A new article, connected to our ‘Lace in Context’ project, has just been published by the journal French History. It explores French pillow-lacemakers’ relations to the tools of their trade, which they decorated, celebrated and paraded, but which they also sometimes beat and burnt. The article is published under an Open Access licence so should be freely available to all at the journal’s website. However, if you have difficulty with the website and would like a copy, simply email David Hopkin at email@example.com (and the same applies to other articles mentioned on this site about lace legends, lace and the Flemish cultural revival, Flemish lace tells, and Normandy lacemakers’ songs.
Category: French lacemakers
In our series on lacemakers’ holidays we have yet to fully cover the ‘Broquelet’, the ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ held in Lille on and around 9 May. This date marks the ‘translation of Saint Nicholas’, that is the transfer of his relics from Myra in what is now Turkey to Bari in Italy, and it is known as ‘Summer Saint Nicholas’ to distinguish it from the saint’s other feastday on 6 December. The Broquelet, which could last a week or more, was the major holiday for the city’s working women at the end of the eighteenth century, when Lille was home to 15,000 lacemakers. Their pleasures are celebrated in a painting by François Watteau, dating from around 1800.
We’ll return to the Broquelet in a future post: today we’re just considering how Nicholas became the lacemakers’ patron saint. Nicholas is, of course, Santa Claus, and so is a patron of children generally. Children, and specifically the girls who attended Lille’s lace schools, were participants in the Broquelet – they can be seen in the foreground of Watteau’s painting, presenting a branch of hawthorn to their teacher. However, in Catholic culture in general Nicholas is more associated with boys than with girls. Across north-eastern France, and in the Low Countries, parishes organized their youth into single-sex companies dedicated to Saint Nicholas for boys, and Saint Catherine the girls. These associations were carried over into schools in the nineteenth century, which continued to mark their respective feastdays of 6 December and 25 November. And as we know Saint Catherine was a patron of lacemakers, and her feast was a lacemakers’ holiday in parts of the English Midlands and Antwerp province.
So how did Nicholas come to take on this role in the case of Lille’s lacemakers? There is almost no official documentation concerning the Broquelet, and none of the chroniclers who attended the festival offer a clear answer. By and large it was only incorporated trades – that is occupations which were represented by a guild — that held masses, paraded through the city and celebrated holidays; but lacemaking was a ‘free trade’ (as were most female-dominated occupations), and so it possessed no guild structure. One possibility, then, is that the lacemakers simply joined in, and then took over, a feast originally celebrated by one of Lille’s male guilds. Watteau’s painting offers some corroboration of this theory, because in front of the float carrying the lacemakers’ giant bobbin is a carriage on top of which sit two male workers – ‘filtiers’ [linen spinners] – carrying the flag of their confraternity which features Saint Nicholas performing one of his more famous miracles, the resurrection of three murdered children whose bodies had been left in a butcher’s brine tub.
However, there is another possible connection, and it relates to another of Saint Nicholas’s miracles. According to the most widely read hagiography of the medieval period, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, as a young man (and not yet a cleric) Nicholas had a neighbour, a man of noble birth who had fallen into poverty. This nobleman had three daughters whom he intended to prostitute in order that he might survive from the money they earned. To avert this fate, Nicholas threw a lump of gold through the family’s window at night on three separate occasions. Each lump was sufficient to provide one of the daughters with a dowry.
In early modern Catholic Europe, the skills of lacemaking were taught in the institutions of the ‘great confinement’ of the poor, such as orphanages and workhouses, precisely because it would provide young women with a livelihood and thus save them from becoming prostitutes. The same logic was invoked well into the nineteenth century. When in 1841 the Mayor of Valenciennes appealed to Maria Amalia, Queen of the French, to support the re-establishment of a lace school in his town, he claimed that the project ‘would be of the highest moral value by teaching lacemaking to young girls whose poverty, in most cases, dooms to prostitution, the first of the vices that misery brings in its train.’
