman of tremendous courage. When her husband was blinded she had had to support the family, to dig and delve and cut wood and do the work of the husbandman as well as the housewife. She had even taken to butchering in a small way to make a little money. With her own fine hands she would kill a pig and cut it up, sell some, home-cure the hams, and make pork-pies and brawn and faggots and black puddings with the rest. When I knew her the family were in rather smoother waters, but the old habits of thrift still held. It was an exquisite thrift, with nothing sordid about it: based on the old feeling that the work of a woman’s hands in her own home had no value but the negative one of saving money. So every dress was turned and darned, and every scrap of stuff kept for patchwork or rag-rugs; and in cookery every morsel was made the most of. Our chief meal was naturally our midday dinner: a batter pudding baked or boiled, with gravy, and then the morsel of meat that had been stewed for the gravy and some vegetables from the garden. Mother was a great hand at making wines – cowslip, ginger, elderberry, damson, and the like – and I as the visitor would drink some out of a fine cut wine-glass, while the rest drank water. For tea, when I was there, there was often a cake; and for supper, bread and cheese or for a treat a pork-pie. English regional cooking is quickly being forgotten, and few now eat home-made pork-pies in the midland fashion: a dish that any gourmet could enjoy. I still have the recipe for it that Mother gave to Nannie, ending ‘but I need not tell you how to make short crust’. After supper Nannie and I would go to bed in the little bedroom at the top of the steep stairs, and sleep through the summer night on our vast feather bed till morning would come, and we would hear Mother calling to the chickens and Amy moving below, until she came to wake us with a smiling face and soft kisses to the adventure of another day.

Mother had the anima naturaliter christiana. Poor though she was, any beggar that came to her door was given a glass of water, a slice of bread or cake if she had it, and a penny. Every night we read a chapter of the Bible, verse and verse about, thus going gradually through it from beginning to end, genealogies and all. Every Sunday the whole family would go to church, Mother in her bonnet, holding her prayer-book, a clean handkerchief, and a sprig of southernwood. The worst crime was to be late; the only time we were ever hustled was to be ready before the Church bell changed its note and it was time to start.

Church, in itself, I never found particularly interesting. The church was a good plain fourteenth-century building, at that time defaced by having texts painted on tin scrolls fixed above its arches. The orchestra, that had used to play in Nannie’s father’s time, had given place to a squeaky harmonium and the service was decent and dull. It was the hats of the congregation that afforded my chief amusement. The congregation itself I knew well enough, but in the sunbonnets or plain sailor hats of every day. On Sunday everyone appeared in a home-made confection of the utmost interest. The bonnet, or hat, or ‘shape’, was bought in Newport Pagnell on a market day, and trimmed at home, generally out of an ancestral provision of trimmings. The result might be comic but was never banal: and if one had been in Milton long enough one came to know the pièces de résistance among the trimmings, and to recognize permutations and combinations that might have escaped the notice of a casual visitor. The old ladies ran to violets and jet, the middle-aged to wings and feathers, the younger to artificial flowers of great brilliance and improbability, and the children to garlands of buttercups and daisies and terrific ribbon bows; but an unpredictable element always remained.

Evening Church was a treat, chiefly because it meant sitting up late. The twilight lent charm to the building; the lamps of ruby glass, which I thought very beautiful, were lit, and the congregation, from being a congeries of more or less familiar individuals, passed into more solemn and less personal being. The very psalms were unfamiliar; and the walk home, holding Amy’s hand, delightful. Then came a late supper, of such digestible delicacies as pork-pie and pickled onions: and so sleepily to bed.

Mother’s religion was no matter of formal church-going: it entered into everything she did. I never remember her speaking ill of anyone, or doing an unkindness; yet she was never weak nor sentimental. She even had the courage, as an old woman, to face death; she would expend much exquisite darning on an old sheet and say it would do for her shroud, and never made a plan for more than a few days ahead without qualifying it by an ‘if I live’. From her, as at my father’s knee, I learned the wholesome beauties of common sense. Mother had endless tolerance for true eccentricity arising out of character; but for ill-considered foolishness she had one damning comment: ‘I call that a silly caper’.

