Tag: lacemakers’ songs

‘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 in 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 this 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 was not 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, which was 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, and 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 a similar statue 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 lacemaking in particular.  The Church was not only the patron of most lace schools but was a substantial purchaser of lace as well.  For Gezelle lace was a tradition that linked 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 scribbleack 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’.

John Plummer’s Northamptonshire ‘Lace Songs’

Walter Bonner Gash: ‘Mill Lane Farm’. One of Plummer’s walks around Kettering. Used with permission of Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mill-lane-farm-46011

We have already met the Kettering staymaker John Plummer (1831-1914): he was one of the contributors to the Notes & Queries series on ‘Catterns’.  Plummer was also an example of an ‘English labouring-class poet’ (like John Askham of Wellingborough, who featured in an earlier post).[1]  Plummer published only one volume of poems – Songs of Labour, Northamptonshire Rambles and Other Poems (1860) – but he is probably better known than Askham.  That is not necessarily because he was a better poet.  Although some of his more lighthearted pieces work well, Plummer too had a weakness for highfalutin language and poetic clichés, so all mothers are ‘angels’, all earls are ‘belted’…  But Plummer led a more adventurous and combative life than Askham, and above all was more politically engaged, which brought him public attention.

John Plummer, photo by J. Hubert Newman of Sydney: State Library of New South Wales P1/1365

Given his interest in lacemaking, the title Songs of Labour led us to hope that lacemakers would feature prominently.  Sadly, they are not mentioned even once; nonetheless, their influence may still be detected, as we will explain at the end of this post.

Plummer was born in the East End of London, where his father worked as a staymaker.  His youth was marked by periods of poverty, and made more difficult by partial deafness and lameness, consequences of a childhood illness.  Despite receiving almost no schooling, he became obsessed with the written word, seeking out books wherever he could find them.  He started writing poetry in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1848, inspired by reading the Chartist poet Gerald Massey’s ‘Song of Welcome’ to the exiled Hungarian rebel Kossuth.  In 1853 he and his father took jobs at a Kettering stay factory, but he quickly established a second career as a local newspaper commentator on a range of political and social issues.[2]  In 1860 he married Mary Ann Jenkinson, a milliner from Kettering, and soon after the couple moved to Hackney to work for publishing house Cassell & Co., which specialized in improving literature aimed at the working class.[3]  In London Plummer pursued a new career as journalist and newspaper editor.  He became quite well known, corresponding with Lord Brougham (to whom his book of poems was dedicated) and John Stuart Mill: the latter described him as one of ‘the most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man’.[4]  (Mary Ann Plummer, meanwhile, was a signatory of Mill’s petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1866.[5])  In 1879 the Plummer family emigrated to Australia where John became editor of the Illustrated Sydney News among many other activities.  Northamptonshire was not, however, forgotten: his house in Sydney was named after the village near Kettering where he had married, and about which he had written a poem, Thorpe Malsor.[6]

This background, and the title Songs of Labour, might lead one to think that Plummer’s politics were radical.  And in lots of ways they were: Plummer’s poems condemned poverty, war and the tyranny of kings, and celebrated the virtues of the labouring classes.  However, he first came to national prominence when he wrote in support of his brother Japheth who had attempted to set himself up as a shoemaker in the teeth of a closed shop operated by the powerful Northamptonshire shoemakers’ trade union.  Japheth was eventually driven out of the neighbourhood (he became a soldier) while John was burnt in effigy.  Plummer was not entirely hostile to trade unions, but his ideal social type, which he celebrated in poems such as ‘The Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘The Emigrant’s Song’, was the homesteader.  In North America the working man could find land of his own to farm and be beholden to no one, neither aristocratic landlord, nor factory owner nor even his fellow worker.  As a political economist Plummer supported technical innovation such as steam engines and factories, but in his poems he fled the ‘smoke-dried teeming Cities, where/ Is often heard the low and wailing sob/ Of Labour mourning in despair’ for the ‘grassey lea’ of Thorpe Malsor.  Education, self-help, sobriety, Christian charity, these were his regular themes.  Australia, another pioneer society, suited him admirably.

In 1878, the ever prolific Plummer wrote three articles on ‘The Northamptonshire Lace-Making Industry Past and Present’ for the Northampton Mercury.[7]  This is a rather useful series because, while Plummer made use of existing printed material such as the Children’s Employment Commission reports, he also included anecdotes told to him and his own observations.  For instance he cites the local names given to lacemaking equipment and to common patterns.  The picture he paints of the industry in the past was largely negative: lacemakers were impoverished, unhealthy and immoral.  He had few hopes for its future either.  But he does offer little insights into their social history, such as lacemakers were prone to a ‘nervous twitching of the fingers’, that they were good at mental arithmetic because of counting pins, and that they were proud of the tools of their trade such as their spangled bobbins and their cushions.  One story he tells concerns a deceased lacemaker whose daughter was presented with a bill which she believed her mother had paid even though she could find no receipt.  The creditor sent bailiffs to seize the lacemaker’s property, but the daughter was determined to hold onto her mother’s pillow as a memento.  During the struggle, the cover of the pillow was torn and out fell the missing receipt together with other documents and some coins.

