Category: Lace Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lace school working in the open air. Turnhout postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In return the lacemakers toasted their mistresses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Een-en-dertig, twee-en-dertig

Al de scholen gaan teniet

En we hebben een boog besteld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacemakers of Ypres, postcard c. 1912

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Ypres, lacemakers in the rue de Lille

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard of lacemakers on the Steenstraat in Geraardsbergen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mattentaarten, still a local speciality.

And:

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

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

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

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

Another favourite went as follows:

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacemakers’ Songs: The Ballads of ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’

In the journal Notes and Queries for 22 August 1868 there appeared the following request from the Shakespearean scholar Sidney Beisly (author of Shakespere’s Garden, among other things):

“The song we had last night.
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain:
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids, that weave their thread with bones,
Do use to chant it.”
Twelfth Night, Act II, Sc. 4.

I should like to know if any of the songs which the lacemakers of times past sung are in existence, and where they are to be found.  Am I right in believing that the free maids, noticed by Shakespeare in the above passage, were lacemakers?  Any information on this subject will oblige

Over the next few months we intend to do our best to belatedly satisfy his interest, but we’ll start with the articles in Notes and Queries which prompted and responded to Beisly’s letter.  In its nineteenth-century heyday, Notes and Queries was a meeting point for antiquarians, literacy scholars and budding folklorists.  In fact the term folk-lore was coined in 1846 by the journal’s founding editor, William Thoms.  In 1868, folksong collecting was not an established field of endeavour in England, unlike Scotland.  The first English folk-song revival would have to wait for the turn of the century.  But there were a few Victorian enthusiasts connected by journals like Notes & Queries, and of course the Shakespearean reference helped, for it provided folk-songs with their letter of literary nobility.  Who could dismiss what the bard himself had deigned to notice?

There are two elements of Shakespeare’s depiction that are borne out by these nineteenth-century correspondents.  Firstly, lacemakers had an established taste for old songs, even at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the trade was relatively new in England.  Secondly, they had a penchant for the tragic and ghoulish, for the song the Feste sings in response to Duke Orsino’s injunction, starts:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid….

We would hazard that the clown’s song may be part of a longer narrative ballad, but if so we have not been able to discover which one.  However, it was just such ballads — narrative in structure, presumed old in date, heart-rending in content — that excited the interest of nineteenth-century song collectors.

Most of the information on lacemakers’ songs in Notes and Queries precedes Beisly’s intervention.  In the edition of 4 July 1868 ‘J.L.C’ of Hanley Staffordshire inserted the following note (We have not been able to identify J.L.C., presumably he was not the genealogist Joseph Lemanuel Chester, a regular contributor under these initials, as he grew up in America):

A LACEMAKER’S SONG.  — When I was a child, rising six years, my Northamptonshire nurse used to sing the following ditty to me as she rattled her bobbins over her lace-pillow:

“It rains, it rains in merry Scotland;
It rains both great and small,
And all the schoolboys in merry Scotland
Must needs to play at ball.
They tost their balls so high, so high,
They tost their balls so high,
The tost them over the Jews’ castel,
The Jews they lay so low.
The Jews came up to Storling Green:
‘Come hither, come hither, you young sireen,
And fetch your ball again.’
‘I will not come, and I dare not come
Without my schoolfellows all,
For fear I should meet my mother by the way,
And cause my blood to fall.’
She showed him an apple as green as grass,
She gave him a sugar-plum sweet;
She laid him on the dresser board,
And stuck him like a sheep.
‘A Bible at my head, my mother,
A Testament at my feet;
And every corner you get at
My spirit you shall meet.’”

This is a version of the Ballad of ‘Sir Hugh’, or ‘The Jew’s Daughter’ (Child 155, Roud 73, for the folk-song aficionados), an example of the anti-Semitic accusation of ritual murder which, it appears, originated in medieval England before spreading to Europe and beyond with horrific consequences, unfortunately not altogether relegated to the past.  But for the moment we will concern ourselves only with the ballad, which tends to emphasise the murder rather than the ritual part of the story, at least as it was sung by lacemakers.

Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, is the earliest source for the ballad ‘Sir Hugh’ (from Wikipedia Commons).

Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, is the earliest source for the ballad ‘Sir Hugh’ (from Wikipedia Commons).

