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”.

Songs for Lace-Schools: The Compositions of Father Constant Duvillers (1803-1885)

Eugène Laermans, ‘The Emigrants’ (1894). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Migration was one of the consequences of the Flemish linen crisis of the 1840s.

In the nineteenth century there were lots of Catholic priests like Giovannino Guareschi’s fictional Don Camillo — opinionated, prejudiced and pugnacious, but also deeply committed to the welfare of their parishioners and devoted to their ‘little world’.  They dominated their communities and examples of both their authoritarianism but also their humour have passed into folklore.  The Flemish priest Constant Duvillers was one of their number.  In Woubrechtegem, the tiny parish he was sent to in 1854 by the Bishop of Ghent (probably as punishment for his outspoken defence of the Flemish language), people still remembered him nearly 100 years after his death.  Some of the stories that had become attached to him are standards of clerical folklore, such as his ability to compel thieves to return stolen goods.  Others are perhaps more reflective of his personal eccentricities.  Priests were obliged to read the Bishop’s annual Easter message from the pulpit: Duvillers, who disliked both the Bishop and long services, would announce ‘Beloved parishioners, it’s exactly the same as last year: those that can remember it, that’s good; those that cannot, that’s just as well too.’[1]

Constant Duvillers, priest of Middelburg in East Flanders

However, this post concerns his time at his first parish ― Middelburg ― where he served from 1836 to 1854.  This village sits right on the corner where East and West Flanders meet the border with the Netherlands.  It is in ‘Meetjesland’, a nickname for the region that Duvillers popularized through his annual Almanak van ‘t Meetjesland, which he published under the pseudonym ‘Meester Lieven’ from 1859 until his death.  The story Duvillers told (and possibly invented) was that, when the locals learnt that the notorious womanizer Emperor Charles V was to travel through the region, they hid all the young women and only old women were visible, leading the Emperor to exclaim ‘This is little old lady land’ [Meetje is a colloquial term for ‘granny’].

The almanac, with its plain-speaking moralizing and practical advice, demonstrated Duvillers’ commitment to popular education and the promotion of the Flemish language.  There was nothing he disliked more than a Fleming putting on French airs, or a ‘Fransquillon’ to use the pejorative term popularized in the 1830s, and the subject of a bad-tempered satirical poem by Duvillers, ‘De Fransquiljonnade’ (1842).  For Duvillers and many other Flemish priests, French was the language of Robespierre, of irreligion and revolution.  Inoculating the good Catholic Flemish population against this toxin required the provision of wholesome and comprehensible literature in their own language.  Duvillers was responsible for a host of such small, cheap books, often pseudonymous, which, like his almanac, mixed the homely wisdom and folk humour of proverbs with overt moralizing and religious instruction.

The proverb was one of Duvillers’ favourite genres, the song was another.  Among his publications are three books of songs, the first of which (1844) was dedicated for the use of the Middleburg girls’ school: several of its twenty songs refer to lacemaking.  In 1846 and 1847 there followed two more volumes containing fourteen and fifteen songs respectively, which were intended for use in the lace schools.

The background to these publications was the devastating crisis that affected Flanders principal industry, linen manufacturing, during the 1840s.  In 1840 linen occupied nearly 300,000 people in Flanders, about twenty per cent of the population.  They were employed in their own homes as spinners and weavers, supplementing their incomes by growing their own food on smallholdings.  By the end of the decade this entire sector had all but disappeared.  The causes included competition from British factory-produced linens and the displacement of linen by cotton, but this crisis in manufacturing was also exacerbated by poor harvests in the late 1840s, the same period as the Irish Potato Famine.  Unemployment and high food prices coincided with typhus and cholera epidemics.  For the fledgling Belgian state, born out of an earlier revolution in 1830, misery and starvation in Flanders presented a crisis of legitimacy.  In other European countries the ‘Hungry Forties’ led to protest and even the overthrow of the political order.  How could that outcome be avoided in Flanders too?[2]

One answer was to retrain the population to make lace.  This might seem an odd choice given that machine-made lace was already a source of competition for Flemish handmade lace.  Nottingham and Calais tulle had effectively wiped out Lille’s lace industry in the 1830s.  But the fashion for tulle had crashed, and the market for Flemish Valenciennes lace was sufficiently recovered for this project to make sense.  Up until 1830 lacemaking had been a largely urban manufacture in Flanders, but in the 1840s it would desert the cities such as Antwerp and Ghent (though not Bruges) to take up its abode in the countryside, and especially in the villages of West Flanders that had been most affected by the linen crisis.

However, lacemaking is not a skill acquired overnight: it required teachers and schools.  According to the historian of the Belgian lace industry, Pierre Verhaegen, ‘it was now that, under the influence of humble parish priests, of charitable persons, and some convent superiors, the lace industry suddenly took flight again.  In the convents of the two Flanders and Brabant, children started to be taught to make lace; where there was no establishment of this kind then one was founded and soon there was hardly a convent in Flanders which did not possess a lace school.  New female congregations of nuns sprang up and gathered around themselves the children of the villages where they were implanted.’[3]  This describes the role of Duvillers in Middelburg: at his initiative local elites provided the funding for a lace school, and the staff was supplied by one of the new teaching congregations of nuns.

There are many ironies to this story.  The political cleavage in the young Belgian state was between the liberals and the clericals.  During the 1840s the liberals, who were largely French speaking and anticlerical, were the dominant party, but their response to the linen crisis, including the funding of the lace schools, required their collaboration with their political arch-rivals, the Flemish clergy.  Later in the century, the creation of hundreds of lace workshops masquerading under the name ‘school’ created a new battlefront in ‘culture wars’ between clericals, liberals and, later, socialists.  In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of young Flemish women were trained in a trade that effectively trapped them in poverty.  For liberals, the failure of the clergy to provide a decent education for their charges, as well as the profits the Catholic Church drew from their ignorant, emaciated and tubercular lace apprentices, was a scandal.  For socialists, the impoverished lacemaker became a symbol for ‘Arm Vlaanderen’ [Poor Flanders]: she was the personification of the entrenched misery which demanded radical action, such as the banning of domestic manufacture.  But for the clergy and their supporters the homeworking lacemaker, trained by nuns simultaneously in religion and labour, was the epitome of domestic virtue.[4]

The battle over the lace schools was fought in literature as well as in the newspapers and the chambers of parliament, as we will see in future posts on the work of Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Virginie Loveling, Guido Gezelle, Stijn Streuvels, and Reimond Stijns, among others.  All of these, however, had the opportunity to reflect after several decades on the success and failures of the lace schools: Duvillers was there at the start.

The Middleburg Girls School, for whom the 1844 volume of songs was intended, was Duvillers own project, or at least so claimed a song in which trainee seamstresses thanked ‘Our Pastor, who erected this school’.[5]  This series of songs predates the onset of the linen crisis; nonetheless, the industry was clearly in trouble.  In ‘The Song of the Spinners’, the speakers lament that ‘Wages are small, and living expensive/ There’s no butter on our bread’.[6]  However, at that time lacemaking was only one of the replacement trades being taught: ‘I feel motivated / always to go to school. I learn lovely things there;/ I learn how to make nice lace;/ I sew, I knit,/ it is all profitable for me’.[7]  Nonetheless lace was, to judge by the number of songs on the topic, the dominant occupation taught in the school, and Duvillers was clearly on a mission to promote it: ‘O blessed land!/ Where even small a small child’s hands/ Can sustain her parents,/ By playing, [she] can earn,/ By playing.’[8]  Observers like Duvillers often thought of lacemaking as a form of play, an association made easier by the fact that in Flemish the terms are homonyms ― ‘spelen’ and ‘speldewerk’: ‘Here we play a game/ Where anyone might see us;/ The lace shines/ Like a genuine fairy art.’[9]  Duvillers frequently used the term ‘toover’ – meaning magic or fairy – to describe lace, as did many other commentators on the industry.

By 1846, when Duvillers’ next volume of songs appeared, lace had become the single focus of Middelburg’s and many other schools across Flanders.  The first song in the volume describes the situation as the linen crisis reached its peak.  In years gone by father had sat to weave and mother to spin, and the loom and spinning-wheel together had saved the children from anxiety and grief as they could get their daily bread.  But now that ‘Frenchmen wear no linen anymore’ (the French army had replaced its red linen trousers with cotton ones) the girls must go to the lace-school.[10]  Yet despite the problems besetting Flanders, Duvillers’ tone in this volume is, overall, positive.  In ‘Flora, the Bold Lacemaker’, for example, the eponymous heroine sings ‘Long live lacework!  Farewell to the droning spinning wheel!/  I’ll follow the girls from the town,/ my fingers will play both large and small,/ and so Flora will earn her bread.’[11]  Here, as elsewhere in these songs, the purchaser of the lace schools’ product is identified as ‘the Englishman’ or even ‘John Bull’.  The lace school is clearly a developing proposition: one song describes the pristine building ‘on two floors!’, so much better than the ‘dark hole’ where they have been working up till now.[12]

This set of fourteen songs is essentially a promotional campaign to convince parents, and the apprentices themselves, of the benefits of the lace school.  Duvillers highlights not only the monetary rewards but also that the girls can meet their friends, be warm and safe, and kept on the path of moral rectitude by ‘singing God’s praises’ and saying the rosary.  However, they also sing other, secular songs ‘of the little weaver, or of the cat’ (probably references to lace tells).[13]  In particular he dwells on the fun and games held on the Feast of St Gregorius (9 May), the patron of lacemaking in East Flanders, when there would be a prize-giving attended by priest, the lord and lady from the chateau, as well as all the members of the philanthropic institute that supports the school, who will give out ‘big books clothes, hats and cloth’ to the pupils.[14]  Later the whole school will go on jaunt to Ghent.  In other songs Duvillers contrasts lacemaking to other occupations in agriculture or food production that might, on the surface, appear better remunerated.  For instance he relates the cautionary tale of ‘Anastasia De Bal’ who threw her lace cushion in the fire and went to work for a farmer who taught her to swear like trooper.  Although she earns a tad more, she is out shivering in the fields, her clothes are worn and tattered, and the work makes her hungry and thirsty (and implicitly food is costly).  And of course agricultural work stops in the winter, and then she’ll be forced to live on potato peelings and even grass.[15]

A large number of Duvillers’ songs in this and the next volume are in the form of dialogues, and between them they cover many of the daily interactions experienced in and around the lace-school.  For example, apprentice Mietje meets a gentleman on her way to the school, and when he learns that she is supporting her sick father as well as six children he gives her ten francs.[16]  In the next song the priest visits the school to see how the apprentices are doing, and the lace-mistress gives a run-down on each individual’s progress, or lack of it.[17]  The priest seems to be constantly dropping in on the school, showing around other clergy who are interested in setting up their own school, or philanthropic gentry who might support the enterprise, or handing out prizes.  Other visitors include the ‘koopvrouw’, the female intermediary who collected lace on behalf of the merchants in the distant cities.[18]  In another song she is named as ‘Mevrouwe Delcampo’ from Bruges, while the teacher is frequently referred to as ‘Sister Monica’.

Both of these were probably real people, though so far I have been unable to verify this.  Hopefully Duvillers was more careful to use pseudonyms to hide the  identities of the numerous girls and young women who attended the school.  Dozens are named, and in many cases in order to be upbraided.  Wantje Loete, Cisca Bral, Mie d’Hont, Genoveva d’Hont, Barbara Kwikkelbeen, all had done something to annoy Duvillers.  Most of these appear in the third, 1847 volume which is markedly more bad-tempered than its predecessors.  In the winter of 1846-7 it appears that the children were being withdrawn from the school.  Duvillers was particularly infuriated by the parents who, now their daughters had learnt the rudiments of lacemaking, kept them at home to save the few pennies that attendance at the lace-school incurred; or, just as bad, sending them out into the fields to do agricultural work.  He warns Wantje Loete that once at home her cushion will stand empty because her mother will need her to look after her latest sibling, while her father will send her to look after the goats and pigs.  Meanwhile she, and the other girls staying away from school, will never really master lacemaking.[19]  The issue, though, was not entirely economic: for Duvillers the key success of the school was establishing religious oversight of all the young women in the parish and it was this moral authority which parents and some girls, were challenging.

All was not well in the school either: in the song ‘The School Mistress and the Foolish Mother’, the latter comes to complain that her daughter Mie has been beaten, and that she will take her, her stool and her cushion out of school if another finger is laid on her.  The school mistress answers that no one has been beaten, she’s only dragged Mie into the middle of the school and made her kneel and pray because she is so lazy.  And while the stool belongs to the family, the other tools belong to the school. ‘Don’t come back later and try to flatter us/ and ask us if she can [learn to] knit,/ Or even sew your clothes:/ Woman, this is no dovecot!’[20]  However, the mistress’s protestations that no-one has been beaten are undermined by other songs in which she directly tells the children that she’s been instructed by the pastor himself ‘not to spare the rod’.[21]  Perhaps this was the reason girls like Barbara Kwikkelbeen preferred hanging around in the street or wandering through the parish.  In a fury over all this backsliding Duvillers declares ‘But as the poor are so pigheaded,/ Then I will not lift my hand to help them,/ And I’ll send them a punishment.’[22]  If these songs in any way represent the priest’s actual relations with his parishioners, then it is plausible that it was this breakdown that brought about his removal from Middelburg, and not his obstreperous involvement in language politics.

