Tag: lacemaker

Saintly lacemakers: Catherine Jarrige of Mauriac

Lacemaking saints?  There are some but – given the close ties between lacemaking, female religious orders and the Catholic Church – perhaps not as many as one might have expected.

A lacemaker who was (and is) considered saintly, indeed was beatified by Pope John-Paul II in 1996, is the blessed Catherine Jarrige, known in her lifetime and after her death as Catinon-Menette.  Catinon is a diminutive of Catherine in the Oc dialect of the Auvergne, while menette is a popular term for a devout woman, or specifically a sister in one of the numerous tertiary orders found in the region.  The word may derive from ‘moine’ [monk] from which one gets ‘moinette’, little or female monk, and thus ‘menette’.  Menettes were akin to the ‘béates’ of the Velay and the ‘beguines’ of Flanders: while they took vows, they were not enclosed but lived in the world, practicing their vocation among the laity.  Tertiary orders of this kind were involved in making lace and teaching lacemaking in many regions.

Most of our information about Catherine Jarrige comes from a biography written by abbé Jean-Baptiste Serres who, as a boy, witnessed her funeral and in later life interviewed many people who had known her.[1]  She was born in 1754 into a poor peasant family in Doumis, in the highlands around the gorges of the Dordogne.  Her education was minimal: she was hired out to other farms as a shepherdess from the age of nine (she told some stories about the tricks that children played while supposedly guarding their animals).  When and how she learnt lacemaking we don’t know, but according to Serres, the occupation fitted with her plans for a pious life.  We do know that she was already established as a lacemaker in the town of Mauriac in 1774.  Lacemaking was a major industry in the region in the eighteenth century when, according to a local doctor, ‘this trade was the unique subsistence for the daughters of the labouring classes in Aurillac, Saint-Flour, Mauriac, Murât, and several of the country parishes’.[2]  While the industry declined with the French Revolution, and was in a parlous state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the prefect of the Department of the Cantal was able to report that there were still 1000 lacemakers in Aurillac, 800 in Murat, 400 in Saint-Flour and 300 in Mauriac.[3]  However, as was the case of nearby Tulle, the industry did not long survive the dislocations of the period, and by the mid nineteenth century it had disappeared completely.

In Mauriac, where she would spend the rest of her life sharing a home with her sister, Catherine joined the tertiary order of Saint Dominic.  From then on, her life seems to have been entirely dedicated to feeding the poor, watching over the sick, bringing comfort to prisoners, and preparing the dead for burial.  Given her total commitment to these tasks, and given her complete abnegation (when people gave her food or clothing for herself, she handed it straight on to some other unfortunate), it seems likely that that lacemaking did not occupy a huge part of her life.  Serres barely mentions it.  None the less, in judicial documents of the revolutionary period, she is referred to as a lacemaker.

The Revolution was the epic of Catherine’s life: along with other tertiaries such as Françoise Maury, also a lacemaker, she organized a veritable resistance network.  The Revolutionary authorities (the ‘patriots’ in the language of the time) persecuted the Catholic Church before outlawing it completely.  From 1792 priests and other religious who refused to swear an oath to uphold the new constitution faced deportation.  From March 1793 non-juring priests found on the territory of France could be executed.  Some fled abroad, but others took to the woods and mountains, or found shelter with supporters, and continued to hold mass, give confession, baptize and marry the faithful.  If they were caught they might imprisoned, or transported to French Guyana, or guillotined.  Catherine carried messages to priests in hiding, she brought them food or warnings of patrols and roundups.  As priests were in danger of their life if caught with religious material, she carried sacred vessels for them to covert religious ceremonies held in barns, private rooms and sometimes in the open air.  These, along with religious writings, she concealed in leather (later metal) containers under her skirts.  She hid two priests in Mauriac for eighteen months, bringing them babies to baptize, alerting them to the dying who required last unction, serving as witness at clandestine weddings and godmother at christenings.  When priests or nuns were arrested she visited them in prison, and when one, abbé Filhol, was led to execution she accompanied him on his way to the scaffold.