Lacemakers plural, because J.L.C.’s was not the first version of ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh’ to appear in Notes and Queries.  In the edition of 15 October 1853, C. Clifton Barry had asked “Why does not some one write a Minstrelsy of the Midland Counties”, before observing that the material was just as rich, and oddly akin to the ballads of Scotland (which were far better known even south of the border, thanks to the publishing endeavours of Walter Scott, James Hogg, William Motherwell, David Herd, Peter Buchan and many others).  This Scottish tincture he had noticed in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire in versions of the drunken cuckold song ‘Our Goodman’ (Child 274, Roud 144) and the infanticide ballad ‘The Cruel Mother’ (Child 20, Roud 9).  In response ‘B.H.C.’ (almost certainly Benjamin Harris Cowper, a biblical scholar, born in Wellingborough in 1822) wrote in on 24 December 1853 with the following:

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH, ETC.

The fact mentioned by your correspondent C. CLIFTON BARRY, at p. 357., as to the affinity of Midland songs and ballads to those of Scotland, I have often observed, and among the striking instances of it which could be adduced, the following may be named, as well known in Northamptonshire:

“It rains, it rains, in merry Scotland;
It rains both great and small;
And all the schoolfellows in merry Scotland
Must needs go and play at ball.

“They tossed the ball so high, so high,
And yet it came down so low;
They tossed it over the old Jew’s gates,
And broke the old Jew’s window.

“The old Jew’s daughter she came out;
Was clothed all in green;
‘Come hither, come hither, thou young Sir Hugh,
And fetch your ball again.’

“‘I dare not come, I dare not come,
Unless my schoolfellows come all;
And I shall be flogged when I get home,
For losing of my ball.’

“She ‘ticed him with an apple so red,
And likewise with a fig:
She laid him on the dresser board,
And sticked him like a pig.

“The thickest of blood did first come out,
The second came out so thin;
The third that came was his dear heart’s blood,
Where all his life lay in.”

I write this from memory: it is but a fragment of the whole, which I think is printed, with variations, in Percy’s Reliques.  It is also worthy of remark, that there is a resemblance also between the words which occur in provincialisms in the same district, and some of those which are used in Scotland; e.g. whemble or whommel (sometimes not aspirated, and pronounced wemble), to turn upside down, as a dish.  This word is Scotch, although they do not pronounce the b any more than in Campbell, which sounds very much like Camel.

Remains of the shrine to ‘Little Saint Hugh’ at Lincoln Cathedral (from Wikipedia Commons).

Remains of the tomb of ‘Little Saint Hugh’ at Lincoln Cathedral (from Wikipedia Commons).

Cowper does not say that the singer was a lacemaker, but we can probably infer this from his later contributions to Notes and Queries.  For example, on 22 December 1855, he returned to this ballad:

THE BALLAD OF SIR HUGH.

In Vol. viii., p. 614., six verses of this ballad will be found contributed by myself.  In replay to inquiries since made, I have received six verses and a half additional.  I copy these from the original MS. of “an old lacemaker, who obliged me with these lines,” as my informant says.  I have corrected errors of orthography and arrangement.  For the sake of the variations I copy the whole.

“It rains, it rains, in merry Scotland,
Both little, great and small;
And all the schoolfellows in merry Scotland
Must needs go and play at ball.

“They tossed the ball so high, so high,
With that it came down so low;
They tossed it over the old Jew’s gates,
And broke the old Jew’s window.

“The old Jew’s daughter she came out;
Was clothed all in green.
‘Come hither, come hither, you young Sir Hugh,
And fetch your ball again.’

“‘I dare not come, nor will I come,
Without my schoolfellows come all;
And I shall be beaten when I go home,
For losing of my ball.’

“She ‘ticed him with an apple so red,
And likewise with a fig:
She threw him over the dresser board,
And sticked him like a pig.

“The first came out the thickest of blood,
The second came out so thin;
The third that came the child’s heart-blood,
Where’er his life lay in.

“‘O spare my life! O spare my life!
O spare my life!’ said he:
‘If ever I live to be a young man,
I’ll do as good chare for thee.

“‘I’ll do as good chare for thy true love
As ever I did for the King;
I will scour a basin as bright as silver,
To let your heart-blood run in.’

“When eleven o’clock was past and gone,
And all the schoolfellows came home,
Every mother had her own child,
But young Sir Hugh’s mother had none.

“She went up Lincoln and down Lincoln,
And all about Lincoln street,
With her small wand in her right hand,
Thinking of her child to meet.

“She went till she came to the old Jew’s gate,
She knocked with the ring;
Who should be so ready as th’ old Jew herself
To rise and let her in.

“‘What news, fair maid? what news, fair maid?
What news have you brought me?’
.           .           .           .           .           .           .
.           .           .           .           .           .           .

“‘Have you seen any of my child to-day,
Or any of the rest of my kin?’
‘No, I’ve seen none of your child to-day,
Nor none of the rest of your kin.’”