As any regular visitor to this site will know, apprentice lacemakers sang while they worked.  Duvillers frequently alludes to this custom, and even names some of the songs they sang, such as ‘Pierlala’.  He presumably wanted his songs to be adopted by the Middelburg lace school as more suitable for future ‘brides of Christ’ (that is nuns, which was clearly Duvillers’ hope for at least some of the girls) than those currently in use, that is if his choice of tunes is indicative of what was being sung.  Most of these seem derive from the theatre, such as ‘The Best is Good Enough for Me’, or ‘The Frozen Nose’.

Presumably also he hoped that his songs would be taken up in other lace schools, but is there evidence of this?  Although Flemish lacemakers sang a lot of songs, not many of them were actually about lacemaking itself.  If anything their songs served as an imagined escape from their task.  Duvillers’ songs, on the other hand, offer a detailed picture of life in a lace-school, of how the children interacted with each other, of the injunctions of the lace-mistress, of the various visitors during the day… the kind of nitty-gritty quotidian commonplaces that are a goldmine for the social historian but unlikely to excite a singer.  This mundane character, and the highly localized references, made me think that, as songs, Duvillers’ work had probably fallen rather flat.

However, at least one of Duvillers’ songs did become a lace tell, and a version was still sung a century after publication.  In 1948 Magda Cafmeyer published a series of articles ‘From Cradle to Grave’ about life-cycle traditions in Bruges and its immediate surrounding villages.  She included, under youth, lace tells, and offered one that she herself had heard.[23]

It is worth seeing
Us making net (i.e. lace)
For the bonnets
of the young ladies of the city.
The finest lace
For our customers
Enriched with flower and leaf
one link, one lattice opening made
Wantje’s lace rests unsold
Isabelle gets
Ten franks the ell (the unit used for measuring lace, about 70 cm)
But she’s a fierce one
She doesn’t even look up
Her fingers twirl
The sticks (bobbins) roll;
They seem to dance before one’s eye.
O wonder, especially if anyone sees it,
But this tough one (‘schrimmer’ in Cafmeyer’s tell, ‘grimmer’ in Duvillers’ song), hardly ever leaves the house.

Just like magic!
Says boss de Lye (an unidentified figure),
As he quickly leaves the school.

 Farewell to the field
The farmer and the baker
How fast and how wide-awake (I am)
And I also get a little wage
I work here peacefully
By my sister
I sit here warm and clean.

Unknown to Cafmeyer, these are two verses, albeit slightly rearranged, of one of Duvillers’ Speldewerksters-liedjes which appeared in his first, 1844 collection.  In his own way, he had contributed to the craft culture of Flemish lacemakers.

 

[1] For a fuller biography of Father Duvillers, and detail of his works and his legend, see J. Muyldermans, ‘Constant Duvillers (1803-1885). Zijn leven en zijne schriften’, in Verslagen en Mededelingen der Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde (1928): 148-202, and F. van Es, Pastoor Constant Duvillers, Folklorist en folkloristische figuur (Ghent, 1949).

[2] G. Jacquemyns, Histoire de la crise économique des Flandres (1845-1850) (Brussels, 1929).

[3] Pierre Verhaegen, Les industries à domicile en Belgique: La dentelle et la broderie sur tulle (Brussels: Office du Travail, 1891), vol. 1, p. 49.

[4] We will return to this political debate in future posts, but for liberal/socialist critiques of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the lace schools see Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886) and Auguste de Winne, À travers les Flandres (Ghent, 1902).  Although Pierre Verhaegen’s father, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen (1796-1862) was the effective leader of the Belgian liberals and anticlericals, and at the forefront of the battle over education (students at the Free University of Brussels – free of Catholic influence that is – still celebrate ‘Saint Verhaegen’s Day’), he himself took a more positive view on the Church’s lace schools.

[5] C. Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes, ten geebruyke der Meysjesschool van Middelburg, in Vlaenderen (Ghent, 1844): Naeystersliedje ‘O! dank zy onzen pastor:/ Hij heeft de school gesticht’.

[6] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: ‘T Liedje der Spinnetten ‘Den loon is kleyn; en ‘t is duer leven;/ Er ligt geen’ boter op ons brood’.

[7] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Huys-liedje ‘ ‘k Voel mij gedreven/ Om altyd school te gaen./ Daer leer ik fraeye zaken:/ ‘k Leer nette kantjes maken;/ Ik naey, ik brey,/ ‘t Is al profyt voor my’.

[8] Duvillers, Twintig Nieuwe Liedjes: Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘O zalig land!/ Waer ook een’ kinderhand/ Zyn’ ouders onderstand,/ Al spelen, kan verschaffen,/ Al spelen, ja!’

[9] Ander Kantwerksters-Liedje ‘Wy spelen hier een spel/ Waer ieder moet op kyken;/ Dat speldenwerken schynt/ Een’ regte tooverkonst.’

[10] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen, Gevolge door de Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Bruges: Vandecastell-Werbrouck, 1846): no. 1: ‘Toen ik nog een kleyn boontje was,/ Deed vader ook in ‘t linnen,/ Terwyl ik in een boekske las,/ Zat moeder daer te spinnen; En ‘t spinnewiel en ‘t weefgetouw/ Bevrydden ons van druk en rouw,/ Wy konden ‘t broodje winnen.’

[11] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Flora, of de moedige kantwerkster ‘Vivat het spellewerk! Vivat!/ Vaerwel het ronkend spinnewielken!/ Ik volg de meysjes van de stad,/ ‘k speel met ving’ren, kleyn en groot,/ En zoo wint Floorken ook haer brood.’

[12] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 6: ‘Er ryst voor ons een’ nieuwe school,/ Ze zyn al de tweede stagie,/ Sa! Dochters, schept maer goê couragie:/ Haest krupt gy uyt uw donker hol.’

[13] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Schoolvrouw, den pastor en de dry vreemde heeren ‘Sa! Kinders, zingen wy eens dat/ Van ‘t Weverken of van de Kat’.  Neither reference can be clearly identified as weavers and cats are both common characers in Flemish folksong, but two popular lace tells were ‘Daar waren vier wevers’ and ‘De katje aan de zee’.

[14] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Pastor en de

Constant Duvillers, priest of Middelburg in East FlandersSchoolvrouw ‘En, dan kom ik afgetreden/ Met den heere van ‘t kasteel,/ En mevrouw, en al de leden/ Van ‘t weldadigheyds-bureel,/ En wy geven groote boeken,/ Nieuwe kleedren, mutsen, doeken,/ Al die braef is krygt zyn deel.’

[15] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): no. 14.

[16] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den Heer en het schoolkind.

[17] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): Den pastor en de schoolvrouw.

[18] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1846): De Koopvrouw en de zuyster.

[19] C. Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen en Spreuken van baeske Van de Wiele (Ghent, 1847): Wantje Loete.

[20] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Schoolvrouw en d’onverstandige Moeder ‘Brengt u ‘t meysken in ‘t verdriet,/ Threse, en kom dan later niet/ Schoone spreken, en ons vleyen,/ En ons vragen of ‘t mag breyen,/ Of eens naeyen aen uw kleed:/ Vrouw, ‘t is hier geen duyvenkeet.’

[21] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): De Zuster en de Schoolkinders ‘Den pastor heeft my streng bevolen/ Van in de beyde kantwerkscholen/ Daer op te letten, en de roê/ Zoo niet te sparen, lyk ik doe.’

[22] Duvillers, Liedjes voor de Kantwerkscholen (1847): Genoveva d’Hont ‘Maer al den armen ‘t zoo verstaet,/ Dan doe ‘ker maer myn hand van af,/ En ‘k jon ze hem, de straf.’

[23] Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Van de wieg tot het graf III: Dat was de jeugd’, Biekorf 49 (1948): 206-7.

Making Lace in Central Slovakia

Doing fieldwork amongst bobbin lace makers in the Central Slovak villages of Staré Hory and Špania Dolina in the mid- to late 2000s, I was faced with an unexpected paradox: when speaking to me, artisans would present their craft work as a pleasurable hobby, then as menial labour, and later as a dangerously addictive obsession. In the very same conversation, I was told that making lace was ‘work’ and a way of ‘making do’ in times of economic hardship, and barely a breath later artisans would claim that craft practice was nothing more than a personal indulgence and a ‘labour of love’. Artisans seemed equally ambivalent in their descriptions of their experience of making lace itself. They would emphasize the emotional and therapeutic aspects of craft practice, and then warn me that it could develop into an obsessive ‘sickness’ or a kind of nervous disorder for which there was no cure. The process of making was described in terms of mastery and control, but also in terms of submission brought on by a seduction of the craftswoman by her own tools.

 The lace making village of Spania Dolina in Central Slovakia.

Weaving lace, I was often told, is an emotional experience. This was most eloquently expressed by the lace maker I call Hana Majerová, who saw her special relationship with the craft as stemming from her memories of family life in the village of Staré Hory:

……very few of the women who do it today, have developed such an emotional relationship with it as I have, literally emotional, because for me, just the sound of the lace making, for me it is magical. It…already when my grandmother used to do it and I sat beside her as a child, it……is peace and quiet. And that is why I have a very good relationship to it, because….today, when people run, fly about, chase each other around, they don’t have time and I can afford to – quietly, with calm nerves and a calm soul – just sit and work.

Hana expressed the opinion that women in lace making clubs pursued technical perfection for its own sake, and that they could not have such an emotional bond with the craft because they had no kinship connections to the lace making communities in Staré Hory or Špania Dolina. Yet, I found that regardless of their family background, the vast majority of lace makers presented lacemaking as evoking emotion. I found that many of my informants fell into lace making a time of change or crises in their lives. Women continually pointed out that it ‘took the mind off’ marital problems or the grief at the loss of relative:

(And when you started, what interested you in it?) I’ll tell you, when you want to make lace, you have to concentrate on it, especially when you are a beginner as I was. And all your worries are set aside. When my husband was very ill, I cried all day, but when you make lace, you have to concentrate on that work… concentration on something else.

A characteristic description of the effect of intense sessions of lace making was the loss of the sense of time passing. Apart from making them ‘forget the time’, lace makers also told me that while making lace, there were periods when they lost awareness of what was going on around them. The American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this experience as a state of ‘flow’. Characteristic of this ‘flow’ sensation, is that the actor – completely engrossed in their activity – concentrates on the skills needed to perform the task and the limitations and possibilities presented within, reflecting little on what may happen around them. I found that learning a new stitch or a new pattern was well-known a source of such a ‘flow’ experience for local lace makers. As the lace maker Jana Horvathová recounted:

And this, when I was learning………I couldn’t learn the half stitch. The lady who taught me would ask ‘What are you doing?’ And I (would say) ‘I’m undoing again’. And now look how nice it is! I like doing it now. And I was giving up, ‘I won’t do it’ I said.

The pleasure with which Jana described how she finally learned the half-stitch illustrates how the acquisition of skill was experienced emotionally. Jana had quite literally mastered the half-stitch because it was only when she was no longer engaged in a frustrating battle with bobbins and thread which did not respond to her efforts that she experienced the ‘flow’ sensation which followed confidence in craft activity.

 A lace maker from the village of Stare Hory, Central Slovakia, shows off a lace tablecloth.

Mastery, therapy, and control, however, were only some of the terms which lace makers used to articulate the emotional outcome of their tactile involvement with their pillow. Indeed, compulsion and obsession emerged as the ‘darker side’ of craft work in my conversations with them: there was apparently a constant danger that the therapeutic value of lace making could be subverted and rather than the lace maker gaining control over the process, it would force her into submission. All my informants described lace making as their love, but also as a curse. Craftswomen warned beginners – half mockingly, half seriously – that lace making is a ‘sickness’ which will never release them once they have come under its spell. Several lace makers told me that they became ‘unwell’ if they did not have an ongoing project pinned on their pillows at all times. This meant that they suffered from a sorts of nervous frustration which could only be mitigated by vigorous activity:

I feel totally sick if I can’t work [make lace]. Sick. I cook, I clean and clean.

Receiving new designs, lace makers described themselves as grabbed by an irresistible urge to execute it, and stubbornly refused to complete other tasks before they had mastered it. Upon encountering a problem, they stayed up long after the rest of the family had retired to bed to battle it out with the pillow, or found they could not rest:

Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up. To see whether I can master it or I can’t master it.