With all her piety she was a good talker, full of country lore and old saws, some of which I have since found in Thomas Tusser’s Points of Husbandry [first published in 1557]. She could interpret every sign of weather: the sun ‘drawing water’ — that is, casting long visible beams to the earth — the too-golden sunset and the increased range of hearing that meant rain to come; the hour of the change of the moon: ‘the nearer to midnight, the fouler the weather’, and its aspect in the sky, ‘holding water’ with horns upturned, or ‘well up’ with them pointing earthwards. If the slugs were about, she noticed it and prophesied rain; and when the rain came she would foretell if it would last long or not by the cows in Barn Close; if they went into the shelter of the elm trees it would soon be over, and if they stayed out in the field it would last a long time. Each spring we studied the trees to see whether oak or ash budded first, for:

If oak is out before the ash,
Then you’ll only get a dash;
But if ash is out before the oak,
Then you’ll surely get a soak.

Each summer the crop of apples, plums, and gooseberries was judged with as much connoisseurship as the wine-grower expends upon his vintage.

The window of the living-room looked out upon the path that led over the stile across Barn Close; here Mother would work in the afternoons and see every creature that passed by, and guess what took them there. In those days there was only a tiny shop in the village, and the tradesmen from Fenny Stratford regularly called: not merely baker and butcher and grocer, but draper and haberdasher and tailor too. Each was treated in some sense as a visitor, a little conversation was made, a little news exchanged, a little refreshment perhaps offered; and then a polite farewell, and Mother’s pleasant voice saying, ‘Thank you for calling’. Sometimes a strange drummer would come, and hope by briskness and flattery to make us buy something we did not need; but Mother could make short work of him.

‘The Broad and Narrow Way’, colour lithograph c 1883. Images on this theme circulated widely on the continent.  For the details of the ‘people in bustles and top hats’ see the British Museum website.

Amy and Nannie and I did much together. Amy was clever in letting me share in household tasks and in making me feel that I was really helping her; and when it came to choosing the colour of her cotton and threading her needle when she sewed I really was of use. I loved dusting the ornaments in the living-room: the china spaniels with lustred green spots, the pair of pottery birds’-nests full of eggs, which the green serpent was creeping up to steal; the brass candlesticks and the pink glass vases full of dyed grass. That was the moment for studying the pictures: the framed sampler by Rebecca Jackins, and the wonderful coloured print of The Broad and Narrow Way, with people in bustles and top hats painfully toiling towards salvation or cheerfully descending to a Hell too garish to be grim. On hot summer afternoons, when a blessed torpor descended on the house, Amy used to read the New Testament, tracing the raised capitals of her text with work-worn fingers, and letting the beauty of its language be music to her ear. When it was cooler, she and Nannie and I would sally forth for a walk through the fields. The country was not exciting; it undulated in wide shallow valleys, so that one was hardly conscious of the valley, but only of the elm-crowned ridge beyond that limited the horizon. The fields were large, in those days as much arable as pasture: the land poor, the arable full of weeds that I found more interesting than the corn, and the pasture seeming as rich in thistles as in grass. The trees were nearly all in the hedgerows, and mostly elms, with a few ash and oak. The hedges themselves were the most varied part of the landscape, mostly of hawthorn, but studded and draped with holly and elder, wild rose and bramble, ivy and traveller’s joy. The very economy of the landscape drove one to enjoy its details; I can remember learning there more of trees and plants – ash-keys and crab-apple blossom, the caterpillar-like attachments of ivy and the innumerable varieties of wild-rose and blackberry – than I ever did in less barren country. Amy, who had seen none of these things since she was five, seemed none the less to know them all: whereabouts in the hedge blackberries or crab-apples would be found, where wild violets might be hidden in the ditch beneath: and her quick fingers would tell as we passed through the cornfields whether they were sown with corn, or oats, or true barley, or the kind called ‘Hairy Jack’. She could not see the colour change as the straws dipped before the breeze, but she could enjoy the fairy music of the waving oats and the heavier murmur of the bowing corn. Our walks lay all round Milton, and each had its peculiar enticement: a raised causeway of planks over meadows flooded in the winter, a bridge over a slow stream with banks fragrant with meadowsweet and thyme, spinneys where white violets might be found at Easter, a lane with a wide water-filled ditch, with little bridges over it to the cottage gates, a hill-top with a view over to the pinewoods of Bow Brickhill. There were, too, friends whom we might go to visit: Uncle John, who lived at Woolston, who once gave Nannie a Georgian mahogany work-table that we carried all the way home through the fields and over the stiles; an old lace-making friend of Mother’s at Willen, who gave us flowers; and Mrs Holmes, the kind farmer’s wife, who would take us into her dairy and show me how to skim the cream. Apart from these recognized friends, and a few more who lived nearer at hand – Mrs Oakley at the Swan who had beautiful grey corkscrew curls, and Miss Bayliss, who was very kind to Amy – we did not see much of the rest of the village. Mother was a good neighbour, but fastidious in admitting people to intimacy; and indeed the village, that to Squire or parson might have seemed a homogeneous society, had as complicated a scheme of social gradations and as delicate a sense of social nuances as Victorian Mayfair. The parson was a great gentleman – a Wykeham-Twistleton-Fiennes – above these difficulties in virtue of his birth and his generous Christianity; but even so we had a feeling that he felt more at home with Mother than with some people.