I am very anxious to complete this ballad from Northamptonshire; and I again renew my request that some of your correspondents will endeavour to supply what is deficient.  The “old lacemaker” would have given more, but she could not.  The pure Saxon of this ballad is beautiful.

Cowper got no answer to his request until J.L.C.’s entry in 1868 jogged the memory of Edward Peacock (1831-1915) of Bottesford Manor, near Lincoln.  He supplied a full version of the ballad from a Mr W.C. Atkinson of Brigg, Lincolnshire (who had previously published it in The Athenaeum of 19 January 1867, though whether he heard it or discovered a manuscript or print version is not clear).  This fills in some of the elements of the narrative: the mother calls her son and his body miraculously speaks, enabling her to find it hidden in a “deep draw-well.”  In other versions bells ring and books read themselves as the body is transported.  Peacock explained in his article that the ballad bears some relation to  events that occurred in 1255 in Lincoln, when the Jews of that city were accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy, Hugh son of Beatrice, the future ‘Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln’.  Nineteen members of the Jewish community would be executed in consequence.  The story occurs in three contemporary chronicles, as well as in an Anglo-Norman ballad, and would be referred to in Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’.  It is only one of several medieval child saint legends of a related kind (William of Norwich, Robert of Bury St Edmunds, Harold of Gloucester…).  Yet while the story was old, there is no record of this particular ballad text until Thomas Percy printed a copy, supposedly from a Scottish manuscript, in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets (1765).  Thereafter, the ballad has been recorded frequently, in Scotland, England, Ireland and the United States; it has 295 entries in the Roud Folksong Index, the source of the Roud numbers given in this article (and available online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library a mine of information on everything related to folk music).  The modern ballad differs considerably from the medieval saints’ legends, not least in the primary role played by a woman as siren and murderer.

Lacemakers continued to sing this song while making lace well into the later nineteenth century, for Thomas Wright (1859-1936) of Olney, in The Romance of the Lace Pillow (1919) recorded versions from Weston-under-Wood and Haddenham, both in Buckinghamshire, which were used as lace tells in the lace schools.  This is the text of one he gave in full.

THE JEWESS MAIDEN.
There was a Jewess maiden, or so my story states,
Who beckoned to a little boy who peeped between her gates.
An apple so red, a plum so sweet, she gave him from her tree;
She dazzled his eyes with a garry gold ring that was so fair to see.
And when she got him in the gates she laughed, he knew not why,
And uttered many wicked words and told him he must die.
She laid him on the dresser board, no mercy then she showed,
But stabbed him with a knife and stabbed until the life-blood flowed.

Wright emphasised that lacemakers’ songs and tells, particularly those from Buckinghamshire, “abound in allusions to coffins, shrouds, corpses, bones, lightning flashes, sardonic laughter, hyena-like cries, and other lurid, gruesome, clammy or grizzly terrors”.  The next lacemakers’ song to appear in Notes and Queries makes his point very aptly.

Thomas Wright, schoolteacher and writer of Olney, Buckinghamshire (from Olney and District Historical Society website).

Thomas Wright, schoolteacher and writer of Olney, Buckinghamshire (from Olney and District Historical Society website).

J.L.C.’s reference to the ballad of ‘Sir Hugh’ prompted Cowper to return to the theme of lacemakers’ songs in Notes and Queries of 19 September 1868.

LACEMAKERS’ SONGS: “LONG LANKIN.”

Forty years ago, when in Northamptonshire, I used to hear the lacemakers sing the now well-known ballad of “Hugh of Lincoln” (“It rains, it rains,” etc.)  Another, which I have never seen in print, but which I happen to have in MS., is “Long Lankin,” of which I send a copy.  Like the damsels whom Shakespeare represents as “chanting” the song which the Clown proceeds to sing (in Twelfth Night, Act II., c. 4), the equally “free maids” of my childhood’s days often chanted, rather than sung, as they sat in rows “in the sun” or in the “lace-school,” an institution which is perhaps effete.  But Shakespeare’s lacemakers made “bone lace,” and not “bobbin lace,” with which only I am acquainted.  I could perhaps remember some few other ditties which the lacemakers used to sing, though my impression is that they were often mere childish nursery rhymes like “Sing a song of sixpence.” Such probably was one which began in this way:
“I had a little nutting-tree,
And nothing would it bear
But little silver nutmegs
For Galligolden fair”
of which I recollect no more, but that, as a little boy, I used to tell them to say “nutmeg-tree,” which they obstinately refused to do.  By-the-way, there was a long piece about “Death and the Lady,” which the “free maids” used to chant.  This exhausts my present reminiscences so I shall proceed to give you “Long Lankin”: —