Like almost every other commentator on Midlands lacemaking, Plummer tackles the topic of ‘lace songs’.  He quotes the usual sources such as the Notes & Queries articles, and includes the unavoidable Shakespearean reference, but he also mentions that while living in Kettering he ‘formed a small collection of lace-makers’ songs, which has, unfortunately, become lost.’  Nonetheless, he could recall some of the contents.  They included the gruesome ‘Little Sir Hugh’ which we discussed in a previous post, and in general Plummer observed that ‘the more horrible and revolting the details, the greater the popularity’ of lace songs.  He also cites ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’, which are both well known songs, and mentioned by other collectors of lacemakers’ oral traditions.  However, the rest are much more difficult to identify and to date we have been unable to trace any text or tune for the following seven listed by Plummer as ‘lace songs’.

1) ‘’The Lord of Burleigh’. This ballad narrates a kind of She Stoops to Conquer in reverse.  It is the same story as Tennyson’s 1835 poem, in which a rich lord pretends to be poor in order to win a woman’s heart.  Both were inspired by the 1791 marriage of Henry Cecil (first Marquess of Exeter and eponymous Lord of Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) to Sarah Hoggins, a farmer’s daughter from Great Bolas in Shropshire. The opening stanza went ‘A noble lord a-wooing went,/ A-wooing went my lord;/ She was a maid of low degree,/ And would not speak a word’.  That is all that Plummer tells us, other than it was considerably ruder than Tennyson’s version.
2) ‘Blackberry Nan’. The first lines ran ‘Blackberry Nan, Blackberry Nan/ Killed a cat in her milking can.’
3) ‘The Squire’s Ghost’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.  There are some well-known folksongs that might fit this rubric.
4) ‘Christian and the Money-lender’. The title is all the information Plummer provides which is particularly unfortunate, as this is a theme evoked in lacemakers’ songs in France and Flanders, so there may be a connection.
5) ‘Betsy’s Dream’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.
6) A ballad which alludes to Simon de St. Liz (or rather Simon de Senlis, first earl of Northampton and 2nd earl of Huntingdon, one of William the Conqueror’s knights).  A medieval legend tells that William intended that Simon should marry Judith, widow of the executed Earl of Northumbria Waltheof, but she refused him on account of his lameness.  Furious, Simon pursued Judith until pacified by her daughter Maud’s promise to marry him instead.  Maud’s influence was supposed to have turned the old soldier into something of a saint.
7) A song celebrating the lacemakers’ patron Saint Catherine that commenced ‘On Cattern’s Day we sing and play,/ And wear our Sunday gown’.

We would be delighted if anyone was able to provide us with more information about any of these, or even better Plummer’s manuscript of lacemakers’ songs.  But in the meantime it might be worth mentioning that two of these themes had already been used by Plummer in his poems.  After ‘Songs of Labour’, Plummer had a section dedicated to ‘Northamptonshire Rambles’ which took their cue from some item of local history or a recent event.  One retold ‘The Legend of Burleigh House’; another the story of ‘Simon de St. Liz’.  Is it impossible that these topics were suggested to him by songs he heard lacemakers sing?

 

Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Sarah (née Hoggins) by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
From Wilipedia Commons. The subject of a lacemakers’ song?

 

 

[1] Although this label is retrospective, this group does have some coherence, not least in the interest its members had in each others’ work.  Askham named his house after John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’; while Plummer actually went to visit Clare in his asylum in 1861.

[2] Most information on his early life comes from the ‘autobiographical sketch’ that served as an introduction to his Songs of Labour.  Another short biography was included in a collection edited the penal reformer Matthew Davenport Hill for the publisher John Cassell, himself one of Plummer’s patrons: Our Examples, Poor and Rich; Or, Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who have by an Extraordinary Use of their Opportunities, Benefitted their Fellow Creatures (London, 1861), pp. 287-96.

[3] See the post on the website ‘Ringstead People’ dedicated to Mary Ann Jenkinson and her family.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy ed. Jonathan Riley (Oxford, 1994), p. 151.  Mill and Plummer wrote and met with each other regularly in the 1860s and 70s.

[5] On which see the post ‘The South Hackney Connection’ on the blog ‘Woman and Her Sphere’.

[6] Hence Plummer has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[7] Appearing on 19 January, 2 February and 16 March 1878.