I have failed, I know, to recapture the particular aroma of Milton, though sometimes some chance scent or phrase or sound can still transport me there. I cannot give anyone else knowledge of its peace and charity, its old-fashioned mirth and thrift, its limitations and its great heartedness, for they belong to a past chapter of the life of England, that is nearer to the England of the Canterbury Tales than to the England of today. Nor in Milton now can I find even the outward semblance of what was home. For 1909 was a very hot, dry summer, and one day (when we were not there) a long-smouldering beam in the great old chimney burst into flame and fired the thatch. Mother had broken her thigh, and was helpless and bedridden; Amy did what she could, but it was pitifully little. Mother was safely carried out, and some of the furniture from the kitchen and living-room was rescued; but all else disappeared in smoke and fire. The cottage has never been rebuilt. Years later I revisited it. Mother’s flower garden had been overwhelmed in the ruins; the bricks were overgrown; the garden had become a potato field. Only by digging a little in a rubbish heap did I come on a fragment of the familiar chequer of the kitchen floor. How shall an excavator without other knowledge know the fine character and beauty of a civilization thus discovered? I have lived to find a home and a life I have known in ruins; and by virtue of this experience I have lost my faith in any kind of archaeology that does not attempt imaginative reconstruction.

[For the location of the Hancock cottage see Nick Hubbard’s website.]

 

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‘I love to watch you making lace…’ Guido Gezelle’s ode to a lacemaker

Guido Gezelle (Bruges 1830 – Bruges 1899) was the most important poet of the nineteenth century to use the Flemish language.[1]  He is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins and not just because he too was a Catholic priest.  Both poets took a Franciscan delight in God’s creation; both steeped themselves in the possibilities of language, all but inventing words to help the alliteration flow.  In the case of Gezelle, he really was forging a new language.  French was dominant culturally in the new Belgian state and even poets from Flanders, like Émile Verhaeren, frequently preferred it.  Flemish was in danger of becoming a rural dialect, the kind of thing that the poetry-consuming class only used to speak to their servants.  The cultural activists of the Flemish Movement were determined to rescue the language but, as we’ve seen in some earlier posts on this site, they were too often trapped in a simplistic language suitable for their moralizing precepts.  Gezelle too was a fierce advocate for Flemish, but he was also determined to reshape the language for literary purposes.  Modern Dutch would not do for him because it was the language of Calvinism, so he drew on the West Flemish dialect of his native Bruges.  Yet one cannot label him a dialect poet: he rather used the spoken vernacular to construct a new, and idiosyncratic, poetic language.

Guido Gezelle in Courtrai, 1898.  From the Stichting de Bethune.

One is less likely to encounter human beings in Gezelle’s poetry than animals, flowers, God, or all together in a celebration of the divine manifested in nature.  However, one exception is the lacemaker to whom the poem Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne is addressed.  Below we give the Flemish text and an, admittedly very rough, English translation.  The poem was first published in 1893 in the Bruges review Biekorf which Gezelle had helped to found.  The poem uses some well-known tropes associated with lacemakers, such as the ‘bolglas’, the focusing bottle of pure water which concentrated a light source onto the pillow, which we have already encountered in the poetry of John Askham.  However, he avoided one stereotype, for his lacemaker is not old but clearly a young woman or girl.  So strong has the expectation become that a lacemaker should be old that when Bruges Municipal Library acquired the manuscript poem in 2009 they described it as ‘Gezelle’s masterful description of an old woman lacemaking by the dim light of an oil lamp’!  Given that the poet calls the lacemaker ‘kleene’ (‘little one’) and ‘lieve’ (‘sweetheart’), we suspect that the lacemaker in question was considerably younger than even this example, pictured by the Belgian painter Firmin Baes.

Firmin Baes, ‘The Lacemaker’, 1913.  We found this image on Pinterest and do not know its current location.

