Category: Lacemakers and Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliza Westbury, Northampton Lacemaker and Composer of Hymns

Eliza Westbury was born in 1808 and died in 1828. She lived for all of her short life in the village of Hackleton, Northamptonshire, where she made a living as a lacemaker.

We know this from the introduction to Hymns by a Northamptonshire Village Female, to which is added a Short Account of Her Life. (Note that ‘Female’; obviously Eliza could not aspire to the title ‘Lady’!) This book, containing 70 or so of Westbury’s hymns and poems, was published shortly after her death, probably by the local Baptist minister William Knowles. It seems likely that Knowles encouraged Eliza’s writing after her conversion and acceptance into the Baptist congregation in 1826.

 

Carey's College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

Carey’s College, Hackleton. William Carey (1761-1834) was a shoemaker turned Baptist minister and missionary in India. He lived a while in Hackleton.

 

This is what Knowles, if he was editor, had to say about Eliza: this is the promised short account of her life.

Eliza Westbury was the daughter of William and Elizabeth Westbury of Hackleton, Northamptonshire. She was born in the year 1808. Her father died in the faith of the gospel, in the year 1811. At an early age she was sent to a Sabbath School, and made pleasing progress in learning. She, at times, felt conviction of sin; but remained a stranger to religion until the beginning of the year 1825, when it pleased God to seal upon her heart a few words which were spoken to her after she had been hearing a Sermon to young people. In May, 1826, she joined the Baptist Church at Hackleton, of which she was an honourable member till her death. During the last two years of her life she composed about one hundred and fifty Hymns, besides other poetry from which the following are selected and published, under the impression that they will be acceptable to her Christian friends. Most of them where [sic] composed while she was earning her living at lace-making, and which she used to write at her leisure. Her own experience will be seen in the piece of poetry at the end of the hymns, which was found after her death. She was frequently deeply impressed with the evil of sin, and was fearful lest she should deceive herself: but her death was attended with peace and with the hope of a blessed immortality.

The providences with which the family to which she belonged was visited were very affecting; within sixteen weeks out of five persons who resided in the same house, four were removed by death. On the fourth of January, 1828, her mother died; on the 20th, one of her mother’s sisters; on the 11th of April, death visited her, and on the 18th of the same month another of her mother’s sisters; and unto them all there is ground for hope that death was gain, and that though they are absent from the body, they are present with the Lord.

Reader! Prepare to meet thy God!

We came across Eliza Westbury through the writings of Sibyl Phillips whose thesis, ‘Women and Evangelical Religion in Kent and Northamptonshire, 1800-1850’ (2001) is available online. (Nancy Jiwon Cho has also written a little about Westbury in her thesis, ‘The Ministry of Song: Unmarried British Women’s Hymn Writing, 1760-1936’ (Durham, 2006).) We were intrigued by the fact that Westbury “composed while she was earning a living at lace making”. As discussed in previous posts, many observers of Midland life in the nineteenth century commented on lacemakers’ habit of singing at work. Eliza’s compositions might strengthen the case for a connection between this occupation and song.

We were hoping that Westbury’s hymns would reference, either in words or tune, the other songs associated with lacemakers – either the long ballads discussed in our post on Long Lankin and Little Sir Hugh, or the “tellings” which were the particular musical property of lacemakers. Unfortunately, Eliza’s book, which contains no indication of melodies, is extremely rare (in the UK the only copy seems to be in Northampton itself) and, partly because David is currently in Caen researching Normandy lacemakers, we have not been able to access it. However, to judge by the numerous verses reproduced by Phillips and Cho, the answer appears to be no. Perhaps unsurprisingly Westbury modelled her compositions more on other Evangelical hymnsters and poets, first and foremost Cowper’s and Newton’s Olney Hymns. Olney is only a few miles from Hackleton.

We offer, as an example, Hymn 27, ‘Discontent’, which given the poverty and hard-work associated with lacemaking, may have spoken to one of their habits:

Christians, beware of discontent,
‘Tis a besetting sin;
It will all happiness prevent
When once it is let in.

We murmur at our Maker’s will
Complain of our hard lot;
Calamities remember still,
But mercies are forgot.