Lacemakers’ Songs: A Short Film, Mostly in French

Although we asserted a link between lacemaking and singing in our last post, we don’t have any audio of English lacemakers singing while working which we can share with you (though we’re always hopeful of finding some).  In Belgium and France, and especially the Velay region of the Auvergne, the connection between lacemaking and singing is even better attested, and you can listen as well as read some songs from these regions.

Images: A panorama of Le-Puy-en-Velay, dominated by its statue of the Virgin Mary. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

Images: A panorama of Le-Puy-en-Velay, dominated by its statue of the Virgin Mary. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

The Velay (Haute-Loire) was the predominant region for lacemaking in France in the nineteenth century, and outposts of handmade lace manufacture, largely aimed at the tourist trade in Le Puy, could still be found right up to the 1990s (perhaps still).  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was also a very important region for folksong collecting.  In the 1860s and ‘70s, Victor Smith, a judge from Saint-Etienne, transcribed hundreds of songs from lacemakers as they worked in groups in the street or under the shade of a tree (en couvige in dialect).  In the years running up to the First World War, the novelist Henri Pourrat would collect dozens more songs around his home town of Ambert (not in the Velay but in Puy-de-Dôme, but it might be considered an extension of the Velay lacemaking industry).  Later still, after the Second World War, the teacher Jean Dumas would tape hundreds of songs from lacemakers.  And there are many other audio recordings from the likes of Claudie Marcel-Dubois, Maguy Pichonnet-Andral, Pierre Chapuis and Didier Perre.  We may return to some of these in future posts.

However, in one case we have video as well as audio.  A short film, ‘Les dentellières de Montusclat’, was made for the French Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) in 1978, which you can see for yourself by clicking on the link.  It depicts three lacemakers, aged 75, 78 and 85, two of them sisters, chatting and singing while making lace in the mountain village of Montusclat, about thirty kilometres east of Le-Puy-en-Velay.  They tell the story of the village, its church, the passage of the plague through the region, and the legend of Notre-Dame de la Salette (a vision of the Virgin Mary who appeared to two children in 1846).  They also talk about lacemaking; they started at the trade when they very young, when earnings from lace were necessary to put clothes on their backs and food on the table.  Having become habituated to constant work they cannot sit idle; whenever they have a moment they are back at their pillows.  And they are still earning a bit of money (one franc an hour!).  When talking to each other at the beginning of the film (when the eldest is seen urging the others on to “Work! Work!”) the women speak in the Occitan dialect of the region, but when talking to the filmmaker they speak in French.  They also sing in French.  Even when Victor Smith was collecting songs in the region over a hundred years previously, at a time when Occitan was far more dominant, lacemakers would often sing in French.  Singing was a cultural activity, and so deserved the ‘cultural’ rather than the ‘everyday’ language.

A French popular lithograph of Saint François Régis. (Image from the Wellcome Trust via Wikipedia Commons.)

A French popular lithograph of Saint François Régis. (Image from the Wellcome Trust via Wikipedia Commons.)

Lacemakers’ songs from the Velay share some of the characteristics of those discussed in our post on ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Long Lankin’.  There is a marked taste for long narrative songs, often with rather grisly content.  In addition, in the Velay religious songs make up a substantial proportion of lacemakers’ repertoire.  However, the song in this video is a bit cheerier, even though we only get to hear the first verse and the chorus.  We provide the text of the full song below and a (rough) translation:

 

Sur mon carreau, je fais de la dentelle,
Dés le matin jusqu’à la fin du jour.
De mon carreau, la garniture est belle;
Rubans, velours le bordent tout autour.
Petit fuseau,
Babille,
Sautille
Petit fuseau:
Autour de mon carreau.Sur le devant, sous une blanche écaille,
De Saint Régis, on peut voir le portrait;
C’est grâce à lui, dit-on, que je travaille,
Sous d’autres saints le pourtour disparaît.

Tous les fuseaux, comme des militaires,
Sont alignés autour de nos carreaux;
Puis les meneurs viennent prendre les paires,
Les dirigeant comme des caporaux.

Et, vrais pantins pendus à leur ficelle,
Tous ces fuseaux sautillent en chantant,
Sous les dix doigts de dame ou demoiselle,
Courant toujours, sans perdre un seul instant.

C’est tout autour d’une roue à fortune,
Que le dessin s’enroule et se maintient;
Et chaque fil, de couleur blonde ou brune,
Y vient trouver l’épingle qui le tient.

De ses deux mains, l’agile dentellière
Fait manoeuvrer l’épingle ou le fuseau;
Et lentement, une journée entière,
Voit s’allonger le bout de son réseau.

Mais que ce soit du lin ou de la laine,
L’or ou l’argent, la soie ou le coton,
Tout s’assouplit, se débrouille sans peine,
Et reproduit le dessin du carton.