“Said my lord to his lady as he got on his horse.
‘Take care of Long Lankin, who lives in the moss.’
Said my lord to his lady as he rode away,
‘Take care of Long Lankin who lives in the clay.
The doors are all bolted, and the windows are pinned,
There is not a hole where a mouse can creep in.’
Then he kissed his fair lady as he rode away;
For he must be in London before break of day.
The doors were all bolted, the windows all pinned,
But one little window where Lankin crept in.
‘Where’s the lord of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He is gone to fair London,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the lady of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘She’s in her high chamber,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘Where’s the young heir of this house?’ said Long Lankin.
‘He’s asleep in his cradle,’ said the false nurse to him.
‘We’ll prick him, we’ll prick him all over with a pin,
And that will make your lady come down to him.’
They pricked him, they pricked him all over with a pin,
And the false nurse held a basin for the blood to drop in.
‘O nurse! How you sleep, and O nurse how you snore!
You leave my son Johnson to cry and to roar!’
‘I’ve tried him with suck, and I’ve tried him with pap;
Come down, my fair lady, and nurse him in your lap:
I’ve tried him with apple, and I’ve tried him with pear;
Come down, my fair lady and nurse him in your chair.’
‘How can I come down, it’s so late in the night,
And there’s no fire burning, or lamp to give light?’
‘You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun;
Come down, my fair lady, all by the light of one.’
‘Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me till twelve o’clock!
You shall have as much money as you can carry on your back.
Oh! spare me, Long Lankin, spare me one hour!
You shall have my daughter Nancy, she is a sweet flower.’
‘Where is your daughter Nancy? she may do some good;
She can hold the golden basin to catch your heart’s blood.’
Lady Nancy was sitting in her window so high,
And she saw her father as he was riding by:
‘O father! O father! don’t lay the blame on me;
It was the false nurse and Lankin who killed your lady.’
Then Lankin was hung on a gallows so high,
And the false nurse was burnt in a fire close by.”

To the best of my recollection this copy is not quite complete, and it was sung with occasional ad libitum variations, as “Sally” or “Betsy” for Nancy.  It is probable that inquiry in the lace-making districts would produce copies of other old ballads.

A mid-late nineteenth-century broadside of ‘Death and the Lady’ printed by G. Henson of Northampton (from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries)

A mid-late nineteenth-century broadside of ‘Death and the Lady’ printed by G. Henson of Northampton (from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries)

Readers will probably be familiar with ‘I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear’ (Roud 3749).  ‘Death and the Lady’ (Roud 1031) was a commonly encountered ballad — or rather ballads, for there are a number of different texts that share a very similar theme.  It had often appeared on broadsides from the seventeenth century onwards, and was framed as a dialogue between a fine lady and Death, in which the certainty of the grave, and the judgement beyond, is gradually forced on the former.  The final verse in the version supplied by Lucy Broadwood’s English Traditional Songs and Carols (1908) returns us to subtitle of this website:

The grave’s the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great;
If life were merchandise, that gold could buy,
The rich would live — only the poor would die.

‘Long Lankin’ (Child 93, Roud 6) had also previously appeared in Notes and Queries for 25 October 1856, when M.H.R. asked for information about the ballad ‘Long Lankyn’ “which is derived by tradition from the nurse of an ancestor of mine who heard it sung nearly a century ago in Northumberland”.  Lankin (or Lamkin, or Lammikin, or Beaulampkins, or Lambert Linkin, or Bold Rankin… he goes by many names) is a particularly ghoulish ballad, frequently recorded in the English (and Scots) speaking world.  In longer versions of the ballad the eponymous villain is a mason who builds a castle for a nobleman, who subsequently forgets to pay his bills.  Perhaps because of its brutality, commentators have often speculated on a medieval origin, but in fact the earliest recorded version, ‘Long Longkin’ was noted from one of his female parishioners by the Reverend Parsons of Wye, near Ashford in Kent, and sent to Thomas Percy of Reliques fame in 1775.  Another version appeared the following year in the second edition of David Herd’s Ancient Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads etc.