This submission seemed not only to have a pleasurable aspect, but also an addictive power. The un-worked pillow often came up in conversation as a picture of seduction, the pillow itself often being treated as the lace maker’s partner (or adversary) in the process of production. It was not unusual for artisans to stroke (or hit) and speak to their pillows (‘Sit still’! or ‘Now, look what you have done’!).

The author making lace while doing fieldwork.

Lace makers were keen to emphasize the pleasurable aspects of lace making (the paired aspects of therapy and submission). However, as I befriended different artisans, I began to hear them speak of craft activity in much more instrumental terms:

Well, in the summer I don’t make much anyway, when it is so hot, your hands sweat. (So one can work better in the winter?) Yes! (But there isn’t any light?) During the day I work 2-3 hours, and then again in the evening…Everywhere the light has to be turned on at 4 – 5 o’clock, so I work until 9 – 9:30, but only with the white thread. I can’t work with the dark ones, because that is [too much] on the eyes.

Jozefina Mišíková was a lively elderly lady, who at the age of 70 began selling her lace by renting stands at folk festivals and seasonal markets across the country. Mišíková reasoned that she was lonely after her husband’s death, but also that she needed an extra income to supplement her meagre old age pension. Despite her advanced age, she was not only willing to travel several hundreds of kilometres to attend festivals, but she was also a very astute saleswoman, quickly mapping which festivals were worth attending, as well as the tastes of various groups of clients. Mrs Mišíková’s efforts to gain a small income from her craft work were not unique: Whether in Banská Bystrica town, or in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory, lace making emerged as a way of ‘making do’, that is, of supplementing the income from employment, old age pensions, and social benefits. For some informants, like the 26-year-old designer Jaroslava Genderová, who worked for a local clothing manufacturer in Banská Bystrica, ‘making do’ through lace making was a vital part of the family’s domestic economy – the manufacturer she was working for was limping towards bankruptcy and owed her several months wages. As another lace maker living in Špania Dolina told me: Well in this day and age every crown is precious. I don’t mean just for me, but for the other ladies too, for everyone.

The history of lace making as cottage industry in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory means that the craft has always been associated with the need for ‘making do’ in these communities:

(So you learned how to make lace as a small child?) Yes, probably about at the age of 9. I started working then……every day, I had to make such two-three forms (worth), and then mother went to sell it, when there were 5 meters. Because that is how we made our living. Father was always ill. So, my mother worked and I did too, she taught me.

This lace maker’s description of her childhood in the 1940s was typical of that of many of my elderly village informants. The association of lace making with poverty alleviation was further strengthened after the Communist Party’s collectivisation of craft work through the ÚĽUV2 and the organisation Kroj (literally ‘folk costume’), in the early 1950s. As one of my lace making teacher told me:

We used to get orders for holidays, where it had to be done, Sunday, not Sunday, holidays no holidays, it had to be done. So many times I worked all of a Sunday or holiday, so I could get it done. She knew who would do it. (Did they pay more?) No, well they did, but not much. You got more for being able to do more and more complicated (designs). I tried. Those who didn’t need to, didn’t.

Ana Paličková’s statement that ‘(t)hose who didn’t need to, didn’t’ take on difficult orders reveals a pragmatic attitude contrasted to women’s propensity to call their lace making a ‘hobby’ or ‘obsession’ at face value. Moreover, Mrs Paličková’s comment shed light on the apparently addictive nature of lace making practice: It not only suggested that craftswomen were able to resist its seductive aspects, but that lace makers highlighted various aspects of their craft practice according to the context in which it is spoken of. For example, the lace maker Dagmar Babjaková described lace making both as an obsessive hobby (‘Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up’) and a source of income (‘Well, in this day and age every crown is precious’). Pleasure and pragmatism, just like submission and mastery, were not incompatible, but appeared to be used instrumentally by craftswomen in conversation.

When I left the Slovakia and began writing up my findings, I assumed that the experience of lace making as both a pleasurable hobby and as drudgery was unique to the Slovak environment – that is was the result of the harsh economic climate following the end of communism, alongside specific local traditions of domesticity, ideals of femininity, and traditions of lace making as a way for women to supplement the income of their male family members (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons). And yet, when studying the historical experience of lace makers in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found that craftswomen expressed many of the very same mixed feelings of enjoyment, obsession, and distaste towards the craft (see the blog post: Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?). This begs the question of whether – and to what extent – such feelings are the result of the experience of craft work itself, and how much this experience of making is itself influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place.

[All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the participants]

A Lacemakers’ Lullaby: Alexandre Desrousseaux’s ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ (1853)

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ features on a 2005 French stamp.

The northern French city of Lille was once a great centre of lacemaking.  In the eighteenth century, lace manufacture was the dominant occupation for women.  The lacemakers’ feast held annually on 9 May – the ‘Fête du Broquelet’ or ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ – continued to be the city’s major holiday into the first decades of the nineteenth century.[1]  The women and girls from the different lace workshops and schools took a jaunt out to the taverns and parks of the surrounding villages; the drinking and dancing continued for several days.  But by the mid-nineteenth century, even as the city’s rapid industrialisation covered those same villages and parks with textile factories and rows of workers’ tenements, the number of lacemakers declined until, by 1851, there were only 1,600 listed in the census.[2]  Yet, even as she disappeared from Lille’s working-class quarters, the lacemaker became a symbol of the city, and the designated transmitter of its memories and traditions.

François Louis Joseph Watteau’s ‘La Fête du Broquelet’, c. 1803. Note the giant bobbin in the bottom right-hand corner carriage. This image from Wikipedia Commons, the original in the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, Lille.

It was a song, more specifically a lullaby, which brought about this transfiguration.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ [The little child] was first performed in 1851 by its author and composer, Alexandre Desrousseaux.[3]  It is in the voice of a lacemaker, coaxing and threatening her child to try to get him to sleep so she can get on with her work.  It would be hard to exaggerate the success of this text (originally titled ‘L’canchon dormoire’ or ‘lullaby’): it was without contest Desrousseaux’s most famous work – he is often described as ‘the father of Le P’tit Quinquin’ – and Desrousseaux was himself the most famous of Lille’s many dialect poets and songwriters.  That success was almost immediate: over 100,000 copies of the song were sold between 1853, its first publication, and 1890.  It could be heard in all the bars and cafés of the city, and by 1854 newspapers had already labelled it ‘The Marseillaise of the Lille worker’.  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ gave his name to shops, a newspaper, a make of biscuit, a brand of pencil, and dozens of other commercial uses, not just in Lille but across France.  More recently it was the title of a French TV mini-series, directed by Bruno Dumont which was set in northern France.  There are several continuations of the song (some by Desrousseaux himself) as well as numerous parodies, while the tune has been endlessly borrowed.  There are recordings of reggae, punk and military band versions.  When a monument to Desrousseaux was erected in Lille in 1902, his bust was accompanied by the child and his mother, complete with lace cushion.  In 1953 there were national, indeed international celebrations to mark the centenary of publication of the ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’.

The singer and composer Alexandre Desrousseaux pictured on an 1883 calendar. Note the images from his most famous song at the bottom.

Desrousseaux (1820-1892) grew up in Saint-Sauveur, a working-class quarter of Lille: his mother had herself been a lacemaker, but was later a shopkeeper, while his father made braiding.  Young Alexandre worked in a variety of textile factories and then as a tailor’s apprentice before being conscripted into the army in 1840.  However, he had already started to make a reputation as a musician, selling his own songsheets to the crowds during Lille’s carnival.  In the eighteenth century Lille had been home to a thriving dialect literary culture, with songs and plays composed in Picard, and often featuring lacemaker characters.  Antoine Cottignies (known as ‘Brûle-Maison’) and his son Jacques were the most famous practitioners, and their works were still familiar in the early nineteenth century.  Desrousseaux was determined to revive the glory days of Picard literature: almost everything he composed was in dialect.  Song clubs were a vibrant feature of working-class culture in Lille and other industrial cities, and dialect was often the preferred medium as more directly expressive of workers’ concerns (although the most famous piece to emerge from these clubs – Eugène Pottier’s socialist anthem ‘L’Internationale’ which was, for many years, the national anthem of the Soviet Union – was composed in standard French).  Desrousseaux himself, thanks to his military career and his growing musical fame, was taken under the wing of the deputy mayor of Lille, Arthur Gentil-Descamps, and so climbed the social ladder into the ranks of the middle classes as a municipal functionary.  However, he did not lose the common touch.

Singing clubs were an important part of Lille’s working-class culture (although the one illustrated here by Daumier is ‘La Goguette des Joyeux’ in Paris).

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ was apparently born from observation.  Walking through the city to visit his mother in cour Jeannette-à-vaches, Desrousseaux overheard a lacemaker, desperate to finish her order, attempting to quieten her crying child with promises of cakes and toys.  However, Desrousseaux also adapted the scenario in order to incorporate other elements of Lille’s traditions and working-class culture.  This idea was apparently suggested to him by Auguste Charles Arnold, the editor of the Gazette de Flandre.  Arnold felt that the Lille workers, overwhelmed by the changes brought on by mechanisation and, in particular, the mass migration from across the Belgian border, needed to be reminded of their own history, and to draw strength from their traditions.  Desrousseaux, who would go on to write an important book on the Moeurs populaires de la Flandre française (popular customs of French Flanders), took seriously his role as a folklorist: ‘Many of my songs could be considered as studies of our celebrations and pastimes, both public and private.’  ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ contains references to the ‘Ducasse’, Lille’s main fair in August/September, and the puppet shows which were a mainstay of popular entertainment in northern French towns, with at least one theatre on almost every street. Saint Nicholas also appears for, as elsewhere in northern Europe, his feast day on 6 December was the main season for gift-giving.  In Lille he was accompanied on his visits to children, both good and naughty, by a donkey who carried the gifts but who also carried whips to punish.  Thus the lullaby of desperate worker became a survey of working-class entertainments.

Desrousseaux borrowed the voice of a lacemaker, though more often elderly, for several other songs which detailed this plebeian cultural and municipal history, such as ‘Le Broquelet d’autrefois (souvenirs d’une dentellière)’ [The Feast of the Bobbin of Yesteryear (memories of a lacemaker)] and ‘la vieille dentellière, souvenirs et regrets’ [the old lacemaker, memories and regrets].  Other songwriters also used a lacemaker character to make comparisons between the past and the present.  For instance in 1908 Adolphe Desreumaux used this character to protest against the influx of Belgian migrant workers to the suburb of Wazemmes in his ‘Sou’vnirs d’eun vielle dintellière’ [Memories of an old lacemaker].[4]  Thus the lacemaker became the Sybil of Lille’s oral and popular history.

‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ works because it mimics genuine folk lullabies which often combined saccharine tunes with texts that reeked of despair.  Indeed, travellers passing through the city have assumed that it was a traditional folk lullaby rather than the work of a male author.[5]  Desrousseaux’s lacemaker is simultaneously tender and desperate.  Grinding poverty lurks in this text: a child crying for three-quarters of an hour was probably hungry, his good clothes were already in the pawn shop.  Promises of gingerbread and toys may not work on little Narcisse because they are implausible, whereas the threat of chastisement seems more concrete.

There are numerous recordings available, but most seem intended for a nursery audience (in which the dialect is softened or entirely absent).  Desrousseaux’s original listeners were adult males, and to appreciate the proper effect one really needs to hear it sung by happy bands of Lille OSC fans.  But in the absence of such an encounter, we recommend the version sung by Raoul de Godewarsvelde, who was born in the same quartier as Desrousseaux, and which is available on youtube.[6]

Below we provide the original text, and a rough English translation,.

 

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain

Ainsi l’autre jour une pauvre dentelière,
En berçant son petit garçon,
Qui depuis trois quarts d’heures ne faisait que pleurer,
Tâchait de l’endormir avec une chanson,
Elle lui disait ‘min narcisse,
Demain tu auras du pain d’épice,
Des bonbons à gogo, si tu es sage et si tu fais dodo.

Refrain

‘Et si tu me laisses faire une bonne semaine,
J’irai chercher ton beau sarrau
Ton patalon de drap, ton gilet de laine,
Comme un petit Milord tu seras faraud !
Je t’acheterai, le jour de la ducasse,
Un polichinelle cocasse
Un turlututu, pour jouer l’air du chapeau pointu.

Refrain

‘Nous irons dans la cour, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
Voir les marionnettes comme tu riras
Quand tu entendras dire un sou pour Jacques,
Par le polichinelle qui parle mal
Tu lui mettras dans sa main,
Au lieu d’un sou un rond de carrotte
Il te dira merci, parce comme nous, il prendra du plaisir !

Refrain

‘Et si par hazard son maître se fâche,
C’est alors Narcisse que nous rirons
Sans n’avoir envie, je prendrai mon air méchant,
Je lui dirai son nom et ses surnoms
Je lui dirai des fariboles,
Il m’en répondra des drôles
Enfin, chacun verra deux spectacles au lieu d’un.