Gezelle, an anglophile, wanted to become a missionary to England (he had good connections to the British Catholic community in Bruges, and he was serving as chaplain to the English Convent in the city when he died).  This ambition was quashed, apparently because his prominence on language and social questions had annoyed the ecclesiastical authorities.  In consequence, Gezelle passed his entire life in the lace-making regions of West Flanders – Bruges, Roeselare, and Courtrai.  However, it is not clear how much this poem was based on direct observation.  Gezelle was intimately connected with the movement to preserve and revive Flemish folk culture and was familiar with the growing literature on lacemakers’ traditions and songs whose influence one can observe in this poem.

One source was the collection of songs recorded by Adolphe-Richard Lootens (Bruges 1835- London 1902) from his mother Catherine Beyaert (born 1795), a Bruges lacemaker.  Lootens, who worked as a surveyor before his move to London, was certainly acquainted with Gezelle.  He contributed articles to the antiquarian and pious journal Rond den Heerd that Gezelle co-founded in 1865, and Gezelle reviewed Lootens’ collection of folktales taken down from his mother: Oude Kindervertelsels in den Brugschen Tongval (1868).  Perhaps surprisingly, Gezelle was not very enthusiastic about Lootens’ attempt to represent Bruges dialect.[2]  Published in 1879, Lootens’, or rather his mother’s songs are present in this poem.  Gezelle refers to the lacemakers’ custom of pricking their forehead with each pin before placing it in the pillow, in memory of Christ’s crown of thorns.  This practice was recorded by Lootens as the accompaniment to a particular song sung by Bruges lacemakers at the end of the end of the eighteenth century: it continued for seventy-seven pins, the traditional number of thorns in Christ’s mock crown.[3]

Gezelle likewise invokes the lacemakers’ practice of singing songs, and specifically ‘tellings’ as they count pins, which was described by Lootens.  However, none of the songs referred to are directly taken from Lootens’ collection.  The one telling he names, ‘Een is eene’ – a direct parallel with the English song ‘One is one and all alone’, actually comes from an earlier collection made in and around the town of Bailleul in French Flanders by the judge and antiquarian Edmond de Coussemaker.[4]  Lootens’ mother knew a version of this verse catechism but it did not include this line.[5]  She also knew a ballad about ‘Heer Alewijne’, another song mentioned in Gezelle’s poem; however her version did not end with the knight/prince murdering the king’s daughter (as Gezelle would have it), but rather returning from the Crusades to find his fiancée abused by his mother.  It is his mother he kills, not the bride to be.  As Lootens noted, this song is very different from the standard version of ‘Heer Halewijn’, the text of which could be bought from ballad singers in the marketplaces of Bruges even in the 1870s.  However, although the mysterious knight in that song certainly intends to kill the king’s daughter, in fact it is she, by cunning, who ends up beheading him and returning to her castle in triumph.  (Lootens’ mother sang a version of this in which the anti-hero was named Roland.)[6]

Illustration to the ballad ‘Heer Halewijn’ by Henricus Jansen, 1904. The ballad, though only recorded in modern times, is assumed to have a medieval origin.  Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The last five verses of Gezelle’s poem are in the voice of the young lacemaker, singing a song in praise of the Virgin Mary, protector of lacemakers like her mother Saint Anne (the patron of lacemakers in Bruges), and refers directly to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.  We might suspect that such a doctrinally informed text owes more to the priest than to folk traditions.  Certainly I have found no song that exactly matches these verses, though a praise song addressed to the Immaculate Conception, and recorded by Coussemaker in Bailleul, is thematically very close.[7]  In West Flanders religious orders were very active in lace-teaching.  In Bruges itself the leading lace-school was run by the Apostolate Sisters.  Gezelle’s assumption that lacemaking was a holy craft, and that it might serve as an apprenticeship for life in a religious order, was widely shared.  Indeed this message was inculcated in the lace-schools through the medium of song.  According to a legend (of recent, literary origin, but widely disseminated), Mary herself had inspired a Bruges girl, Séréna, to invent the craft of lacemaking.[8]

The final vow to Our Lady of the Snows concerns a cult held in particular honour among lacemakers, and not only in Flanders but also in Catalonia .  The story originates in early Christian Rome when a couple, intending to dedicate their wealth to the Virgin Mary, asked her to reveal how it should best be disposed.  Snow falling in August on a nearby hill led to the building of the Basilica of St Mary Major there.  However, the cult really took off with the Counter-Reformation.  Before the French Revolution, Brussels lacemakers carried their lace to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows in that city to place their work under her protection and thus preserve its whiteness.[9]  According to an article in Rond den Heerd Bruges lacemakers did the same on 5 August before a statue of a similar statue of Mary in the Cathedral of Bruges.[10]