Neither ‘Sir Hugh’ nor ‘Long Lankin’ were only, or even primarily, sung by lacemakers.  There were part of the common ballad culture of the English and Scots speaking world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if not before.  It may be worth mentioning that Thomas Percy, who wrote Reliques of Ancient English Poetry while vicar of Easton Maudit in Northamptonshire, close to local centres of lace-making, nonetheless never mentions the penchant of lacemakers for old songs.  However, there are some good reasons why the contributors to Notes and Queries should associate these type of songs specifically with lacemakers.  The practice of singing while lacemaking was noted by several commentators after Shakespeare.  For instance, Thomas Sternberg (probably Vincent Thomas, 1831-1880, who grew up in Northampton and was later librarian of Leeds Library), in his The Dialect and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire (1851) wrote under the entry ‘Lace-Songs’ that “Lace making is almost always accompanied with singing”.

One might imagine that before machines drowned out the human voice and commercial recorded music became ubiquitous that practically all work, and many other human activities, were accompanied by song.  However, from the evidence available, this was not the case.  Some occupations in England were frequently associated with singing — they include carters and shoemakers, as well as Shakespeare’s trio of spinners, knitters and lacemakers — but no such association was made with carpenters, blacksmiths or dressmakers.  This is not to say that there were not melodious blacksmiths or lyrical carpenters, but that singing was not commonly thought to be an inherent part of their work.  A blacksmith’s repertoire would be individual, whereas lacemakers’ was an expression of their collective identity.  Hence Sternberg use of the term of “lace-songs”: he associated a particular repertoire with this manufacture.  Lacemaking was not so arduous that it prevented the simultaneous use of the lungs, and as pillows were portable it was often done in company, so that singers had both an audience and an accompaniment.  And in lace schools, songs or “tells” were used as part of the training process, a topic we’ll return to in a later post.  This occupational tradition explains why it was logical for Cowper to suggest that “inquiry in the lace-making districts would produce copies of other old ballads”.

Aranda Dill’s eerie illustration of ‘Long Lankin’ (from Tumblr).

Aranda Dill’s eerie illustration of ‘Long Lankin’ (from Tumblr).

But why these blood-soaked songs in particular?  Both ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’ are about the murder of a child, specifically the long drawn out death by blood letting.  And although the perpetrators might be punished, in lacemakers’ versions the emphasis is very much on the butchering of Hugh and Johnson rather than the retribution that might follow.  It is particularly striking that in three cases the contributors to Notes and Queries cited children’s nurses as their original source, especially so in the case of ‘Long Lankin’ where a treacherous nurse is the murderer’s accomplice.  Perhaps, like lullabies (think of ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’), these songs were a cathartic release of the repressed resentment felt by servants against the object of their attentions — weak but demanding, dependant but socially superior.  Mothers too could feel that children were burdens, a topic we’ll return to in a future post about lacemakers and infanticide.  Is it possible that resentment also underlay lacemakers’ performances of ‘Sir Hugh’?  Lacemakers were frequently working ten-hour days, if not more, by the age of six: perhaps they were not that sympathetic towards schoolboys playing football.  Again it is worth noting that it is a male child who is killed, while in the case of ‘Long Lankin’ the female child survives.  We last see Nancy, or Sally, or Betsy, sitting at her window, exactly where, in contemporary descriptions, we find lacemakers working.  Perhaps the substitute names allowed different girls to express their own frustrations against their mothers, the person who had set them to lacemaking, and their siblings, and especially brothers whose situation, even if not petted and spoiled, was probably less restricted than lacemakers.

Gerald Porter argues that in lace tells “the theme of child death is implicit, and this relates it [the tell] to a large group of songs in which labor and early death are linked.”  Lacemakers sang about child death, while their own autonomy and even their health was being sapped by the very process in which they were engaged.  Singing at work is very much part of “the romance of the lace pillow”: the “free maids” sitting in the sun outside a cottage door; but the actual content of lacemakers’ repertoire of songs undercuts this idyll.  No doubt singing was a moment of freedom, of “fancy” (as some recent scholars of work-song express it), when imagination was allowed to wander in very different circumstances to those of lacemaker.  But in a culture where even looking up from the pillow might be punished, songs might also express a rage that could find no other outlet.

 

Further Reading: from Notes and Queries.

Clifton Barry, ‘Notes on Midland County Minstrelsy’, Notes and Queries, 1st series VIII (October 1853), pp. 357-8.

B.H.C., ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh, Etc.’, Notes and Queries, 1st series VIII (December 1853), p. 614.

B.H.C., ‘The Ballad of Sir Hugh.’, Notes and Queries, 1st series XII (December 1855), pp. 496-7.

J.L.C., ‘A Lacemakers’ Song’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (July 1868), p. 8.

Edward Peacock, ‘A Lacemaker’s Song’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (July, 1868), pp. 59-60.