Refrain

‘Alors serre tes yeux, dors mon bonhomme,
Je vais dire une prière au petit Jésus,
Pour qu’il vienne ici, pendant ton somme,
Te faire rêver que j’ai les mains pleines d’écus,
Pour qu’il t’apporte une brioche,
Avec du sirop qui coule
Tout le long de ton menton, tu te pourlécheras trois heures du long.

Refrain

‘Le mois qui vient, c’est la fête de St Nicolas,
C’est sûr au soir il viendra te trouver
Il te fera un sermon et te laissera mettre,
En-dessous du ballot un grand panier
Il le remplira si tu es sage,
De choses qui te rendront heureux
Sinon son baudet t’enverra un grand martinet.’

 Refrain

Ni les marionnettes, ni le pain d’épice,
N’ont produit d’effet ; mais le martinet
A vite calmé le petit Narcisse,
Qui craignait de voir arriver le baudet
Il a dit sa berceuse,
Sa mère l’a mis dans son berceau
A repris son coussin, et répété vingt fois le refrain

Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Tu me feras du chagrin, si tu ne dors point jusqu’à demain.

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my juicy grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

Thus the other day, a poor lacemaker,
While rocking her little boy
Who, for three-quarters of an hour had done nothing but cry,
Tried to get him to sleep with a song,
She said to him ‘My Narcisse,
Tomorrow you’ll have some gingerbread
and sweets galore, if you’re good and go to sleep.

Chorus

‘And if you let me do a good week’s work
I’ll go and get your smart smock
Your linen trousers and your woollen cardigan,[7]
You’ll be as smart as an English lord!
At the fair[8] I’ll buy you
a funny jumping jack
A whistle to play the tune “the pointed hat”.

Chorus

‘We’ll go down to the yard, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
To see the puppets, how you’ll laugh
When you hear “A farthing for Jacques”
Said by Mr Punch who talks so badly
You’ll put into his hand
a piece of carrot instead of a farthing
He’ll say thank you, because, like us, he’ll find it funny!

 

Chorus

‘And if by chance the puppetmaster gets angry
Then Narcisse we’ll make a joke of it
I’ll pretend to be really angry
I’ll call him by his nickname, and worse
I’ll tell him all kinds of nonsense
And he’ll respond in kind
And that way everyone will see two spectacles instead of just one.

Chorus

‘So close your eyes, sleep little man
I’ll say a prayer to baby Jesus
That he’ll come here, while you sleep
and make you dream that you have fistsfull of silver coins
That he’ll bring a bun
With syrup that drips
All the way down your chin, you’ll be licking yourself for three whole hours.

Chorus

‘Next month, it’s Saint Nicholas’s day[9]
And for certain he’ll come and find you in the evening
He’ll give you a sermon and let you put
a big basket under his bundle
If you’re good he’ll fill it
With things to make you happy
But if not his donkey will give you a real whipping.’

Chorus

Neither the puppets, nor the gingerbread
had produced any effect, but the whipping
quickly calmed little Narcisse
afraid to see the donkey come
He said his lullaby
His mother put him in the cot
She took up her pillow, and repeated the chorus twenty times

Sleep my little child, my little chick, my fat grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.

 

[1] 9 May remembers the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari, an important feast in the Orthodox Church but less usually so in the Catholic Church.

[2] André Mabille de Poncheville, L’industrie dentelière française spécialement en Flandre : Enquête dans la région de Bailleul (Valenciennes: Librairie Giard, 1911), p. 67.

[3] For a good biography and exploration of Desrousseaux’s work see Éric Lemaire, Le chansonnier lillois Alexandre Joachim Desrousseaux et la chanson populaire dialectale (DELEM, 2009).  Most of the information in this post comes from this source.

[4] Adolphe Desreumaux, Mes chansons et pasquilles patoises. Etudes de moeurs lilloises (Lille: J. Hollain, 1908), p. 17-18

[5] Countess Evelyn Martinengo-Cesaresco, Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), p. 253.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY28zyuK1HI

[7] The implication is that the clothes are in pawn.  Desrousseaux himself worked for the municipal pawn shop.

[8] The ‘Ducasse’ was Lille’s major fair, held at the end of August – beginning of September.

[9] 6 December.

Celebrating Catterns at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Saturday 25 November 2017

As readers of this blog will know, lacemakers claim several saints as their patron, but the one most favoured in the English Midlands is Saint Catherine.  The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford celebrated the Feast of Saint Catherine on 25 November 2017 with a ‘lace day’.   ISIS lacemakers demonstrated their skills and gave visitors a chance to make some lace themselves, while David Hopkin gave visitors talks about the lace tools on display and their connection to lacemakers’ work, feasts and folklore.  There were Cattern cakes to try (though we’re probably not quite ready to submit our cakemaking talents to the Great British Bake Off).  And we’re probably going to do the whole thing again next year.

Visitors to the Pitt Rivers met with local lacemakers and some had a go themselves

The lace display in the Pitt Rivers is small but there’s lots to say about it.

Global Histories of Lace: From the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Under large glass case to one side of the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum stands a lace maker’s pillow on a lace maker’s ‘horse’, a specially constructed wooden stand. A half-finished sample of lace is pinned to the pillow, a mass of bobbins handing from the pins used to create the intricate pattern. This lace maker’s pillow seems to be a small piece of English history marooned amongst the shrunken heads, baskets, pottery and shields of the Museum’s ethnographic collection. If one traces the history of English lace and lace making traditions through the Pitt River’s collection, it becomes clear that the history of lace and lace making follows the contours of European history itself, the fortunes of England’s lace makers rising and falling together with the religious schisms, economic policies, and changing political alliances between British and Continental rulers over time. Styles of lace we now identify as ‘English’ emerged from the courtly traditions and trade routes of Early Modern Europe, and quickly differentiated into local variants, such as Honiton or Bucks Point, shifting and changing with both domestic and international fashions. However, using the Pitt River’s collection to study traditions of English lace and lace making also reveals the contours of Britain’s own expansionist dreams: Silk lace from in South East Asia and palm needles from Amazonia are just a few of the objects in the Pitt-Rivers collection which serve to remind us that everywhere the technique traveled it became part of local practices and identities.

English lace maker’s ‘horse’ and pillow on exhibit in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Interest in lace and making lace was spread across the globe together with the imperial ambitions of the major European powers. The technique was carried to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa by emigrants, while Spanish, French, and British educationalists and missionaries taught Native Americans, Amazonians, Indians, and Sri Lankans the technique as part and parcel of their proselytizing efforts. Some of the geographic connections are exotic and reveal the way in which the technique and its instruments were taken up and adjusted to local conditions. In the Museum collection, for example, we find a pottery figure of a woman making pillow lace from Bello Jardem, Pernambuco State, Brazil (1945.2.16 – given by Dr Martins Gonçalves, British Council student, Slade School, Ashmolean Museum). From a similar area are eight bobbins(‘birros’) made of the fruit of the Tucuma palm, Amazonia used for making pillow lace (1961.7.56.1) given to the museum by Dr F. N. Howes, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

By a complex set of connections, the Pitt Rivers Museum acquired lace from in and around Galle on the south coast of what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The lace was collected by Mrs Bland at the beginning of the twentieth century, it then came into the possession of Flora Shelford who lived in Old Headington and who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in August 1919 (Accession number 1919.27.89). In a letter to Mrs Bland, Marion Evans of the Government Training College in Galle wrote ‘Fifty years ago, Honiton was made in Colombo … You will find good quality typical (i.e. Torchon) Ceylon lace in Galle Convent Industrial School, where they are also making a beginning with fine laces; in Moratuwa we have duchess and Valenciennes laces – in Kurunegola good Torchon and a little finer pillow lace – Spanish designs. In Kandy you will find bold pillow lace in the Convent School: but the Church Missionary Society has lace of a better quality…’ (letter from Marion Evans to Mrs Bland 19th April 1908 in Related Documents file linked to Accession Number 1919.27.89). In the same letter Marion Evans speculates as to whether local objects have inspired designs, such as mangoes and whether influences from Eastern Art (capitalized in the original) might eventually extend the range of lace styles.

Lace maker, Sri Lanka

 

As we see from the letter, the names of different styles and qualities of bobbin lace were common knowledge amongst most middle-class women in Britain, but lace itself had already become a global fashion item and a global commodity. Elsewhere in its collections, the Pitt Rivers has bobbins and samples of lace, sometimes done in silk, from Malacca in Malaysia. This was again through Mrs Bland, of whom Flora Shelford wrote ‘My brother-in-law and I have been winding up the house in Letchworth and came across a collection of lace specimens …  My sister did a great deal, as you may know, to revive the native industries in Malacca, and lace was one of these…’ (Flora Shelford letter to Balfour August 1919, Related documents File connected to accession book entry 1919.27.68). As in the case of Mrs. Bland’s efforts in Malacca, the formation of such ‘native  industries’ were often sparked by efforts of female missionaries and colonial officer’s wives to supply local women with a small income. A similar story is found in Travancore, South India. Here, the missionary Mrs Mault established the Nagercoil boarding school for the daughters of Christian converts in 1898 (Haggis 2000). Although the school prepared young women for the university entrance exams, lace-making was an obligatory part of the curriculum. Marketing the lace through throughout British cantonments in Southern India, it not only supplied the pupils with a small income, but eventually came to provide ‘the major financial underpinning of women’s work in the mission’ (2000:115). In Travancore, Christian philanthropy and bourgeois ideals of gendered behaviour become inextricably linked through the medium of lace making. As historian Jane Haggis notes, ‘the missionary wives saw the lace industry as another opportunity to instil those ‘habits of order, cleanliness, industry’ seen to be at the heart of a good Christian home’ (2000:116). Lace making supplied women with an income, and young women with the means to stave off marriage and continue their educations, and kept them from the ‘influence of wicked associates and sinful examples’ (2000:113) while supporting the Christian cause. More importantly, they could do this while staying at home: ‘Sewing and lace making fitted the missionary wives’ idea of ‘respectable’ and ‘useful’ skills for Christian housewives (2000:116). It appears, then, that the ‘utopian commodity consumption’ had been exported to the colonies. Along the way, however, it had garnered the additional virtue of becoming a tool of social and spiritual emancipation. Indeed, in one story recounted by a Travancore missionary, the skills and income of a native ‘lace lady’ (lace maker) enabled her to educated her daughter into a ‘Native Lady dressed in the costume of a Hospital Nurse – with polished, ladylike manners, speaking English with perfect ease and correctness’ (2000:117). Thus, the craft was construed as an instrument of enlightenment in the colonial setting: here, lace making was ‘English’, and ‘Englishness’ was marked out not by the presence of ancient cultural ‘survivals’, but the abandonment of indigenous ways of life in favour of civilized modernity.

While bobbin lace making was a European tradition, the Pitt River’s collection sheds light on how the craft was also a mobile technology which travelled across the entire globe with changing flows of people, materials, and ideas. Lace could therefore be made in an ‘English’ style (or ‘Flemish’ or ‘French’ style), but was also global, taking on and forming local identities as it moved across the world, local variants such as Honiton or Beds Maltese being made using silk in South East Asia and palm needles in Amazonia.

Sources:

Haggis, J. 2000. Ironies of
Emancipation: Changing configurations of ‘Women’s work’ on the ‘mission of
sisterhood’ to Indian women. Feminist Review, 65(3):108-126.

Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?

How do you understand the life of lace makers in the 19th and early 20th century, when they left very few records? Reading newspapers from the time can give us some clues to the thoughts and feelings of craftswomen, but surprisingly the tools of the trade also ‘speak’ to us across the decades.

The overwhelming fact of lace makers’ lives during the 19th century was poverty. Their fortunes were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of the Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: lace makers in the East Midlands, for example, enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Even in such periods of commercial success, however, only a minute portion of the overall profits of the trade ever made it into the hands of the lace makers themselves. From 19th century sources, we know that the reality of a lace maker’s life was often harsh: Working from home, women were often forced to work for 8 to 10 hours daily, as well as running the household.

Despite a growing number of reports detailing the dire working conditions of lace makers and the adverse effects these had on women’s health, lace making was often publicly extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty. Thus, in 1780, a parliamentary white paper considering a reinstatement of a previous ban on French laces remarked that lace making ‘only kept those Hands employed that would otherwise have been mischievous or idle’ and ‘while the Male Part of the Family were employed in Agriculture abroad, the Wife and Daughters were equally assiduous in their gainful Occupations at home’ (1780:2). The considerable gains from the industry, the author continued, ‘might be considered as a voluntary Tribute paid by the Rich to the industrious Poor’ (1780:2). Historian Elaine Freedgood has described this self-imposed patronage of working class lace makers by a nobility relieved from labour, and by the philanthropy of bourgeois housewives, as a mode of ‘utopian commodity consumption’ in which the supply and demand of the market was replaced by a language of ‘need and duty as affluent women are enjoined to support the efforts of labouring women’ (2003:628). Lacemaking, in short, was presented as a charitable means of preserving the moral virtue of labouring women by those who had no need to work themselves.