However, are there stronger connections between Saint Nicholas and lacemaking than a general desire to keep young women off the streets? In Valenciennes Museum of Fine Arts (currently closed) there is a painting that originally hung in the town’s Saint Nicholas church. It depicts Saint Nicholas in the act of throwing the gold through his neighbour’s window. Inside we see the father and his three despairing daughters, one of whom is sitting a lace pillow. The painting is by Henri de Vermay (active 1612-1642), the second artist of that name, and the last in dynasty of painters from the nearby city of Cambrai. The Vermays of Cambrai were possibly descendants of the Dutch painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559).
This is not the only painting from the period that depicts the beneficiaries of Saint Nicholas’s charity as lacemakers. The Amsterdam Museum of Our Lord in the Attic has another representation of the charity of Saint Nicholas by Vermay’s better-known Antwerp contemporary Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651), in which two of the daughters can be seen working at lace pillows, while the third is busy with embroidery.
Paintings are only indirect evidence, but it seems that, in the Flemish-French borderlands, an association had become established in the seventeenth century between Saint Nicholas, his patronage of marriageable women, and lacemaking as a recourse of the poor. This was the same period in which lace schools were being established in towns like Valenciennes and, possibly, Lille. Although the history lacemaking in Lille is very obscure, it seems plausible that this same association of ideas explains why Lille’s lacemakers took Saint Nicholas to be their patron saint.
 Archives Départementales du Nord, M 581-13: Commerce et Industries: Spécialités, Dentelles, letter dated 14 September 1841.
 The only source of information on the Vermay dynasty I have been able to discover is a pamphlet by Achille Durieux, Les peintres Vermay (Cambrai: J. Renaut, 1880).
We’ve talked on this site about several lace legends, the legend of Queen Catherine, the legend of Argentan lace, the legend of Serena of Bruges… David’s article ‘Legends of Lace: Commerce and Ideology in Narratives of Women’s Domestic Craft Production’, which covers these and other lace legends (including the ‘miracle of the bobbins’ depicted above) has just been published in the folklore journal Fabula. The article appears to be on open access at the moment so if people are interested they can read it and download it for themselves. The abstract for the article is reproduced below.
Although a relatively recent invention (c. 1500), many legends have accumulated around the origins of lace, more than have been recorded for other crafts. Almost every region involved in pillow or needle lace had its own origin story: I will concentrate on those circulating in Italy, Catalonia, France, Belgium and England. Lacemaking was a poorly paid, dispersed and overwhelmingly female occupation, but none the less it had a strong craft tradition, including the celebration of particular saints’ feastdays. The legends drew on elements of this work culture, and especially the strong connections to royal courts and the Catholic Church, but they did not originate among lacemakers themselves. Rather they were authored by persons – lace merchants and other patrons – who in the nineteenth century took on the task of defending homemade lace in its drawn-out conflict with machine-made alternatives. Legends first circulated in print, in lace histories, newspapers and magazines, before transferring to other media such as the stage, historical pageants, even the visual arts. More recently they have continued to propagate on the web. While not originally oral naratives, they behave much like legends in oral storytelling environments: they are usually unsourced; they accumulate and shed motifs; they are adapted to new circumstances and audiences. They were told with the intention of creating a special status for handmade lace, and to mobilize protectors and consumers.
Keywords: Lace, legends, craft, patronage, gender, Bruges, Le Puy, Argentan, Saint Catherine
Lacemaking saints? There are some but – given the close ties between lacemaking, female religious orders and the Catholic Church – perhaps not as many as one might have expected.
A lacemaker who was (and is) considered saintly, indeed was beatified by Pope John-Paul II in 1996, is the blessed Catherine Jarrige, known in her lifetime and after her death as Catinon-Menette. Catinon is a diminutive of Catherine in the Oc dialect of the Auvergne, while menette is a popular term for a devout woman, or specifically a sister in one of the numerous tertiary orders found in the region. The word may derive from ‘moine’ [monk] from which one gets ‘moinette’, little or female monk, and thus ‘menette’. Menettes were akin to the ‘béates’ of the Velay and the ‘beguines’ of Flanders: while they took vows, they were not enclosed but lived in the world, practicing their vocation among the laity. Tertiary orders of this kind were involved in making lace and teaching lacemaking in many regions.