Guido Reni, ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ with Mary Magdalen and Saint Lucia (1623).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Gezelle’s poem encapsulates a particular vision of lacemaking, which in part explain’s the Catholic Church’s continuing efforts, in the late nineteenth century, to defend women’s home work in general and lacemaking in particular.  The Church was not only the patron of most lace schools but was a substantial purchaser of lace as well.  For Gezelle lace was a tradition that linked contemporary Flanders to its medieval glory days when songs like ‘Heer Halewijn’ were composed.  And the medieval was preferable to the modern above all because it was an age of faith.  Lacemakers earned little but, in this version at least, enough to supply their basic needs and thus save themselves from prostitution, the inevitable consequence of female poverty in the eyes of the Church.  And lace itself was almost a holy textile: white like the head-dress of the Virgin herself, white like miracle snows in August.  Lace and its producers were under the protection of Mary and her mother Anne.  Those engaged in its production were materially deprived but spiritually rich, and would remain so in Gezelle’s eyes as long as they too remained ‘onbevlekte’, virginal, immaculate.

Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne,
vingervaste, oudvlaamsche deerne;
die daar zit aan ‘t spinnen, met
‘t vlugge allaam, uw kobbenet.
Vangen zult g’… hoe menig centen
in die looze garenprenten,
die grij neerstig, heen en weêr
krabbelt, op uw kussen neêr?

Schaars genoeg om licht en leven
schamel dak en doek te geven
u, die kanten wijd en breed
werkt aan ‘t koninginnenkleed.

Vangen zult ge, o, schatten geene;
maar mijn hert, dat hebt ge, kleene,
vast gevangen in den draad,
dien gij van uw’ stokken laat.

Geren zie ‘k uw lantje, al pinken,
nauwe een leeksken olie drinken,
en u, ‘t bolglas doorgerand,
volgen, daar ge uw’ netten spant.

Spellewerkster, wat al reken
spellen zie ‘k u neêrwaards steken
in uw kussen, slag op slag,
meer als ik getellen mag!

“Ieder steke maakt me indachtig
hoe men ‘t hoofd van God almachtig”
zegt ge, “en tot zijn bitter leed
vol van scherpe doornen smeet.”

“En ik rake, alzoo ‘t voorheden
altijd mijns gelijken deden,
eerst mijn hoofd, een spelle in d’hand,
eer ik ze in mijn kussen plant.”

Zingen hoor ik u, bij ‘t nokken
met uw’ honderd spinnerokken,
wijla een lied wel, lieve: och laat
mij eens hooren hoe dat gat.

En zij zong, de maged mijne,
‘t liedje van Heer Alewijne,
hoe, vol wreedheid ongehoord,
‘s konings dochter hij vermoordt.

Dan, den ‘teling’ zong zij mede,
na der spellewerkers zede,
“Een is een”, dat oud gezang,
van wel dertig schakels lang.

Zingt mij nog, mijn lieve kleene,
van de Moeder maged reene,
van sinte Anne, die gij dient,
als uw’ besten hemelvriend.

Zong zij dan, al twee drie hoopen
stokken deur malkaar doen loopen,
weêr een liedtjen, op den trant
van heur spellewerkend hand:

“Reine maged, wilt mij leeren,
na verdienste uw’ schoonheid eeren,
die, van Gods gena verrijkt,
versh gevallen snee gelijkt.

Onbevlekt zijt ge, en gebleven
reine maged, al uw leven:
wit als snee’ zoo, Moeder mijn,
laat mij, laat mijn handwerk zijn.

Laat mij, een voor een, de vlassen
webben aan malkaar doen wassen,
die ge mij beginnen zaagt,
te uwer eere, o Moeder Maagd!

On bevlekte, nooit volprezen,
laat ‘t begin en ‘t ende wezen,
van al ‘t gene ik doe en laat,
als dit maagdelijk gewaad.

Dan, wanneer mij garen, stokken,
webbe en al wordt afgetrokken,
zoete lieve-Vrouw-ter-snee’,
spaart mij van ‘t onendig wee!”