Pardon, O Lord, our discontent;
Forgiveness now display;
And may thy spirit now be sent
To guide us lest we stray.

 

It does not appear that Westbury mentioned lacemaking by name in any of her surviving works, though some of the texts do refer to the events of her life such as  ‘On the Death of the Author’s Mother’, which, as we know, preceded her own by only a few weeks. Here are three of the eight verses:

Who lov’d to see me walk the way
That leads to everlasting day,
And check’d me when about to stray?
My Mother!

It has pleas’d God her soul to take
To heaven, where no alarms can shake;
There may I meet, for Jesu’s sake,
My Mother!

Then with my Saviour I shall be,
And I shall from all sin be free,
And there in glory I shall see
My Mother!

As Phillips and Cho have shown, this is modelled quite closely on Ann Taylor’s (at the time) very famous poem ‘My Mother’, which itself borrowed its distinctive metre from Cowper’s ‘To Mary’.

The final piece in the collection contains 54 stanzas and is titled ‘Verses, Containing an Account of the Writer’s Experience’. These tell us relatively little about Westbury’s working life, it is her spiritual life that matters: her youthful waywardness, the depression brought on by her sense of sin, her conversion, and her ongoing doubts. But in the absence of any other autobiography of a lacemaker from the period, we quote them here… or as many verses as were quoted by Phillips.

I at an early age was taught
That God should be in every thought,
My Mother brought me up with care.
And led me to the house of prayer.

Unto a Sabbath School I went,
To gain instruction I was sent;
And there it was my constant aim
To strive to gain the greatest name.

‘Twas my desire (the truth I’ll tell)
That I in reading might excel;
My chief concern and labour then,
Was how to gain the praise of men.

I many strong convictions had,
But I to stifle them was glad:
I knew my ways did God offend,
But I to this would not attend.

I for my chief companions chose
Those who religion did oppose,
Who disobey’d each warning voice
They were the objects of my choice.

Thus with the thoughtless, gay, and vain,
God’s holy day I did profane;
For oft we in the fields did walk,
To join in vain and trifling talk.

But conscience told me all along
That I was surely acting wrong:
This fill’d my soul with sore dismay
And oft I did attempt to pray.

All sacred things I did deride,
But my companions would me chide,
And oft they unto me would say,
That I indeed was worse than they.

Who hath ascended up, thought I,
And seen a God above the sky?
Who of the dead came back to tell,
That there was either heaven or hell?

A minister of God above,
Bid me from Christ no longer rove,
But now to seek in days of youth,
The God of mercy, love, and truth.

He bid me also not to be
A servant of God’s enemy.

My sins as mountains did appear
Which filled my soul with grief and fear.
No hope of mercy could I see,
For bold transgressors such as me.

I thought I oft heard something say,
That t’was in vain for me to pray;
I at religion used to scoff,
And now the Lord would cast me off.

At length God’s holy word I took,
But fear’d to open that blest Book,
Lest in its pages I should see
A curse denounc’d on such as me.

My mind was devoid of peace
And fast my misery did increase.
At length, I fully did intend
To my own life to put an end.

… (but is prevented by remembering a chapter from the Bible on suicide)

No murderer shall enter heaven,
His crimes shall never be forgiven;
And should I be my murderer now,
To endless torment I must go.

… (Instead she joins the Baptist congregation)

With the saints I lov’d to meet
To worship at the Saviour’s feet.

But soon my mind was fill’d with care,
For Satan tempted to despair;
He told me ‘I did not believe,
‘But only did my self deceive,
‘That mercy I need not expect,
‘For I was not of God’s elect;’
Could I forgiveness hope to find,
A sinner of the vilest kind?

… (These doubts keep her from Church for a while, but in the end she is accepted and baptised)

Now those who read these lines may see
The goodness of my God to me.

He could have stop’d my feeble breath,
And sent me to eternal death:
But he has spar’d me still to tell
How he has sav’d my soul from hell.

God’s grace to sinners doth abound,
I sought the Lord and mercy found;
The vilest sinner need not fear,
For God will his petitions hear.

Lord, may thy spirit guide me now,
While I am in this world below:
And then when I am call’d to die,
Receive my soul above the sky.

 

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

Hackleton Baptist Church, the successor to the one where Eliza worshipped.

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