Sidney Beisly, ‘Lacemakers’ Songs’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (August 1868), p. 178

B.H. Cowper, ‘Lacemakers’ Songs: “Long Lankin”’, Notes and Queries, 4th series II (September 1868), p. 281.

 

Further Reading: other sources

Lucy Broadwood, English Traditional Songs and Carols (London, 1908).

Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols (Boston, 1882-1898).

Mary-Ann Constantine and Gerald Porter, Fragment and Meaning in Traditional Song: From the Blues to the Baltic, (Oxford, 2003), chap. II, ‘Singing the Unspeakable’.

Vic Gammon and Peter Sallybrass, ‘Structure and Ideology in the Ballad: An Analysis of “Long Lankin”’, Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 26:1 (1984), pp. 1-20.

Anne Gilchrist, ‘Lambkin: A Study in Evolution’, Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society 1:1 (1932), pp. 1-17.

David Gregory, Victorian Songhunters: The Recovery and Editing of English Vernacular Ballads and Folk Lyrics, 1820-1883 (Lanham, 2006).

Joseph Jacobs, ‘Little St. Hugh of Lincoln: Researches in History, Archaeology, and Legend’, reprinted in Alan Dundes (ed.) Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore (Wisconsin, 1991), pp. 41-71.

Marek Korczynski, Michael Pickering and Emma Robertson, Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain, (Cambridge, 2013).

Gavin Langmuir, ‘The Knight’s Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln’, Speculum 47:3 (1972), pp. 459-482.

Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets (London, 1765).

Gerald Porter, ‘“Work the Old Lady out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers’, Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3 (1994),pp. 35-55.

Emma Robertson, Michael Pickering and Marek Korczynski, ‘“And Spinning so with Voices Meet, Like Nightingales they Sung Full Sweet”: Unravelling Representations of Singing in Pre-Industrial Textile Production’, Cultural and Social History 5:1 (2008), pp. 11-31.

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Sternberg, The Dialect and Folk-lore of Northamptonshire (London, 1851).

James R. Woodall, ‘“Sir Hugh”: A Study in Balladry’, Southern Folklore Quarterly 19 (1955), pp. 78-84.

Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), Chap XIV: ‘The Lace Tells and the Lace-Makers’ Holidays’.

 

English Lacemakers in Fiction. Charlotte M. Yonge and ‘The Moloch of Lace’ in ‘The Clever Woman of the Family’ (1865)

In her Victorian heyday Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was as popular and as prolific a novelist as Dickens and Trollope.  She has fallen out of fashion somewhat since, despite the efforts of the excellent Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, whose website we recommend.  Although a witty and lively writer, especially of dialogue, it was Yonge’s social and religious opinions which drove her plots, and explain why they feel so dated.  This can be illustrated by the example of The Clever Woman of the Family, but our reason for including it in this series of blogs on lacemakers in fiction is because it also offers a picture of the Devon lace industry in the high Victorian period.

 Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.


Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.

Yonge’s novel opens in the early 1860s on Rachel Curtis’s twenty-fifth birthday.  She is the daughter of a gentry family in the fictional Devon fishing and resort village of Avonmouth and, in her own opinion at least, the clever woman of the family.  But she can find no outlet for her intelligence and her energies because she is “tethered down to the merest mockery of usefulness by conventionalities.  I am a young lady forsooth! — I must not be out late; I must not put forth my views; I must not choose my acquaintance; I must be a mere helpless, useless being, growing old in a ridiculous fiction of prolonged childhood”.

The primary objects of Rachel’s desire to be useful are the “hard worked, half-stifled little girls” in the local lace schools: “cramped in soul, destroyed in body, that fine ladies may wear lace trimmings”.  It galls her that a charitable bequest by one of her ancestors in the seventeenth century actually pays for the girls’ apprenticeships.  At the moment the only support she is able to provide is by purchasing their products, even though she describes lace as “cobwebs of vanity” (while her mother detests “that black lace thing, that looks fit for your grandmother” which she is obliged to wear as a consequence of her philanthropic consumption) and reading to the lacemakers in their schoolroom.  This location is a “black-hole under the stairs” without windows where the local lace mistress keeps seven children in rigid silence for ten hours a day.  Rachel reads them something religious, something improving, and a bit of a story, alongside mental arithmetic which, according to the author “was about as interesting as the humming of a blue-bottle fly” to its “well-broken” denizens.  The idea that one must be “broken to lace” recurs throughout the book.