Northampton Mercury and Herald, Friday January 19th, 1934.

Lace makers themselves experienced craftwork as both a compulsive, almost pleasurable obsession, and straightforward drudgery. In 1933, the elderly Mrs Johnson told the Northampton Mercury that the life of a lace maker was one of ‘unremitting toil’; and yet she missed her work. Once, she reminisced, she had ‘sat from four o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night working on a cuff, and the pillow had to be dragged away from me. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my room with the door shut and the work in front of me’. Others, however, had much less sympathetic memories of the trade. In an interview in 1979, a Mrs Swain from Greens Norton, remembered how she was forced to make lace as a child: “I should say you’d find a piller [pillow] in everybody’s house that were poor people. All the women in the town [village] had to do it, and all the girls had to learn. I detested it. My mother used to say, when I come from school, “Now sit down and do your piller-work. The sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll get out to play.” She goes on to account how she later burned the lace making pillow, her mother’s bobbin winder, and the pillow stand – even though it had been made by her brother and was apparently ‘a beauty’. For Mrs Swain, the pillow, its stand, and the winding wheel had become symbols of the drudgery of the trade, and her enforced labour as a child.

Mrs Swain, however, did not mention burning her mother’s bobbins. Indeed, if one looks at both contemporary newspaper material and later accounts, lace makers’ bobbins are often spoken about in far warmer terms than other tools of the trade. This is partly due to the fact that they were a collection of tools unique to each lace maker. Hand carved or turned on a treadle lathe, bobbins were commonly made of wood or bone and could be intricately carved, painted, inlaid with pewter, wire-bound or inscribed with names and dates. Lace makers would sometimes thread charms and mementos onto their spangles, such as buttons, shells or coins. Bobbins inscribed with names were extremely common. They were often made to commemorate births and deaths, and many bobbins carried blessings and religious messages (‘Seek Salvation’). Bobbins carrying messages of love were also common gifts given from young men to their sweethearts. The power of a gift of a bobbin to create bonds between persons was exploited by people from beyond a lace maker’s immediate circle of friends and family. Bobbins with the names of political candidates and their slogans were distributed at election time and some lace dealers gave their workers bobbins as gifts. Lace makers generally worked for more than one dealer and these gifts may have been an attempt from the dealers’ side to monopolize the services of particularly talented craftswomen. Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘William’. From the collection of the Museum of Rural English Life, Reading

Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘Fox’. From the collection of the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

 

A lace maker’s collection of bobbins, then, was like a very personal, material record of her family relations, friendships, and love life. Indeed, in families where lace making had been a tradition, but was no longer practiced, it was often the bobbins which were kept for posterity long after pillows, pillow stands and other paraphernalia had been given or thrown away. Reporting on the revival of lace making lessons at St Mary’s School in Stony Stratford, the Northampton Mercury reported that two students arrived with such heirloom bobbins, enthusiastically claiming that they were 200 and 400 years old, respectively. While it is unlikely, although not impossible, that these bobbins had actually survived several centuries of pillow-work, the claims that they were extremely old seemed to be about presenting tangible evidence of these local families’ long involvement in the industry. Similarly, the aforementioned Mrs Johnson claimed that one of her bobbins had belonged to her great-grandmother and was 200 years old. Made of bone, it bore the inscription ‘I like my choice too well to change’. Bobbins, however, were also commodities – like lace-making, bobbin-making was a profession which ran in families – and as such, they were liable to be not only bought and gifted, but also stolen. In 1860, for example, the Bucks Herald reported that a certain Mary Dormer of Milton Keynes stole 12 bobbins from Hannah Robinson, and was imprisoned for 6 weeks for her crime.

 

 

Notification from the Bucks Herald reporting Mary Dormer’s theft of twelve bobbins, Saturday July 14th, 1860.

Of Pigs and Lacemakers: The Reverend Thomas Mozley’s Reminiscences of Moreton Pinkney (1832-36)

Moreton Pinkney, like its near neighbour in south Northamptonshire, Silverstone, had a reputation in the early nineteenth century as ‘a very rough place’.  Or so it appeared, in 1832, to its new curate, Thomas Mozley, who claimed ‘there existed no adequate means for the maintenance of order, health, or decency’.[1]  Mozley was one of the most ardent proselytizers for the ‘Oxford’ or ‘Tractarian Movement’ in the late 1830s and ‘40s, a High Church form of Anglicanism whose influence we have encountered before.  He had been a pupil of Henry Newman, the future cardinal, at Oriel College (which held the living of Moreton Pinkney), and would marry Newman’s sister in 1836.  Clergymen no doubt have relatively high standards of behaviour, but Mozley’s strictures concerning Moreton Pinkney also found echoes in the contemporary press: according to the Banbury Advertiser for 3 September 1857 it had an ‘unenviable notoriety’ for lawlessness.[2]

One of Mozley’s measures of the village’s ‘roughness’ was that pigs – ‘huge masterful brutes’ – ran riot in the streets and forced their way into his garden: ‘When we complained we were told that the pigs must have a run, and that between schooling and lace-making, no child could be spared to look after them.’[3]  Moreton Pinkney was then, and would remain into the 1870s at least, a lace village.  This too posed its problems for Mozley, very much a reforming clergyman determined to impose order, sobriety and learning on the ‘rude and generally inoffensive savages’.  Even among the children who actually attended the village school, it was ‘woeful to find what a dense mass of ignorance buried a thin stratum of knowledge’.  But even if, as Mozley planned, the existing school could be reformed, there remained another obstacle:

The school was but half filled. It had a rival too strong for it. This village of misery and dirt, of cold and nakedness, of pigs and paupers, was the busy seat of a beautiful and delicate manufacture. As many as a hundred and fifty women and girls made pillow lace. On the higher green was the ‘lacemaking school,’ as it was called. Near thirty children were packed in a small room, and kept at their pillows from six in the morning, all the year round, to six in the evening. They were arranged in groups of four or five, round candles, about which were water-bottles so fixed as to concentrate the light on the work of each child. Girls were sent thither from the age of five, on a small weekly payment.

It kept them out of the way in the day, and it prevented the wear and tear of clothes. The food side of the calculation was doubtful, for the parents always said the lacemakers ate more than other children, though it did not do them much good. For a year or two the children earned nothing. They could then make a yard of edging in a week, and, deducting expenses, they got twopence for it. By the time they were eleven or twelve they could earn a shilling or eighteenpence a week. There were women in the village who could not clothe their own children, or present themselves at church, who had made and could still make lace to sell in the shops at 20s. or 30s. a yard. The more costly lace was generally ‘blonde,’ that is, made with ‘gimp’ or silk thread.  The makers were all bound to the dealers by hard terms, so they said, and obliged to buy at the dealers’ terms their gimp and thread.

They took great pride in the number and prettiness of their bobbins, making and receiving presents of them, and thinking of the givers as they twirled the bobbins. We took a good deal of the lace, and disposed of it amongst our friends. My youngest sister set up a pillow, and made some yards of good lace. I learnt to be a critic in lace, and an appraiser.

Though all these children were taught to read, and even to write and to sum a little, they were of course very backward, and they soon ceased to do anything but make lace.[4]

Mozley thought of backwardness in terms of Bible knowledge, and his response was to run evening classes for boys and girls which were, apparently, much appreciated.  Thirty years later he met one member of his New Testament class who came as a lace-dealer to his new vicarage in Finchampstead, Berkshire, and who was able to pass on all the parish gossip.[5]

Some of that gossip probably concerned the extensive Talbot family of Hog Lane, ‘believed to be of Gypsy extraction’.  As many Talbot womenfolk were lacemakers, we quote this section in extenso, not least because of its discussion of the ‘truck system’.  Although illegal, it was common practice not only among bootmakers but also among lace-dealers, who were often also grocers.  They obliged lacemakers to take payment in kind rather than coin, which forced the workers to hawk the overpriced goods for themselves.  As we have seen, Reverend Ferguson of Bicester discussed the same abuse.

The Talbot clan contained some remarkable specimens.  George was a gigantic fellow a well-sinker and excavator. He did not make much appearance at Moreton Pinckney; indeed, it was said that he had married one or more wives besides the one on duty there. She might be supposed a match for him, for in a terrible quarrel she had run a knife right through his arm. He was in prison part of my time for deserting his family. His mother took it much to heart, and when I was expecting some sentimental explanation of her sorrow, told me she knew what the prison allowance of bread was, and that George would starve on it.

There were two Phillis Talbots, one old, and the other still young, but the mother of a large family. She was, and she remained for many years, a name dear to my Derby friends. My contemporary note of the family is, ‘a delicate and very interesting woman. He is well-intentioned, but weak of purpose. A large family. Very poor.’ Her voice and utterance told for her as much as her looks. She was one of the best lace-makers in the village: but to think of the darkness, damp, and dirt her beautiful fabrics came out of, and the rough cubs all round her ‘pillow’! In her early days she had made lace that fetched 25s. or 30s. a yard. We saw bits of it. Some of her children were of my evening classes, and they were sure of help. Her cottage, in Hog Lane, belonged to some one who could not afford a penny for the repair of the thatch, and it was a mass of rot. I remember her describing a stormy night. As she lay in bed something dropped upon her face, and, when she felt for it, was cold and clammy. She got up and struck a light, and, ‘Oh, ma’am,’ she said to my mother or sister, ‘it was a newt!’

For some years we sent her an annual present, but had to stop it for a very sad reason, of which I never heard the full particulars. One or two of her sons were in the employment of shoemakers at Northampton, or one of the other seats of that trade.  They brought home boots and shoes, which poor Phillis took, and used or sold. She had to suffer a term of imprisonment as a receiver of stolen goods.

It must be explained, however, that in those days the truck system was universal, at least among all the lower class of manufacturers. The makers of any article whatever would say to their workpeople at the end of the week or fortnight, ‘We haven’t the money to pay you the whole of your wages; we cannot find sale, or our customers will not pay. So take, at cost price, some of the things you have made, and sell them yourselves if you can.’

The practice was the subject of long discussions in Parliament for many years, and had more advocates than might be now supposed. One of the chief objections was the opportunity it gave the workpeople for robbing their employers. They carried about goods which they said had been given them in lieu of money wages; and, as the practice was universal, they were not suspected, nor could a suspicion have been followed up. In the matter of lace it continually occurred that when the makers had every reason to believe the dealers would take their work on existing terms, they found they had themselves to find purchasers on whatever terms they could. In those days law was invoked much more freely for the protection of trade than it is now, when manufacturers and dealers are told to take care of themselves.[6]

The case against Phillis Talbot was rather more serious than this summary suggests.  In the hard and hungry winter of 1848, according to the Oxford Chronicle Northamptonshire was rife with rumours and alarms about burglaries and highway robberies.[7]  Well-off farmers feared a return to the days of the infamous ‘Culworth Gang’, who terrorized south Northamptonshire at the end of the eighteenth century and whose memory was very much alive in places like Moreton Pinkney (and whose exploits may feature in a future blog piece).  On 15 December, a group of armed men, their faces blackened, broke into the farm of Thomas Lovell in Catshanger.  Firearms were discharged and linen, silver, clothing and foodstuffs were stolen.  An investigation led to the arrest of Phillis’s son, Benjamin, whose age was given as 11, as well as several members of the Prestidge family who were related to Phillis by marriage and whose name ‘had become so familiar in the records of county crime’.[8]  During searches of houses in Moreton Pinkney Phillis was seen hiding some boots that were part of the thieves’ hoard: she was charged with receiving stolen goods.  At Northampton Lent Assizes in 1849, she was condemned to one month in prison, a comparatively lenient sentence justified ‘on the ground that she was a mother endeavouring to shelter her child, and that it did not appear that she was of the same lawless disposition as the rest of her family.  The prisoner, who seemed worn to utter feebleness with illness and age [she was about 50], and trembled excessively, was accommodated with a chair’.  Benjamin, however, was transported for life, along with the other male members of the gang.[9]  The Catshanger burglary would have ramifications in the district: at Brackley Petty Session for 9 September 1850 several Moreton Pinkney women, Talbots and Prestidges – ‘a batch of viragoes’ as they were described in the Banbury Guardian – were charged with assaulting other villagers, including Phillis, after a row broke out among women working in the fields about responsibility for arrests.[10]

This was certainly not the last occasion that rioting occurred at Moreton Pinkney, nor the last time that the Prestidges and Talbots were in court.  However, the background to this ‘lawlessness’ was the enclosure of common land in Moreton Pinkney at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the replacement of the Old Poor Law, which had supported needy villagers in their own homes, with the New Poor Law and with it the workhouse.  Some of the violence was the direct result of villagers, including the Prestidges and the Talbots, attempting to assert what they perceived as their traditional rights, including rights over property, against improving farmers and reforming clergymen like Mozley.[11]  Poverty, more than criminality, was the scourge of the lace villages.  The 1840s and 50s were desperate times, and we can hear an echo of that in the heartfelt plea of Sarah Prestidge, wife of one of the men sentenced for the Catshanger robbery, before the magistrates in February 1857, where she was charged with failing to support her family.  A widow aged just 36 (William Prestidge had died in prison at Gibraltar in 1856), she replied:

I have no means of supporting my children.  There are four of them; three girls and a boy… I have been in Northampton gaol before for not maintaining the children.  I wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in London, and the case was referred to the Brackley Board.  I cannot maintain my children.  I have regular work three days a week in the minister’s house.  If I had relief equal to other widows with families I would try and maintain my children out of the Union [workhouse].  If I had the same relief as Phillis Talbot I would try…  I had sooner die under a furze bush than go into the workhouse.  I had rather go to gaol.  There is little difference between them.  In the gaol you are by yourself, but in the workhouse you have rough company.  I had rather have my children with me at home than go to gaol, but I won’t go to the Union.  When I was at the workhouse I was separated from my children.  I saw them at meals certainly, but we were not allowed to speak to one another, we may as well not see them, if we are not allowed to speak to them.  The boys you don’t see more than once a week.  In the workhouse very simple things are called bad behaviour, and my daughter was shut up in a dark room.  The food is not good at the workhouse, and not good at the gaol; there is very little difference between them.  I am not fond of the gaol, but I would leave England rather than go to the Union.[12]

 

[1] Reverend Thomas Mozley, Reminiscences Chiefly of Towns, Villages and Schools (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1885), vol. 2, pp. 200, 396.

