Legends of Lacemaking: Serena of Bruges and Caroline Popp

40 Zuidzandstraat in Bruges is now a perfume shop, but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was home to the lace firm Houpelyne-Mulier.  Above the shop windows four bas-reliefs depict the invention of lace, which legend ascribes to a local girl, Serena.  Of course, other lace centres dispute this claim.  Serena’s tale appears in several versions, what follows is a summary of what is probably the original version.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Serena’s story is set in the Middle Ages, the high point of the the city’s fortunes.  But twenty-year-old Serena did not partake in that wealth.  Her father, a sailor (and Bruges was then a port) had died at sea; her mother had charge of four other young children, and so it fell to Serena to support the entire family from her spinning.  She loved, and was loved in turn, by her neighbour, Arnold Van Oost, son of a rich merchant and an apprentice sculptor.  But, as poverty threatened her family, Serena made a vow before an image of Our Lady of Sorrows: ‘Holy Virgin, give me the means to aid my family and I will renounce all the joys and hopes of my heart’.

That same day, Serena’s family, accompanied by Arnold, went for a walk in the countryside.  It was a beautiful spring morning, and the fields were covered with the gossamer threads that in French are called ‘les fils de la Vierge’ [threads of the Virgin].  As she sat pondering her vow some strands floated down onto her black apron, making a beautiful pattern.  For Serena, this was a lesson from the Mother of God; if spiders could create wonderful shapes with their threads, why might not she?  Arnold knocked together a makeshift frame to carry the apron home and Serena set about trying to recreate the pattern with her own thread.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Her first attempts were hopelessly muddled but the use of a pin-cushion and Arnold’s rapid invention of bobbins to weight the threads enabled her to find her way, and soon all the great ladies of Bruges were demanding this new textile to adorn their heads.  Serena taught her younger sisters the secret and so the family’s financial problems were solved.  Arnold, in what would be an enduring division of labour within the lace industry, supplied the drawings on which they worked.  In the meantime, he had submitted his masterpiece and become a full member of the guild of sculptors.  Now in a position to marry he rushed to Serena’s house to ask for her hand.  But she, of course, was bound by her vow to refuse.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

A year passed in mutual pain as Arnold nursed his anger and confusion and Serena became listless and pale.  On the anniversary of the miracle Serena took herself once again into the fields and prayed that Arnold would recover from the hurt.  In answer the gossamer strands arranged themselves again into a pattern, a crown of orange blossom.  Serena exclaimed, ‘If this is a martyr’s crown I accept, but all others are forbidden to me’.  And in response words appeared within the crown: ‘I relieve you of your vow’.  Soon after the couple were married.

Serena and Arnold had many children, all girls, who learnt the art of lacemaking from their mother, and thus was established the industry that spread the name of Flanders far and wide.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Because lace is a relatively modern invention it is feasible to imagine that it originated with a historical personage at a particular moment.  And as it was associated with the Church – because religious institutions were responsible for teaching and spreading lace skills – it was equally feasible to imagine a miraculous origin. The legend of Serena is only one of several that ascribe a role to the Virgin Mary in the inception of lace.  However, while such stories encapsulate the notion that lacemakers were engaged in a blessed occupation (a view we have seen expressed by, for example, Guido Gezelle), they are not necessarily as old as the craft itself.  They do not appear to have their origin in narratives that lacemakers told among themselves, but in the efforts to defend or invigorate the handmade lace industry in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  Although Serena has passed into folklore, and her story told and retold by Bruges city guides and lace aficionados, her origins are literary.[1]  We can be fairly certain she was the invention of Caroline Popp, who dated her text 12 May 1867.

Bas-relief of Caroline Popp, by her grandson-in-law Julien van den Broeck de la Palud.  Popp edited the ‘Journal de Bruges’ from her home in place Hans Memling (now Woensdagmarkt). Memling’s statue appears here in the background. Note Popp’s lace collar!