Rachel is particularly exercised by the fate of one intelligent girl, Lovedy Kelland, whose mother had refused to sacrifice her little girl “to the Moloch of lace” but instead sent her to school.  There were even hopes she might become a trainee teacher.  But when her mother dies, the girl is adopted by the lace-mistress “with the resolve to act the truly kind part by her, and break her in to lace-making.”  But while Rachel is infuriated by Lovedy’s fate, her real ambition is to attack “the system… that chained girls to an unhealthy occupation in their early childhood, and made an overstocked market and underpaid workers”.  “Lace and lacemakers are facts,” she explains to her distracted cousin Fanny, “but if the middle-men were exploded, and the excess of workers drafted off by some wholesome outlet, the price would rise, so that the remainder would be at leisure to fulfil the domestic offices of womanhood.”  However, her wealthy neighbours have no desire push up the price of lace, and the lacemakers themselves are drawn to Primitive Methodism to escape the well-meaning interference of local do-gooders; they only tolerate Rachel because of her family’s historic position in the community.

Her opportunity to act comes through a chance encounter with Mr Mauleverer, a philanthropic lecturer and, it is implied but never quite established as fact, a clergyman unable to find a position because of his modern “opinions”.  With his encouragement she launches the Female Union for Lacemaker’s Employment (the initials are not inconsequential, and the name is later changed to the Female Union for Englishwoman’s Employment or F.U.E.E.), gathering funds from near and far to support an Industrial School for the former lacemakers where, as Rachel explains “some fresh trades might be taught, so as to lessen the glut of the market, and to remove the workers that are forced to undersell one another, and thus oblige the buyers to give a fairly remunerative price.”  A magazine is launched under the banner “Am I not a Sister?” (a reference to the famous slogan of the slave emancipation movement at the turn of the century, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”  For another novelist who drew connections between lacemaking and slavery, see our post on Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans).  Premises are found nearby, a matron employed, and two lacemakers, including Lovedy Kelland, are taken in with the promise of becoming wood-engravers.

Sadly, Mauleverer turns out to be a con-man who pockets the monies raised by Rachel, while the matron is a vicious tyrant who starves the girls while forcing them to make sprigs day and night, beating them with a stick if they failed to fulfil their quota.  The deception comes to light when Mauleverer presents two woodcuts, which he claims were engraved by the F.U.E.E’s trainees, jointly entitled “The free maids that weave their thread with bones” (the Shakespearean description of lacemakers).  One woodcut, depicting a pretty maiden outside a cottage door with roses, honeysuckles and other “conventional rural delights” is labelled “Ideal”; the other, showing “a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school” is labelled “Real”.  Rachel’s friends prove to her that in fact both images had been snipped out of an old copy of the London Illustrated News.  However, this revelation comes too late for the beaten, emaciated Lovedy who dies of diphtheria soon after her release.  Her last words to Rachel as watches over her deathbed are “Please tell me of my Saviour”, but Rachel finds she cannot, so far has she drifted from the verities of the established Church.  (On the whole the poor in Yonge’s novels do not provide moral lessons to the rich, as they do in Charlotte Barnard’s work: this scene is an exception.)  Lovedy’s death is only one of several shocks to Rachel’s image of herself as “the clever woman of the family”, but it is the most brutal.

Before the end of the novel Rachel will learn that only by submitting herself to patriarchal authority can she fulfil her life’s purpose.  Male superiority appears first in the shape of her husband, but he is but a stepping stone to the masculine font of all authority, the Church.  She will discover that the social conventions against which she railed at the beginning were instituted for her well-being, and even her fashion sense must be submitted to her husband (who has as low an opinion of her charitable lace purchases as her mother).  In the second half of the novel the sufferings of the poor are largely forgotten and in as much as Rachel still feels that “every alley and lane of town or country reeks with vice and corruption”, the implicit argument of the novel is that not much could or should be done about it, or at least not by women alone uninstructed by pious men.  After all, as Rachel explains at the end, one never knows whether one is doing more harm than good.  “I had a few intellectual tastes, and liked to think and read, which was supposed to be cleverness; and my wilfulness made me fancy myself superior in force of character in a way I could never have imagined if I had lived more in the world.  Contact with really clever people has shown me that I am slow and unready.”

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

Yonge sincerely believed in male superiority, and for many years opposed developments in women’s education.  This is surely one reason that her works have fallen out of fashion.  She was a tireless proselytizer for the Church of England in its most High Church, Oxford Movement garb.  Although her characters are more rounded than Barnard’s and More’s ciphers, the moral message of her work is hammered home in chapter titles and epigrams.  But perhaps even more off-putting is her absolute acceptance not just of social inequality — even for the exemplar of modern intellectual trends Rachel Curtis, class hierarchy is a given — but also social conventions.  This is a novel in which the characters can spend the best part of the chapter discussing whether it is appropriate for a young widow to play croquet.  Although in the text the partisans for the game carry the day, the author reveals her own allegiances when later the initiator of the craze in Avonmouth, a fashionable but wilful and selfish young woman, is killed in a freak croquet accident.