[2] ‘Disorderly Conduct and Rioting at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Advertiser 3 September 1857, p. 4.

[3] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 201-2.

[4] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 223-4.

[5] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, p. 227.

[6] Mozley, Reminiscences, vol. 2, pp. 250-2.

[7] Oxfordshire Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, 23 December 1848.

[8] Or so said Colonel Cartwright at the Northampton Quarter Sessions on 5 April 1854: Northampton Mercury 8 April, 1854, p. 3.

[9] Northampton Mercury 10 March 1849, p. 4.  For more on their various fates see Joan Proud, ‘Round up the Usual Suspects!’, Convict Links 15:3 (July 2001).

[10] Banbury Guardian, 12 September, 1850, p. 2.

[11] See, for example, the court case arising out of ‘Guy Fawkes Day at Moreton Pinkney’, Banbury Guardian 28 November 1861, p. 3.

[12] Banbury Guardian 12 February 1857, p. 3.

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Sylvia Pankhurst’s Support for Lacemakers

Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1909

Unlike some of the other personages we’ve discussed on this site, Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) probably needs little introduction.  Daughter of Emmeline, sister of Christabel and Adela, Sylvia was an artist, a suffragist, a political radical, and deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-colonial movements between the wars.  She was also interested in lace and lacemakers, as we learnt from Joan Ashworth at a recent conference.  (Joan is making a film called Locating Sylvia Pankhurst.)[1]  For Sylvia, the concerns of working women should have been at the heart of the women’s suffrage campaign, a position that led to a split with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and her expulsion in 1914 from the Women’s Social and Political Union.  She had already demonstrated her interest in women’s work in 1907, when she toured England and Scotland, drawing and interviewing women employed in the potteries, boot and shoe manufacture, the coal industry, chain-making, herring-gutting, and agricultural activities.  She may have envisaged that this would lead to a full-length book, but this never came to fruition; instead articles appeared in magazines, including an illustrated article on ‘Women Workers of England’ in the London Magazine (1908).[2]

It is possible that she had considered including pillow-lace makers in this project.  Domestic women workers were the object of concerted social and philanthropic campaigning in the first decade of the twentieth century, and in these campaigns the fate of the women chain-makers of Cradley Heath was repeatedly linked to that of lacemakers in England and elsewhere.  The same period also witnessed a moderately successful attempt to revive the lace industry and Emily Hobhouse, a campaigner on behalf of Boer civilian prisoners in South Africa, obviously thought Sylvia knew about this because she asked her (c. 1903-4) for lace patterns.[3]  However, no pictures or notes of interviews with lacemakers survive from this period.

The article below was written later, probably around 1929.  Whether it was ever published I have been unable to establish but the typescript appears among her papers now held by the International Institute of Social History, where they are available online.[4]  This is not, it has to be said, a ground-breaking piece of journalism.  In fact, its entire contents are lifted, sometimes verbatim, from Thomas Wright’s Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919).  (The ‘Mrs’ – in fact Mr Harry – Armstrong mentioned at the end of the article also published that book.)[5]  We suspect, therefore, that there never was such as person as ‘Lydia Arkwright’, rather she was a character invented on which to hang various elements of lace lore.  Certainly we have not been able to identify any lacemaker alive in the 1920s with that name.

Nonetheless, we thought it worth including the article on this site because it illustrates just how widespread concern was for the survival of the handmade lace industry.  Sylvia Pankhurst was a socialist, for a while a member of the Communist Party, but her article recapitulates all the themes that aristocratic and clerical patrons of lacemaking used to promote the trade, such as the idealized cottage with birds fluttering around the door and the happy singers in the lace school.  In the first half of the twentieth century, the survival of women’s rural craft traditions was a topic that could unite both left and right of the political spectrum, just as did the ‘arts and crafts’ aesthetics which were so important to the lace revival.

Old Lace

Old Lydia Arkwright sits at her cottage door, plying her pins and bobbins, producing on her pillow the choicest of filmy lace, more exquisite than gems.  The birds flutter round her, confidently pecking up the crumbs she never omits to scatter for them.  Her bobbins are rosewood, well wrought by the bobbin maker from her own trees; but in the press over there is a box of pretty bone bobbins she never uses, cunningly carved and daintily lettered in red and blue, with tender inscriptions, as was the custom of her youth: ‘Lydia Dear’, ‘I wish to wed and love’, ‘My mind is fixed; I cannot range: I love my choice too well to change’.

Her fingers fly, her old voice, quavering, croons the lace-working songs, ‘lace tells’ as they are called:

‘Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die…’

Each tells [sic] calls up some memory of her youth; this one she first heard her first day at the lace school, a tiny wench, only five years old, her poor little face distorted with weeping, for her parents were newly dead of the small-pox.  She had a shelter with her father’s old aunt, but must learn to work for her bread.  So small she was, and woefully ‘unkid’, as the lace folk termed anyone abjectly miserable as she was.  She evoked compassion, for an instant, even in the stern breast of the lace-mistress, petrified as it was by hard toil and grasping for meagre gain.

Rows of little lace girls in clean print dresses, with low necks and short sleeves, their hair in tight plaits, lest any tress should defile the lace were ‘sot’ demurely on stools, on either side of long benches, whereon the lace pillows rested.  The mistress, her keen glance comprehending all, sat clutching her cane in long yellow fingers, ready to chastise the smallest fault with a stroke on those little bare necks and arms.  She gave the forlorn new-comer some bobbins to ‘halse’, and when her sad tears fell on the sacred thread, forgetting all pity, struck her six times over the head, and rubbed her face on the pins.  Poor Lydia proved a diligent pupil, none the less, and as time passed, son [sic. won?] sometimes a good word, and even a little prize from the crabbed old mistress.

The boys, in their smocks, were kept apart from the docile girls; a ‘spunky’ lot they were, getting up to larks and wasting the thread, often playing truant, ‘homesking’ [? illegible] over the fields or ‘scelching’ in the bank by the brook.  She remembered Jack Croft, after a stroke of the cane, ran out of the school and flung his pillow down the well!  What a to-do there was!  No wonder the lace schools charged 4d a week to train a lad, only 2d for a girl.

When the children had grown proficient, they worked ten hours a day for sixpence a week, paid out to them monthly.  They had to stick 600 pins per hour, and if they were five pins short at the end of the day, must work another hour.  When the short winter days drew in, there was neither gas nor electric light to work by, nor so much as an oil lamp; even candles were short.  As many lace makers as possible, often three rings of them, on stools of different heights, sat round a candle-block, with a tall tallow candle burning in the centre and around it inverted flasks fo water, which focussed the little flame of the candle on to the lace cushions.  It was a poor gleam at best, and it was a harsh punishment indeed to be kept in to work by it before the usual season.  They worked hard to get done before dusk, inciting each other to persevere by an appropriate ‘tell’, one row of children singing:

‘19 miles to the Isle of Wight;
Shall I get there by candle-light?’

The next row replied:
‘Yes, if your fingers are lissom and light,
You’ll get there by candle-light.’

Even in the coldest weather, the lace school was unheated.  The only means of keeping warm was to place close to one’s feet, and even under one’s skirts, a ‘fire pot’ of rough earthenware, resembling the scaldino used in Italy, filled each morning with glowing wood-ashes at the baker’s, for the cost of a farthing, and revived occasionally by the bellows.  Sometimes there was a cry: ‘I smell burn!’  Somebody’s petticoat was singed!

It was a hard striving existence for the young, and after they were free of the lace school, there was the ‘baby pillow’ at home, on which the children could earn a few pence more.

Yet what days they were for mirth and jest!  If a girl ran short of pins, she would go round the room with a snatch of song:

‘Polly or Betsy, a pin for the poor!
Give me a pin and I’ll ask for no more.’

On hot summer days they were allowed to take their work outside, and in the joy of youth, they entered into merry contests, sometimes individually, sometimes row against row, competing to place a given number of pins in the shortest time.  And ever and anon, their voices joined in the numberless ‘tells’:

‘Needle pin, needle pin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch.
If she is not out as soon as I
A rap on the knuckles shall come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about —
Must not look off till 20 are out.’

Then they all counted twenty pins, and if anyone looked up before he or she had done, the others shouted:

‘Hang her up for half an hour;
Cut her down just like a flower.’

The offender would hastily put in the final pins and retort:

‘I won’t be hung up for half an hour,
I won’t be cut down like a flower.’

What times they had on ‘Tanders’, St. Andrews Day, November 30th, which was the lace-makers’ holiday, for St. Andrew was regarded as their patron Saint.  On that day people met in ‘one another’s housen’, and partook of ‘no-candy’, framenty [sic] (wheat boiled in milk and flavoured with spice), and hot, spiced metheglin, made from washing the honeycomb.  Even the lace mistress became genial and bade them invite their friends to join the merrimaking at the school.  In the height of the fun she would come in with a fire pot of metheglin held high in either hand, crying ‘Tan, my boys, Tan!’  When she left the room to get more, they would lock her out, and sung as she shook the door in pretended wrath:

‘Pardon mistress, pardon master,
Pardon for a pin!
If you won’t give us a holiday
We won’t let you in!’

Then the fiddles struck up, and the boys and girls danced round the candle-block, singing:

‘Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick,
Jack, jump over the candlestick.’

inserting the name of every boy and girl in turn.  Whoever was named must essay the jump over the lighted candle and all.!

The blades were removed from the bobbin winder, and suspended by a cord from one of the beams.  On the pins of the blade were stuck pieces of apple and candle alternately.  The young folk, blindfolded in turn, essayed to bite the apple, and, to the merriment of the spectators, often bit the candle.

Catterns, St. Catherine’s day, was another festival.  The bellman went round before daybreak, calling:

Rise, maids, rise,
Bake your Cattern pies;
Bake enough and bake no waste
And let the bellman have a taste.’

The lace-makers worked hard to finish work by noon, and then ‘wet’ the candle-stool, as they said, by taking tea together with Cattern cakes.  After dancing to the fiddle, they supped on apple pie, ginger-bread, ‘wigs’ flavoured with caraway seed, and drank warm beer, spiced and mixed with rum and beaten eggs.

On Shrove Tuesday, the Parish Clerk rang the ‘Pancake Bell’ at eleven, and the women ran out of their cottages, striving to be first to offer him a pancake fresh from the pan.

Village history wove itself into the tells.  There was one Lydia learnt from her great aunt of a girl whose faithless love, ‘the Fox’, enticed her to meet him in the wood at night, and with an accomplice designed to murder and bury her there.

19 miles as I sat high,
Looking for one, and two passed by;
I saw them that never saw me —
I saw the lantern tied to a tree.

The boughs did bend and the leaves did shake;
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
The Fox did look, the Fox did see
I saw the hole to bury me.’

Folk songs they call such ditties, viewing them as remote and strange, but old Lydia knows they are not mere phantasy; behind each one there lies a poignant human history.  There was a tragic, true story, sung, in a lace tell, about the neighbouring villages in her girlhood, which well she knows, but never sings; it touches her too nearly.  Because of that story, the pretty bone bobbins lie idle in their box and Lydia Arkwright is a spinster yet.