The gorges of the Dordogne, the region where Catherine Jarrige grew up. This landscape of mountains, forests and caves was ideal for hiding priests during the French Revolution.  Photo from Tripadvisor.

Both her convictions and her actions seem to have been common knowledge in region.  She was challenged by gendarmes and national guardsmen on dozens of occasions, questioned and even brought to court several times, but she came through the maelstrom relatively unscathed.  For example, on the night of 12 Thermidor Year 2 of the Republic (30 July 1794) she went to warn some priests of an impending search.  On her return in the early hours of the following day, she was arrested by National Guardsmen ‘soaked the skin and in a state that showed she had made a long journey’.  Arrested and brought before the Committee of Surveillance, she was accused, alongside Françoise Maury, of being ‘fanatics without limits, plotters with refractory priests, declared enemies of the Revolution, of liberty, of equality and of the Republic, and who in contempt of all laws, hide and conceal refractory priests, they provide them with means to live, and they use every means to protect them from the penalties that the law has pronounced against them.’[4]  On this occasion, news of the fall of Robespierre (on 27 July), may have helped save the two menettes.

Cyrielle Forses, from whose masters thesis we have borrowed this quotation, argues that misogyny prevented the authorities from taking Jarrige seriously: in the new Revolutionary world only men’s words and actions had weight, women were excluded from the rights of citizenship.  Yet elsewhere in France this did not prevent the authorities from imprisoning and executing women for far less serious crimes than Jarrige’s.  Serres offers at least two other explanations.  In his general characterisation of the menette, he alternates between portraying her as a ‘holy fool’, ‘she was the poorest and most ignorant, she stumbled as she read, she couldn’t even make the signs of the alphabet’ – and a cunning, artful peasant, constantly able to pull the wool over the patriots’ eyes, not least by playing the idiot.  One time she was stopped carrying a pyx (a container for wafers or, as the authorities put it, ‘a box in which Papists keep their God’).  Asked what it was she replied, ‘for tobacco’.  In Auvergne as elsewhere, lacemakers were famous snuff users and so the response seemed satisfactory.  (She used the same skills – audacity, verbal wit, and a certain slyness – to cajole the rich citizens of Mauriac into giving to the poor.)  The other reason was that at least some self-declared ‘Patriots’ retained sympathies for her cause, including at least one gendarme brigadier who were able to pass messages to Jarrige.  Serres notes that several revolutionaries none the less chose to be married by a Catholic priest, and have their children baptised.

The period of persecution lasted, with some periods of détente, nearly ten years, and Jarrige’s activities through this whole period read like a spy novel with disguises, secret signs, camouflaged hideouts, and many near misses.  All of which seems quite a long way from making lace, except that when priests were on the move they sometimes disguised themselves as lace dealers; an ideal deception because of course such dealers had every reason to move about the countryside, meeting their dispersed workforce, and carrying their produce to market.

Jarrige’s reputation for saintliness was well established in Mauriac long before her death in 1836.  According to contemporary accounts, the entire townsfolk, rich and poor, turned out for her funeral, and people literally fought to obtain a piece of her clothing as a relic.  Her memory is still honoured in the region today, as witnessed by this statue which we saw, last week, in the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Aurillac.

The Blessed Catherine Jarrige, known as Catinon-Menette. Statue in the Church of Notre-Dames-aux-Neiges, in Aurillac.

 

[1] Abbé J.-B. Serres, La Catinon-Menette (Clermont-Ferrand: Mont-Louis, 1864).  Available online at www.gallica.fr.

[2] Jean Joseph de Brieude, Topographie médicale de la Haute-Auvergne (Aurillac: Picut, 1821; first published 1782/3), p. 116.

[3] Pierre Wirth, ‘La “fièvre statistique” et les premières enquêtes économiques dans le Cantal (suite)’, Revue de la Haute-Auvergne 37 (1961), p. 271-2.

[4] Cyrielle Forses, Des paroles et des actes : les Résistances à la Révolution et à l’Empire dans le Cantal (1791-1815) (Mémoire de maîtrise, Université de Toulouse, 2017), p. 62.  Available online at http://dante.univ-tlse2.fr/3434/.  In an appendix, Forses includes other documents relating to this case.

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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