Most of our information about Catherine Jarrige comes from a biography written by abbé Jean-Baptiste Serres who, as a boy, witnessed her funeral and in later life interviewed many people who had known her. She was born in 1754 into a poor peasant family in Doumis, in the highlands around the gorges of the Dordogne. Her education was minimal: she was hired out to other farms as a shepherdess from the age of nine (she told some stories about the tricks that children played while supposedly guarding their animals). When and how she learnt lacemaking we don’t know, but according to Serres, the occupation fitted with her plans for a pious life. We do know that she was already established as a lacemaker in the town of Mauriac in 1774. Lacemaking was a major industry in the region in the eighteenth century when, according to a local doctor, ‘this trade was the unique subsistence for the daughters of the labouring classes in Aurillac, Saint-Flour, Mauriac, Murât, and several of the country parishes’. While the industry declined with the French Revolution, and was in a parlous state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the prefect of the Department of the Cantal was able to report that there were still 1000 lacemakers in Aurillac, 800 in Murat, 400 in Saint-Flour and 300 in Mauriac. However, as was the case of nearby Tulle, the industry did not long survive the dislocations of the period, and by the mid nineteenth century it had disappeared completely.
In Mauriac, where she would spend the rest of her life sharing a home with her sister, Catherine joined the tertiary order of Saint Dominic. From then on, her life seems to have been entirely dedicated to feeding the poor, watching over the sick, bringing comfort to prisoners, and preparing the dead for burial. Given her total commitment to these tasks, and given her complete abnegation (when people gave her food or clothing for herself, she handed it straight on to some other unfortunate), it seems likely that that lacemaking did not occupy a huge part of her life. Serres barely mentions it. None the less, in judicial documents of the revolutionary period, she is referred to as a lacemaker.
The Revolution was the epic of Catherine’s life: along with other tertiaries such as Françoise Maury, also a lacemaker, she organized a veritable resistance network. The Revolutionary authorities (the ‘patriots’ in the language of the time) persecuted the Catholic Church before outlawing it completely. From 1792 priests and other religious who refused to swear an oath to uphold the new constitution faced deportation. From March 1793 non-juring priests found on the territory of France could be executed. Some fled abroad, but others took to the woods and mountains, or found shelter with supporters, and continued to hold mass, give confession, baptize and marry the faithful. If they were caught they might imprisoned, or transported to French Guyana, or guillotined. Catherine carried messages to priests in hiding, she brought them food or warnings of patrols and roundups. As priests were in danger of their life if caught with religious material, she carried sacred vessels for them to covert religious ceremonies held in barns, private rooms and sometimes in the open air. These, along with religious writings, she concealed in leather (later metal) containers under her skirts. She hid two priests in Mauriac for eighteen months, bringing them babies to baptize, alerting them to the dying who required last unction, serving as witness at clandestine weddings and godmother at christenings. When priests or nuns were arrested she visited them in prison, and when one, abbé Filhol, was led to execution she accompanied him on his way to the scaffold.
Both her convictions and her actions seem to have been common knowledge in region. She was challenged by gendarmes and national guardsmen on dozens of occasions, questioned and even brought to court several times, but she came through the maelstrom relatively unscathed. For example, on the night of 12 Thermidor Year 2 of the Republic (30 July 1794) she went to warn some priests of an impending search. On her return in the early hours of the following day, she was arrested by National Guardsmen ‘soaked the skin and in a state that showed she had made a long journey’. Arrested and brought before the Committee of Surveillance, she was accused, alongside Françoise Maury, of being ‘fanatics without limits, plotters with refractory priests, declared enemies of the Revolution, of liberty, of equality and of the Republic, and who in contempt of all laws, hide and conceal refractory priests, they provide them with means to live, and they use every means to protect them from the penalties that the law has pronounced against them.’ On this occasion, news of the fall of Robespierre (on 27 July), may have helped save the two menettes.