XX XXXXXX

Lace makers ply their lovely craft in Bucks, Beds, Northants and Huntingdon. The fine old patterns, which once fell into disuse, have been revived, above all those of the exquisite Bucks Point, the acorn, the tulip, the carnation, wedding bells, and running river, which age can never stale.  At Olney, the Bucks cottage lace-makers work on the pillow as they did in the days of Katharine of Arragon, who is said to have introduced the industry.  A postcard to Mrs Armstrong of the Bucks Cottage Workers’ Association, Olney, will bring particulars to hand.

 

[1] http://locatingsylviapankhurst.com/index.html

[2] This project is discussed on http://www.sylviapankhurst.com/sylvia_the_artist/women_workers_of_england_project.php

[3] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideas (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1931), pp. 178-9.  Hobhouse returned to South Africa in 1905 under the auspices of the Boer Home Industries and Aid Society to set up classes in spinning and other female domestic manufacture: perhaps lace was meant to be part of this programme.

[4] IISH, Estella Sylvia Pankhurst Papers, box 164: https://search.socialhistory.org/Record/ARCH01029/ArchiveContentList#293

[5] On Harry Armstrong and the Bucks Cottage Workers Association see http://www.mkheritage.org.uk/odhs/full-list-of-elizabeth-knights-articles/my-introduction-to-the-lacemaking-pages/harry-armstrong-and-the-bucks-cottage-workers-agency/

Jan Van Beers’ ‘Begga’ (1868): A Lacemaking Cinderella

‘Facades on the Handschoenmarkt, Antwerp’ by the Antwerp painter Hendrik Frans Schaedels (1827-1904). Begga and her family lived in an upper-floor appartment in such a street.

‘Begga’ was the name of a seventh-century Merovingian noblewoman and saint, an ancestor of Charlemagne.  Beguines, those pious women who had a significant role to play in the lace industry in the Low Countries, sometimes claimed her as their founder.[1]  But another Begga, a lacemaker, was the eponymous heroine of a poem by the Belgian writer Jan van Beers (1821-1888).[2]  ‘Begga’ is probably his best known poem, in part because of its powerful invocation of the author’s stumbling return to the Roman Catholic faith of his youth: ‘”he felt his soul overwhelmed with a holy trembling”, on entering the imposing temple [Antwerp cathedral] to which his mother had once taken him as a child, and where she had taught him to call the eternally Inscrutable, whose ineffable name the whole universe scarce dares to stammer, Our Father.’  Thus the theologian Cornelius Tiele quoted ‘Begga’ at length when making the argument that ‘religion always begins with an emotion’ in his influential Elements of a Science of Religion (1899).[3]

Saint Begga, often named (though incorrectly) as the founder of the Beguines. This statue adorned the Begijnhofkerk in Hoogstraten, near Antwerp. The image comes from the online resource of Hoogstraten’s museum:
www.erfgoedbankhoogstraten.be

Jan van Beers was an important figure in the Flemish Movement (‘Vlaams Beweging’) which, starting in the middle years of the nineteenth century, sought to establish a place for the Flemish (Dutch) language in the Belgian state, but just as importantly, make it a vehicle for cultural expression.  In the Romantic period, in which the Flemish Movement had its roots, the poet was envisaged as a vehicle channelling the voice of the people, of the nation even.  Naturally it could therefore only be expressed in the language of the people.  Beers contributed not just as a poet, but as a teacher of Dutch, as the composer of the lyrics for an oratorio by the Flemish composer Peter Benoit (‘De Oorlog’, 1873), and as deputy librarian for Antwerp city (he would marry Henriette Mertens, daughter of the chief librarian, and a Flemish salonnière).[4]  But Beers was also one of the generation of writers that turned from Romanticism towards Realism.  His early poems drew on history for their inspiration, but his later works depicted the life he saw around him on the streets of Antwerp.

Jan van Beers (1821-1888). Image from Wikipedia.

‘Realism’ does not necessarily mean an authentic depiction of the hard lives of Flemish working poor.[5]  Beers was a teacher and a trainer of teachers, and his writings were meant for, and were used in, schools.  He had a moral as well as an aesthetic purpose: virtue must be rewarded and faith defended.  Although ‘Begga’ is subtitled ‘a story from Flemish folk life’, it more closely resembles a folk tale: in fact it is Cinderella rewritten in a realist mode.

The poem opens with its heroine Begga lovingly overseeing the night-time prayers of her little half-brother, before taking up the pillow again to which she has been chained since the morning.  The sounds of celebration drift up from the street for it is Whitmonday, the great fair of Antwerp.  Her stepmother and half sister Coleta are enjoying the dance while she is forced to work.  Her stepmother hates Begga.  She had been the childhood sweetheart of Begga’s father, but then he had married another, who had soon died.  Moved as much by pity for the infant Begga as by love for the man, she became his second wife.  But when she too had a daughter she wondered why her husband gave Begga more kisses, why he dangled her on his knee longer than Coleta.  When she heard him whispering to Begga that she was the ‘adorable image of your dear, blessed mother’, her sympathy turned to hate.  Coleta and Begga, meanwhile, were loving sisters, until they become rivals for the affections of their neighbour Frans, the cooper’s son.  Coleta, urged on by her mother, not only dances with him at the ball, he also escorts her and her mother home.  All seems going swimmingly until Frans insists on saying goodnight to Begga too and in a burst of enthusiasm, before the astonished trio, declares his love for her.  This brings on a crisis: for the sake of her own daughter, the stepmother must dispose of Begga.  Hysterically alleging all kinds of wrongdoing, she throws her out of their lodgings.

Frans meanwhile is mooning about the town, failing to join in with his friends at the archery club or at the inn (archery was a popular sport among Flemish urban artisans and a continuing vehicle for municipal pride).  He loves Begga but she is poor; will his father approve?  In the end, though, it is the cooper who, guessing the cause for Frans’ mood, forces the issue.  He takes the occasion of a feast on their shared name-day (Saint Francis, 4 October) to drag the truth out of his son.  Striking while the iron is hot – it’s the same phrase in Dutch – he steps over the road to ask the stepmother for Begga’s hand, only to be told she has been sent packing.  With a pretence at reluctance, the stepmother admits that Albert, the son of the lace factoress (the woman who acted as an intermediary between the lacemakers and the wholesale dealers) for whom all three women work, had been making excuses to visit them, and he and Begga had been carrying on right there in her home.  Disgusted, she had sent her packing, and last heard she was sharing a room in the city with Albert.

Begga had indeed taken a room with money from Albert.  When she lost her home she went to the factoress’s house to get work, and Albert gave her a ‘voorschot’ – an advance.  But this was not just kindness: soon Albert is calling regularly on the pretext of seeing how the lace advances, but really to make advances to her.  Begga refuses his cajoling, and even his violence, but she is in a terrible plight.  As she has taken money from the factoress, she cannot take work from anyone else until the debt is cleared: she is tied to Albert and there is nothing she can do to escape.

In desperation Begga goes to the cathedral, the occasion for van Beers’ nostalgic rhapsody that so struck Tiele.  It is the feast of All Souls, when we remember the dead.  But death haunts the city: an epidemic of cholera, ‘the Blue Death’ as it was known at the time, had broken out.  This is the only incident that allows us to date these events.  A decining port with a decrepit, not to say non-existent system of public sanitation, Antwerp was an ideal breeding ground for cholera, and city was affected regularly in the nineteenth century.  The most recent outbreak occurred exactly when van Beers was composing his poem, in 1866, and it had killed nearly 3000 people in city, that is one in every forty of the population (these are the official statistics, which often undercounted).  However that was a summer outbreak, and by the 1860s lace was a moribund trade in Antwerp.  Earlier outbreaks, in 1832 and 1848-9, also seem unlikely because they took place against the backdrop of political upheavals which find no mention in the poem.  Perhaps van Beers had either the 1853 or 1859 outbreak in mind.[6]

‘The Interior of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, Antwerp’, by Peeter Neefs The Younger (1620-1675) and Frans Franken III (1607-1667). The image was taken from Wikipedia Commons and the original hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. According to the theologian Cornelius Tiele, it was van Beers’ emotional response to this architecture, which he describes in ‘Begga’, which prompted his own reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

 

After everyone has left the Church Begga remains on her knees, effectively praying for death as a release from her sufferings.  A priest emerges, followed by a sacristan carrying a ciborium.  Someone is about to be administered the last rites.  Almost a ghost herself, Begga follows them through the winding streets to her stepmother’s door.  Coleta lies dead, and her little brother has also been taken ill.  Begga rushes in and cradles her brother despite her stepmother’s rages, which are overtaken by signs that she too is succumbing to the disease.  As she lies on the same bed where Coleta died, Begga nurses her.  The stepmother’s heart melts and in her last act she calls the cooper and his son to her, and reveals that she lied about her stepdaughter.  Angels in heaven could not be purer.  After her death Frans and his father take Begga and her little brother into their house, which from now on will also be hers.

Lace, I must admit, plays a rather small part in Begga’s story.  She works long hours for small wages; she shares a home with other lacemakers; these elements of the poem draw on life.  She embodies some of the themes that would recur in Flemish literature on lacemakers in which poverty and suffering go hand-in-hand with redemption and piety.  But the only element of her trade that is important to the plot is the issue of advances.  Lacemakers almost always needed credit, but by taking advances from the lace dealers they were effectively changing their status from free artisans to dependent workers.  This proletarianization of women worried nineteenth-century commentators in Belgium, both Liberals and Catholics (van Beers fell between these two political poles that dominated Belgian political life).  A worker could not free herself from the dealer or factor until she had paid back the advances; but the dealer could ensure – by charging too much for the thread or by reducing the price paid for her work – that she was never in a position to do so.  The lacemaker could be economically abused, but also sexually abused: this latter theme is also recurrent in nineteenth-century Flemish literature.  As we have seen, it was the central plot-device in Frans Carrein’s Elisa de kantwerkster.

 

 

[1] Incorrectly, but the Beguines’ celebration of her cult certainly helped maintain the status of Saint Begga in Belgium.  The origin of the Beguines was a matter of lively debate in the nineteenth century: see, among others, Eduard Hallmann, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen (Berlin, 1843).

[2] Jan Van Beers, Gevoel en Leven: Poëzie (Antwerp,1869), pp. 3-86.

[3] Cornelis Petrus Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Edinburgh, 1897-99), Vol. 2, pp. 10-15.

[4] Considerable biographical information on Jan van Beers, like all Flemish writers, is available on the DBNL, digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren.  See also Steven van Impe, ‘The Librarian as a Nation Builder: Frans Hendrik Mertens (1796-1867) and the Antwerp City Library’, Quaerendo 42 (2012): 221-30; G. Schmook, ‘De “Mertensen” en de “Van Beersen” uit Antwerpen, XVIII e -XX e eeuwen’, Mens en Taak, 25 (1982): 88-113.  Their descendants include several prominent contributors to Belgian culture and politics including: Jan van Beers the younger (1852–1927), a risqué society painter and scandalmonger; Henri de Man (1885-1953), a Flemish socialist politician and intellectual who collaborated during the Second World War; Paul de Man, a literary theorist.

[5] For which see Catharina Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor, Antwerp 1770-1860 (New Haven, 1986).

[6] Karel Velle, ‘België in de 19de eeuw : Gevolgen van de “blauwe dood”’, Geschiedenis der geneeskunde 4 (1997): 95-105.

Lacemakers in Fiction: ‘Wit Leven’ (‘White Life’, 1897) by Stijn Streuvels

We continue our posts on lacemakers in Flemish fiction with a look at Stijn Streuvels.  Unlike almost all the other Flemish authors considered in this series, you can read some of the novels and stories by the prolific Streuvels in English.  We don’t know why, but British publishers from the nineteenth century onwards took little interest in the cultural production of the Flemish Movement, and not much more of Belgian literature in French.  Even in the case of Streuvels, who twice came close to winning the Nobel Prize for literature, translations are rare.  His Langs de Wegen (1902) was translated in 1936 by Edward Crankshaw as Old Jan; while De Vlasschard (1907) was translated as The Flaxfield by Peter Glassgold and André Lefevere in 1988.  Both are quite hard to come by, and neither are primarily concerned with lacemakers.  Streuvels’ 1909 novella ‘De Blijde Dag’ is set among lacemaking girls in an orphanage, but this is not available in English.  (The title translates as ‘The Happy Day’; we should add that happiness is at best a relative concept for Streuvels, whose work might be characterised as pastoral fatalism.)  That leaves the stories translated byAlexander Teixeira de Mattos and gathered together in a volume entitled The Path of Life (London: Unwins, 1915).  This collection is available online for free, and it includes ‘Wit Leven’ which first appeared in Flemish in the literary modernist magazine Van Nu en Straks in 1897, and in English as ‘White Life’ in The English Review in 1912.