Et l’on obtient guipure ou valenciennes,
Russe, alençon, torchon, trenne ou cluny,
Les fonds nouveaux et les mailles anciennes,
Tout est possible en dentelle du Puy.

Avec les mains, la langue, aussi, travaille,
On prie, on chante, on dit son petit mot,
Sur l’oeil voisin, dont on cherche la paille,
Et du pied droit, on berce le marmot.

On my pillow I make lace
From morning till the end of the day.
The decoration of my pillow is beautiful;
It is bordered on all sides by ribbons and velvet.
Little bobbin
chatter, skip
Little bobbin
Around my pillow.On the front, under a white slip
You can see the portrait of Saint Régis;
They say it’s thanks to him that I can work
The surround disappears under other saints.

All the bobbins, like soldiers,
Are lined up around our pillows;
Then the leaders come and take each pair
And direct them like corporals.

 

And just like puppets on a string,
All the bobbins dance while singing
Under the ten fingers of a lady or a girl
Always moving, never losing an instant.

 

It’s all around a wheel of fortune
That the design unfurls and is held up;
And each thread, whether light or dark,
There finds the pin that will fix it.

With her two hands the agile lacemaker
manages the pin or the bobbin;
And slowly, over the whole day
You’ll see the end of her net increase.

Whether it’s of linen or wool
Gold or silver, silk or cotton,
Everything softens, is handled without difficulty,
And reproduces the design on the card.

And thus one obtains guipure or valenciennes
Russian, alençon, torchon
, trenne or cluny,
Whether new collections or old stitches
Everything is possible in Le Puy lace.

While the hands work, so does the tongue,
We pray, we sing, we each say our piece,
We look for the mote in our neighbour’s eye
And with the right foot, we rock the baby.

The words were composed sometime before 1904 by ‘A. de la Demi-Aune’ (a demi-aune is a measure 60 centimetres in length used for lace), the pseudonym of Hippolyte Achard (born 1842), one of the leading lace manufacturers of Le Puy: a manuscript memoir of his life and the lace business is preserved in the Municipal Library of the city.  The music was by Marius Versepuy (1882-1972).  At the beginning of the century Achard was very active in the defence of home-made (or to use the contemporary term, ‘true’ lace) against machine-made ‘false’ lace.  Given the impossibility of competing on price, manufacturers and patrons emphasized the moral virtues of home-made lace, which kept women at home, under the eyes of the Catholic Church (even though Achard himself was somewhat anticlerical in his politics) while looking after their children, in comparison to the urban depravity and promiscuity that faced women moving into the factories.  Thus home-made lace repelled the twin fears of rural depopulation and racial degeneracy.  These themes are lightly invoked in the song.

Lacemakers working together ‘en couvige’ near Goudet (Haute-Loire). (From Wikipedia Commons.)

Lacemakers working together ‘en couvige’ near Goudet (Haute-Loire). (From Wikipedia Commons.)

Essentially, then, this is a propaganda piece.  Yet it quite rapidly spread among lacemakers themselves, so that even by the First World War its origins had been forgotten and it became part of lacemakers’ repertoire.  Perhaps the reason is that it was clearly by someone who knew the trade.  Lacemakers in the Velay did decorate their pillows with images of saints, especially the patron saint of the Le Puy lace industry, Saint François Régis; the design was pinned to a roller; réseau is the word used for net…  But in addition it articulates something which is often denied by historians of labour to such women — isolated in their homes and working at piece-rates — which is a sense of a collective, occupational identity and pride in their craft.

 

Further reading:

Hippolyte Achard, ‘La Dentelle du Puy pendant un demi-siècle, 1842-1892’, manuscript 130 res., Bibliothèque municipale du Puy-en-Velay.

‘Les Fuseaux!’ Chanson vellavo, paroles de Hippolyte Achard, musique de Marius Versepuy (Paris: Heugel, 1907).

Victor-Eugène Ardouin-Dumazet, Voyage en France 34: Velay — Bas Vivarais — Gévaudan (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1904), pp. 63-4.

Georges Dubouchet, Les fées aux doigts magiques.  Au pays de la ‘Reine des Montagnes’ (Saint-Didier-en-Velay; Musée de Saint-Didier-en-Velay, 2010).

David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), chap. 6: ‘The Visionary World of the Vellave Lacemaker’.

Louis Lavastre,  Dentellières et dentelles du Puy.  Thèse pour le doctorat, soutenue devant la faculté de droit de l’université de Paris, 8 juin 1911, (Le Puy: Peyriller, Rouchon et Gamon, 1911.

John F. Sweets, ‘The Lacemakers of Le Puy in the Nineteenth Century’, in Daryl M. Hafter, European Women and Preindustrial Craft (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

 

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 is but the last two verses 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, 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 shrine to ‘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 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 posting.  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 posting 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.

  1. 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’.

 

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