Lace-making is a background theme of the novel – the motor of Rachel’s enlightenment rather than a topic in itself, and it fades out completely in the second half of the book.  Nonetheless it is clear that Yonge knew something of the trade.  Her family came from Devon and she often holidayed there.  She was certainly familiar with the vocabulary of the Honiton lace industry, such as “sprigs” for the patterns made by the lacemakers, and “gapsies” for the illicit breaks observed in the lace school.  But if some knowledge came from direct observation, it is likely that she had also read the report of Commissioner John Edmund White on the lace industry (1864) as part of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  White confirms, for example, the importance of the apprenticeships to lace mistresses in Devon (compared with the Midlands).  Apprentices would be trained for a year and half or so before they could start making money on their own account.  Yonge’s description of a lace school is also similar to those visited by White.  For instance, Mrs Besley’s lace school at Seaton was an annexe to her cottage, “nearly square, a little over seven feet each way, and six feet six inches high, and containing, in fact, a little over 330 cubic feet, and there is no fireplace or means of warming”.  This tiny space was shared by seven pupils, the mistress and her three daughters, working from early morning till at least 10:00pm, and often much later or even all through the night.  As another lace mistress, Mrs Croydon, put it, “If you promise the work, you must do it” regardless of what strain it caused the young girls.  Yonge’s Mrs Kelland would doubtless have agreed.

Girls started in these lace schools as young as four or five, though they were normally not expected to do a full day’s (and night’s) work until aged seven.  Work would start at six or seven in the morning, and those mistresses like Mrs Copp of Beer who closed at ten in the evening, summer and winter, obviously considered themselves philanthropic for not keeping the girls later.  The term school is something of a misnomer as most appear to have provided no education beyond lace skills.  Hence the effort that Rachel Curtis puts into night schools and Sunday schools, where lacemakers might learn their letters, even though she felt that such efforts were only “scratching the surface”.  Commissioner White was shocked by the levels of ignorance he encountered: for example, thirteen-year-old Emily Westlake, whom he interviewed at Mrs Besley’s school, “Knows the letters (and no more), but no figures (when shown) except ‘1’.”  Yonge highlights this mental cramping in the character of Susan Kelland, daughter of the lace-mistress, “who was supposed to be a sort of spider, with no capacities beyond her web.”  White highlighted the deleterious health effects of such children “crumped up” (to use the local term) over pillows in such ill-ventilated, stuffy rooms, alternatively too cold or too hot, for hours on end.  The girls suffered from headaches, they damaged their eyes, and in some cases even died of brain fever from over-taxation.  All this to earn between a shilling and, at most, even for the most adept, three shillings six pence a week (by way of comparison, in this region of very depressed wages, a male agricultural labourer might earn eight shillings a week on average).

The description of the lacemakers’ sufferings at the hands of the F.U.E.E.’s matron Mrs Rawlins –beaten, forced to work through the night, and in effect starved to death – also recalls accounts of the Barratt case of 1856, which Yonge may have read; it was certainly covered in her local newspaper.  Like the Barratt’s sister and parents, Mrs Rawlins would be tried for manslaughter at the assizes, and in her case sentenced to one year’s hard labour.

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Yonge is sniffy about Rachel Curtis’s desire to reform the system (“everything was a system with Rachel”) rather than, at most, relieve the symptoms of poverty (a much more proper activity for upper-class women).  However, The Royal Commission’s report made it obvious that manufacturing’s reliance on child labour could not be ameliorated by private charity alone, it could only be addressed through legislation.  Its first fruit was the Workshop Act of 1867, which stated that no child under eight could be employed, that children between eight and thirteen could work no more than six hours a day, and all employed children should get ten hours of formal schooling a week.  Further regulation of workshops, together with new educational requirements, would effectively kill off the lace schools over the next two decades.

Further Reading

British Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, First Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  1863.  As far as lace manufacturing is concerned, the findings of the Commission are usefully summarized in a more accessible pamphlet: Alan Brown, Take the Children: How Victorian Lace Girls Lived and Worked in the Honiton and East Midlands Districts — This is their Story, as Told to the 1862 Royal Commission (Sawbridgeworth, c. 2000).

Janice Fiamengo, “Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family”, Victorian Review 25:2 (2000); 85-105.

H.J. Yallop, The History of the Honiton Lace Industry (University of Exeter Press, 1992).

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