Stijn Streuvels, 1917. From the ‘digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren’

Streuvels, whose real name was Franciscus (Frank) Lateur (Courtrai 1871 – Ingooigem 1969) started his working life not as a pastry chef, like Frans Carrein, but as a village baker in Avelgem in West Flanders.  He read voraciously in between his bread-making tasks, and taught himself numerous languages.  (In later life he would translate the work of another baker-writer who had been raised among lacemakers, Maxim Gorky.)  He only gave up the bakery in 1905 to dedicate himself to literature when his reputation as an anticlerical and a freethinker began to damage the family business.  West Flanders was then a bastion of clerical authority.  Streuvels maternal uncle was the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, almost unknown in Britain but in Belgium probably rated as the most important writer in Flemish.  Gezelle, too, ran foul of the ecclesiastical authorities for his writings, but he chose obedience rather than resistance.

‘White Life’ we think rather a good title for a story about a lacemaker.  Its heroine, Sofie, does indeed live her life in white – ‘Her life flowed on as a little brook flows under grass on a Sunday noon in summer, flowed on in calm seclusion, far from the bustle of the crowd, secretly, steadily, uninterrupted save by ever-recurring little incidents, peacefully approaching old age.’  She works in a whitewashed room with white curtains under a cap of white, and at night sleeps between white sheets under a canopy of white.  A statue of the Virgin, clad in white watches from the wall, while a canary in a white cage is her only company.  The canary and the geraniums at her window are almost the only splashes of colour in her existence (one day we might write a blog about lacemakers, canaries and geraniums).  Her ‘white and peaceful little soul’ is innocent of anything but her daily tasks and piety.  She lives almost like a nun, or a beguine, dividing her time between lacemaking and readings from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and saying her rosary.

Erzgebirge lacemakers by Gustav Zindel. Note the canary and the geraniums. Zindel (1883-1959) was a Czech-German painter and illustrator of folk life.

Lacemaking is part of her separation from the ‘bustle of the crowd’, for it draws her into a world in itself.  Her pillow

‘was her only amusement, her treasure: this half-rounded arch of smooth, blue paper on the wooden pillow-stool, occupied by a swarm of copper pins, with coloured-glass heads, and of finely-turned wooden bobbins, with slender necks and notched bodies, hanging side by side from fine white threads or heaped up behind a steel bodkin. All this array of pins, holes, drawers and trays had for her its own form and meaning, a small world in which she knew her way so well. Her deft white fingers knew how to throw, change, catch and pick up those bobbins so nimbly, so swiftly; she stuck her pins, which were to give the thread its lie and form, so accurately and surely; and, under her hand, the lace grew slowly and imperceptibly into a light thread network, grew with the leaves and flowers of her geraniums and phlox and the silent course of time.’

This peaceful if monotonous existence is interrupted when the grate on her stove needs mending and she takes it to the smith, Sander, next door.  He has already made his presence known, hammering away in the background.  But now he takes to calling in the evening, sharing a cup of coffee and a bit of a gossip about village affairs.  His eyes are kindly and impish, the smell of his pipe makes such a change in her routine.  And she begins to think ‘that calm rest, in which she had once found such a pure delight, was now a heavy weariness’, that an alteration that brought together two lonely people of mature years might do them both good.  She could teach him the rosary.  Sander too has ambitions towards matrimony.  This envisioned idyll comes to a shocking end when the smith gets drunk celebrating the feast of Saint Eligius (Eloi, the patron of metalworkers).  He breaks into Sofie’s house and assaults her.  Neighbours hearing her screams haul him off.  But now not only her new dreams of companionship but also her old ‘white life’ have been ‘stamped to pieces’, and she has been left like a naked child freezing in the snow.

We did warn you that happiness was in short supply in Streuvels’ Flanders.

John Plummer’s Northamptonshire ‘Lace Songs’

Walter Bonner Gash: ‘Mill Lane Farm’. One of Plummer’s walks around Kettering. Used with permission of Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mill-lane-farm-46011

We have already met the Kettering staymaker John Plummer (1831-1914): he was one of the contributors to the Notes & Queries series on ‘Catterns’.  Plummer was also an example of an ‘English labouring-class poet’ (like John Askham of Wellingborough, who featured in an earlier post).[1]  Plummer published only one volume of poems – Songs of Labour, Northamptonshire Rambles and Other Poems (1860) – but he is probably better known than Askham.  That is not necessarily because he was a better poet.  Although some of his more lighthearted pieces work well, Plummer too had a weakness for highfalutin language and poetic clichés, so all mothers are ‘angels’, all earls are ‘belted’…  But Plummer led a more adventurous and combative life than Askham, and above all was more politically engaged, which brought him public attention.

John Plummer, photo by J. Hubert Newman of Sydney: State Library of New South Wales P1/1365

Given his interest in lacemaking, the title Songs of Labour led us to hope that lacemakers would feature prominently.  Sadly, they are not mentioned even once; nonetheless, their influence may still be detected, as we will explain at the end of this post.

Plummer was born in the East End of London, where his father worked as a staymaker.  His youth was marked by periods of poverty, and made more difficult by partial deafness and lameness, consequences of a childhood illness.  Despite receiving almost no schooling, he became obsessed with the written word, seeking out books wherever he could find them.  He started writing poetry in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1848, inspired by reading the Chartist poet Gerald Massey’s ‘Song of Welcome’ to the exiled Hungarian rebel Kossuth.  In 1853 he and his father took jobs at a Kettering stay factory, but he quickly established a second career as a local newspaper commentator on a range of political and social issues.[2]  In 1860 he married Mary Ann Jenkinson, a milliner from Kettering, and soon after the couple moved to Hackney to work for publishing house Cassell & Co., which specialized in improving literature aimed at the working class.[3]  In London Plummer pursued a new career as journalist and newspaper editor.  He became quite well known, corresponding with Lord Brougham (to whom his book of poems was dedicated) and John Stuart Mill: the latter described him as one of ‘the most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man’.[4]  (Mary Ann Plummer, meanwhile, was a signatory of Mill’s petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1866.[5])  In 1879 the Plummer family emigrated to Australia where John became editor of the Illustrated Sydney News among many other activities.  Northamptonshire was not, however, forgotten: his house in Sydney was named after the village near Kettering where he had married, and about which he had written a poem, Thorpe Malsor.[6]

This background, and the title Songs of Labour, might lead one to think that Plummer’s politics were radical.  And in lots of ways they were: Plummer’s poems condemned poverty, war and the tyranny of kings, and celebrated the virtues of the labouring classes.  However, he first came to national prominence when he wrote in support of his brother Japheth who had attempted to set himself up as a shoemaker in the teeth of a closed shop operated by the powerful Northamptonshire shoemakers’ trade union.  Japheth was eventually driven out of the neighbourhood (he became a soldier) while John was burnt in effigy.  Plummer was not entirely hostile to trade unions, but his ideal social type, which he celebrated in poems such as ‘The Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘The Emigrant’s Song’, was the homesteader.  In North America the working man could find land of his own to farm and be beholden to no one, neither aristocratic landlord, nor factory owner nor even his fellow worker.  As a political economist Plummer supported technical innovation such as steam engines and factories, but in his poems he fled the ‘smoke-dried teeming Cities, where/ Is often heard the low and wailing sob/ Of Labour mourning in despair’ for the ‘grassey lea’ of Thorpe Malsor.  Education, self-help, sobriety, Christian charity, these were his regular themes.  Australia, another pioneer society, suited him admirably.

In 1878, the ever prolific Plummer wrote three articles on ‘The Northamptonshire Lace-Making Industry Past and Present’ for the Northampton Mercury.[7]  This is a rather useful series because, while Plummer made use of existing printed material such as the Children’s Employment Commission reports, he also included anecdotes told to him and his own observations.  For instance he cites the local names given to lacemaking equipment and to common patterns.  The picture he paints of the industry in the past was largely negative: lacemakers were impoverished, unhealthy and immoral.  He had few hopes for its future either.  But he does offer little insights into their social history, such as lacemakers were prone to a ‘nervous twitching of the fingers’, that they were good at mental arithmetic because of counting pins, and that they were proud of the tools of their trade such as their spangled bobbins and their cushions.  One story he tells concerns a deceased lacemaker whose daughter was presented with a bill which she believed her mother had paid even though she could find no receipt.  The creditor sent bailiffs to seize the lacemaker’s property, but the daughter was determined to hold onto her mother’s pillow as a memento.  During the struggle, the cover of the pillow was torn and out fell the missing receipt together with other documents and some coins.

Like almost every other commentator on Midlands lacemaking, Plummer tackles the topic of ‘lace songs’.  He quotes the usual sources such as the Notes & Queries articles, and includes the unavoidable Shakespearean reference, but he also mentions that while living in Kettering he ‘formed a small collection of lace-makers’ songs, which has, unfortunately, become lost.’  Nonetheless, he could recall some of the contents.  They included the gruesome ‘Little Sir Hugh’ which we discussed in a previous post, and in general Plummer observed that ‘the more horrible and revolting the details, the greater the popularity’ of lace songs.  He also cites ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’, which are both well known songs, and mentioned by other collectors of lacemakers’ oral traditions.  However, the rest are much more difficult to identify and to date we have been unable to trace any text or tune for the following seven listed by Plummer as ‘lace songs’.

1) ‘’The Lord of Burleigh’. This ballad narrates a kind of She Stoops to Conquer in reverse.  It is the same story as Tennyson’s 1835 poem, in which a rich lord pretends to be poor in order to win a woman’s heart.  Both were inspired by the 1791 marriage of Henry Cecil (first Marquess of Exeter and eponymous Lord of Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) to Sarah Hoggins, a farmer’s daughter from Great Bolas in Shropshire. The opening stanza went ‘A noble lord a-wooing went,/ A-wooing went my lord;/ She was a maid of low degree,/ And would not speak a word’.  That is all that Plummer tells us, other than it was considerably ruder than Tennyson’s version.
2) ‘Blackberry Nan’. The first lines ran ‘Blackberry Nan, Blackberry Nan/ Killed a cat in her milking can.’
3) ‘The Squire’s Ghost’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.  There are some well-known folksongs that might fit this rubric.
4) ‘Christian and the Money-lender’. The title is all the information Plummer provides which is particularly unfortunate, as this is a theme evoked in lacemakers’ songs in France and Flanders, so there may be a connection.
5) ‘Betsy’s Dream’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.
6) A ballad which alludes to Simon de St. Liz (or rather Simon de Senlis, first earl of Northampton and 2nd earl of Huntingdon, one of William the Conqueror’s knights).  A medieval legend tells that William intended that Simon should marry Judith, widow of the executed Earl of Northumbria Waltheof, but she refused him on account of his lameness.  Furious, Simon pursued Judith until pacified by her daughter Maud’s promise to marry him instead.  Maud’s influence was supposed to have turned the old soldier into something of a saint.
7) A song celebrating the lacemakers’ patron Saint Catherine that commenced ‘On Cattern’s Day we sing and play,/ And wear our Sunday gown’.

We would be delighted if anyone was able to provide us with more information about any of these, or even better Plummer’s manuscript of lacemakers’ songs.  But in the meantime it might be worth mentioning that two of these themes had already been used by Plummer in his poems.  After ‘Songs of Labour’, Plummer had a section dedicated to ‘Northamptonshire Rambles’ which took their cue from some item of local history or a recent event.  One retold ‘The Legend of Burleigh House’; another the story of ‘Simon de St. Liz’.  Is it impossible that these topics were suggested to him by songs he heard lacemakers sing?

 

Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Sarah (née Hoggins) by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
From Wilipedia Commons. The subject of a lacemakers’ song?

 

 

[1] Although this label is retrospective, this group does have some coherence, not least in the interest its members had in each others’ work.  Askham named his house after John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’; while Plummer actually went to visit Clare in his asylum in 1861.

[2] Most information on his early life comes from the ‘autobiographical sketch’ that served as an introduction to his Songs of Labour.  Another short biography was included in a collection edited the penal reformer Matthew Davenport Hill for the publisher John Cassell, himself one of Plummer’s patrons: Our Examples, Poor and Rich; Or, Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who have by an Extraordinary Use of their Opportunities, Benefitted their Fellow Creatures (London, 1861), pp. 287-96.

[3] See the post on the website ‘Ringstead People’ dedicated to Mary Ann Jenkinson and her family.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy ed. Jonathan Riley (Oxford, 1994), p. 151.  Mill and Plummer wrote and met with each other regularly in the 1860s and 70s.

[5] On which see the post ‘The South Hackney Connection’ on the blog ‘Woman and Her Sphere’.

[6] Hence Plummer has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[7] Appearing on 19 January, 2 February and 16 March 1878.

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