 

I love to watch you making lace
You sure-fingered true Flemish lass;
There you sit, the bobbins flying,
As you weave your spider’s web.
You’ll get, how few centimes
From the clever design of threads
that you rapidly scribbleack and forth on your pillow?

Barely enough to earn your keep,
a light, a roof and clothes for your back
You, whose acres of lace
adorns the queen’s own dress.

You will certainly not gain riches
But, little one, you have captured my heart,
Caught fast in the thread
that you release from your bobbins.

I love your lamp that flames
as it drinks up a drop of oil
and which follows you through the flash glass
where you stretch your lace net.

Lacemaker, how many pins
have I seen you stick down
In your cushion, one after the other
Many more than I can count!

You say ‘Each prick reminds me
how the head of God almighty
was, for his bitter suffering,
heaped with sharp thorns.

‘And so, just as in the past
my peers have likewise done,
I touch the pin in hand to my forehead
before I plant it in my pillow.’

Sometimes I hear you as you weave
with your hundred twirling bobbins
sing a song, sweetheart: Oh let
me hear again how that goes.

And she sang, this maid of mine
The ballad of Sir Halewijn,
how, in his unfathomable cruelty
he kills the king’s daughter.

Then she also sang a ‘telling’
as the lacemakers do
‘One is one’, that old song which lasts
for at least thirty links in the lattice.

Sing for me again, my poppet,
about the pure virgin mother,
and of Saint Anne, who you serve
your best friend in heaven.

Then she sang, as she made the bunches
of bobbins run through each other
another little song, to the rhythm
of her lacemaking hands.

‘Oh pure Virgin, please teach me
how to honour your beauty gracefully
You who, enriched through God’s bounty
ressemble freshly fallen snow.

‘You are, and will remain, immaculate
Virgin pure, all your life:
Oh Mother mine, let me and my handiwork
always be as white as snow.

‘Let my linen chains one by one
join each other and grow the work
that I began in your sight
and in your honour, Virgin Mother!

‘Immaculata, never praised enough,
Let the beginning and end
Of all that I do and make
be like this virginal garment.

‘Then, when my threads, bobbins,
net and everything is taken from me,
Our sweet Lady of the Snows
save me from unending pain!’

 

[1] For an English biography of Gezelle see Gustave L. Van Roosbroeck, Guido Gezelle: The Mystic Poet of Flanders (Vinton, 1919).  A recent bilingual edition of his poems is freely available: Paul Vincent (ed.) Poems of Guido Gezelle: A Bilingual Anthology (London, 2016).  His collected works in Flemish are all online at the ever useful Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL).

[2] On Lootens and his relationship to Gezelle and other Bruges clerical antiquarians see Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Uit de Geschiedenis der Vlaamsche Volkskunde: Adolf-Richard Lootens, Brugge 1835-Londen 1902’, Volkskunde: driemaandelijksch Tijdschrift voor de studie van het volksleven 46 (new series 5, issue 1) (1946): 1-21; and Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Bij een honderdste verjaring Lootens’ kindervertelsels’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 273-5.

[3] Adolphe-Richard Lootens and J.M.E. Feys, Chants populaires flamands avec les airs notés et poésies populaires diverses recueillis à Bruges (Bruges, 1879), pp. 262-3: ‘De Doornen uit de Kroon’.

[4] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Ghent, 1856), pp. 129-33: ‘De Twaelf Getallen’.

[5] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 260-1: ‘Les Nombres’.

[6] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 66-72: ‘Mi Adel en Hir Alewijn’; pp. 60-6: ‘Roland’.

[7] Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands, pp. 60-2: ‘D’ onbevlekte ontfangenisse van Maria’.

[8] The story originates in a collection by Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp 163-205: ‘Légende de la dentelle’.  Popp was the first female newspaper editor in Belgium, and her paper, Le journal de Bruges, was francophone and Liberal in its politics.  It is therefore surprising to find that she and Gezelle shared a similar set of ideas about lace.  However, Popp allows her heroine to give up her vow of virginity and marry, which Gezelle would definitely not have thought an appropriate ending.

[9] Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.  Despite stiff resistance from local lacemakers, the chapel was demolished during the French occupation.

[10] Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.

“Lace Unravelled”, Nottingham, 15-16 March 2018

Next week there are celebrations, exhibitions and talks about lace in Nottingham. Mostly machine-made (obviously) but a few handmade lace related items have made it onto the programme.  For details and tickets see the Nottingham Castle website (though note the events themselves will be at Wollaton Hall and Newstead Abbey), or just search for “Lace Unravelled”.

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