Caroline Popp (1808-1891) was a figure of some importance in nineteenth-century Bruges.[2]  Her father, Félix Nicolas Joseph Boussart, came from a military family from Binche who, having served the Austrians then fought against them, first in the Brabant Revolution of 1789 and, when that revolt was crushed, as a volunteer in the armies of the French Revolution (he would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel under Napoleon; his brother, André-Joseph Boussart, became a general[3]).  It was her marriage to Philippe Christian Popp (1805-1879) which brought her to Bruges, when he was appointed the surveyor of the region.  She was co-owner of the newspaper Le journal de Bruges which she founded in 1837 alongside her husband and then edited for fifty-three years.  She was succeeded by her daughters.  Le journal de Bruges was a bastion of francophone liberalism in clerical West Flanders, having been set up in opposition to the Catholic newspaper Le Nouvelliste de Bruges.  It was a campaigning newspaper on both local and national issues, such as the establishment of a museum in Bruges, the re-establishment of the city’s port, the abolition of the death penalty, and women’s education.

The story of Serena and ‘The Legend of Lace’ was published in her 1867 collection Récits et légendes des Flandres, a book which was admired by Victor Hugo, among others.[4]  Later he would make the acquaintance of the Popps, who were hospitable to visiting writers and encouraging of local ones (including Frans Carrein).  These legends have sometimes been cited as examples of local folklore, but in fact most were fictions inspired by the topography of Bruges.[5]

Popp was under no illusions about the reality of the lace trade, nor the lives lived by lacemakers.  The Journal de Bruges had warned about the spread of lace-schools as the only solution to the linen crisis in the 1840s; was not a new crisis of overproduction being hatched?  The paper also campaigned against the abusive use of advances (the theme of Carrein’s Eliza de kantwerkster) and the exploitation of apprentice lacemakers by religious orders.  Like Joanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp complained of the conditions and hours of work in the lace-schools.  So it is perhaps surprising that she created such a romantic origin legend for this industry that was, in her own time, a breeding ground of poverty and ill health.  Given her liberal credentials it is even more surprising that she ascribed the invention to a religious miracle.  But we can perhaps unravel her motivations.  In the histories of lace written in the nineteenth century, Flanders vied with Italy, and Venice in particular, for the honour of inventing lace.  The weight of opinion favoured the latter, and history was supported by a legend which ascribed the inspiration to a woman from the Venetian lagoon who attempted to recreate an algae gifted by her sailor fiancé.  Popp mentions this story in the introduction to her own which is clearly a retort on behalf of the north.  And while Popp was critical of the way in which the lace industry was presently organized, she was indefatigable in her attempts to revive her adopted city including its native industries.  Her watchword was ‘en avant’; she looked back only to find the direction to go forwards.  Bruges had been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the Middle Ages; she might be again.  It is no surprise then that Popp located the invention of lace in this period (a century earlier than any historical evidence might allow).  And just like Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp saw no incompatibility between her liberalism and her Catholic faith.

There are still a few signs of her liberal politics in ‘The Legend of Lace’.  Serena’s mother, like Popp, believed in the importance of fresh air and exercise for young bodies, hence the walk in the fields that led to the miracle.  When Arnold joined the guild of sculptors, Popp cannot resist the opportunity to condemn these medieval monopolies.  And finally, she releases Serena from her vow of chastity to embrace another destiny as wife, mother and creative worker.  It is unlikely that Popp’s contemporary and fellow Bruggeling, the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, would consider that an appropriate ending.

‘Serena, de legende van de kant’, a Dutch retelling by Jean Vercammen, illustrated by Dora Rommelaere, published in 1945.

 

[1] See, for example, the websites of Bruges storyteller Marc Willems: http://brugselegenden.blogspot.com/2014/10/de-legende-van-serena-en-de-brugse-kant.html

[2] On Caroline Boussart-Popp see Éliane Gubin et al, Dictionnaire des femmes belges : XIXe et XXe siècles (Brussels, 2006), pp. 73-4.

[3] See the pages dedicated to the Boussart brothers on http://napoleon-monuments.eu/

[4] Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp. 163-205.  An English translation of this tale was published in 1937 by Mrs L. Paulis.

[5] So says the Flemish folklore expert Hervé Stalpaert in Westvlaamse kantwerkstersfolklore (Courtrai, 1956).

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2 Comments

  1. Robert Taylor

    Trying to reach Serena Lace Shop
    My wife and I were in Brugge recently and happened upon this neat shop
    One of my wife’s purchases was a pillow cover – a cat with a tower to the right of the at (cat’s left)
    She pointed ouot the one she liked and the clerk got one form the back room and wrapped it for us
    Unfortunately when we arrived home we discovered that it was not complete – the whiskers on the cat’s left side (our right) had never been stitched. What can we do?

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