Cyrielle Forses, from whose masters thesis we have borrowed this quotation, argues that misogyny prevented the authorities from taking Jarrige seriously: in the new Revolutionary world only men’s words and actions had weight, women were excluded from the rights of citizenship. Yet elsewhere in France this did not prevent the authorities from imprisoning and executing women for far less serious crimes than Jarrige’s. Serres offers at least two other explanations. In his general characterisation of the menette, he alternates between portraying her as a ‘holy fool’, ‘she was the poorest and most ignorant, she stumbled as she read, she couldn’t even make the signs of the alphabet’ – and a cunning, artful peasant, constantly able to pull the wool over the patriots’ eyes, not least by playing the idiot. One time she was stopped carrying a pyx (a container for wafers or, as the authorities put it, ‘a box in which Papists keep their God’). Asked what it was she replied, ‘for tobacco’. In Auvergne as elsewhere, lacemakers were famous snuff users and so the response seemed satisfactory. (She used the same skills – audacity, verbal wit, and a certain slyness – to cajole the rich citizens of Mauriac into giving to the poor.) The other reason was that at least some self-declared ‘Patriots’ retained sympathies for her cause, including at least one gendarme brigadier who were able to pass messages to Jarrige. Serres notes that several revolutionaries none the less chose to be married by a Catholic priest, and have their children baptised.
The period of persecution lasted, with some periods of détente, nearly ten years, and Jarrige’s activities through this whole period read like a spy novel with disguises, secret signs, camouflaged hideouts, and many near misses. All of which seems quite a long way from making lace, except that when priests were on the move they sometimes disguised themselves as lace dealers; an ideal deception because of course such dealers had every reason to move about the countryside, meeting their dispersed workforce, and carrying their produce to market.
Jarrige’s reputation for saintliness was well established in Mauriac long before her death in 1836. According to contemporary accounts, the entire townsfolk, rich and poor, turned out for her funeral, and people literally fought to obtain a piece of her clothing as a relic. Her memory is still honoured in the region today, as witnessed by this statue which we saw, last week, in the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Aurillac.
 Abbé J.-B. Serres, La Catinon-Menette (Clermont-Ferrand: Mont-Louis, 1864). Available online at www.gallica.fr.
 Jean Joseph de Brieude, Topographie médicale de la Haute-Auvergne (Aurillac: Picut, 1821; first published 1782/3), p. 116.
 Pierre Wirth, ‘La “fièvre statistique” et les premières enquêtes économiques dans le Cantal (suite)’, Revue de la Haute-Auvergne 37 (1961), p. 271-2.
 Cyrielle Forses, Des paroles et des actes : les Résistances à la Révolution et à l’Empire dans le Cantal (1791-1815) (Mémoire de maîtrise, Université de Toulouse, 2017), p. 62. Available online at http://dante.univ-tlse2.fr/3434/. In an appendix, Forses includes other documents relating to this case.
If you happen to be in reach of Brioude, France, this coming weekend 18-19 September, we can recommend a visit to the Hôtel de la Dentelle where Éric Desgrugillers will be giving a talk and concert, on both the Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm, about the songs sung by lacemakers in the Haute-Loire. This event is part of the annual French festival ‘les journées du patrimoine’. In particular Éric will examine the repertoire of one lacemaker, Virginie Granouillet, known as ‘La Baracande’. Virginie was born in 1878 in Mans, a hamlet adjacent to the village of Roche-en-Régnier which perches high above the Loire valley. Unable to read or write, she worked as a lacemaker from her childhood into her eighties. Jean Dumas, a professor of Italian at Clermont-Ferrand University, recorded 178 songs from Virginie between 1958 and 1961, the year before her death. (Jean came from Vorey, another lacemaking village on the Loire.) Virginie probably knew many more – as Jean put to one side her religious songs and songs in the local dialect of Occitan.
If, like us, you’re unable to get to Brioude this weekend, you can still hear 146 of Virginie’s songs, as well as some of her conversations with Jean, as they are available on the Base inter-régionale ‘Patrimoine oral‘. (In theory they are also accessible on the website ‘Portail du patrimoine oral‘, but in our experience this is less reliable.) Jean’s many other recordings of singing lacemakers, such as Virginie’s neighbour Marie Soulier, are available on the same website. Éric has also written a book – Des chansons tissées aux fuseaux [songs woven with bobbins] – which includes a CD of Virginie’s songs.