Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Touching the Past

Image copyright V&A Museum

I'm a re-enactor, a writer, and a social historian.

You knew all that anyway, right? It says so in my bio, right there, along with the stuff about cats and cake and cavalry backswords (All of which is true.)

Because as I've said before, I don't just want my readers to read a story. And I'm thrilled to say that a lot of my reviews - oo, get me - do actually say that they feel like they know my boys, feel like they're there with them.
Because history isn't just about dates and battles, it's about people, and I don't think people have ever changed. We all want, basically, the same things, to a greater or lesser degree. We want to be warm and dry at night, we want something to eat and something to drink - and possibly, if you're Thankful Russell circa 1644, not in that order. It's called Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It goes - once you have realised one level of need, you can move onto the next - called actualisation:

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
3. Love and belongingness needs - friendship, intimacy, affection and love, - from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
4. Esteem needs - achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

The level one and two needs, well, they are simple needs, aren't they? The sort of things no one should be without in a civilised world. (She says, channelling her inner Leveller.)

Level three, we're starting to get complicated. (Aren't we. Hollie. Russell.) But this is all by the by, it's stuff for another post. What I'm talking about is embroidery, and re-enactment, and a bit of hands-on history.

I'm making a rather pretty polychrome embroidered coif at the moment. Just for fun, to give myself pleasure, a small, portable bit of embroidery that I can pop in a workbag and take around with me and work on when I've got a spare few minutes. It's based on Margaret Laton's early 17th century embroidered linen jacket and it's trimmed with gold needle-lace and it's got parrots and snails and caterpillars and all kinds of silliness on it. But, as George Wingfield Digby says in his 1963 book "Elizabethan Embroidery", it is "....the integrated expression of a society still creative and joyful about the things it could make and use."
So - it's a thing that gives me pleasure, because I am a competent, creative needlewoman, and because it has some silly little figures on it like the marvellous snail and the chicken, things for the sheer joy of putting them on. And, you know, a woman sat there in 1620-ish and did likewise. She drew on silly bugs and beasties with a fine-nibbed pen and she embroidered them in not-always-realistic colours for the pleasure of owning a pretty thing, and for the joy of wearing something that had given her pleasure to create. (Some of the jackets that survive have been carefully crafted by artisans, professional needlewomen. Just as many weren't - made at home by skilled amateurs. In the case of some of them. not even that skilled, but enthusiastic.)

And so, you know, I've got this little project on the go, and it's pretty, and sparkly, but it also feels nice to the touch. The thing with the embroidery is that it's all textured and nubbly, it's got braid stitch and detached buttonhole stitch, and the peapods open up to reveal three-dimensional peas, and the parrot's head is padded. And that's what it's for. It's for touching, and stroking, and moving in so that the braid sparkles and the sequins shimmer. It's a thing to be worn, not to be looked at. It's a thing that I would expect children at a re-enactment to touch, and look for the animals on, and hold to the light.
I read an interesting article recently about how museums are increasingly becoming glorified playgrounds in an attempt to attract families and although I hate the idea that history is being mass-produced to make it palatable, I love the thought that maybe it will make the past real to more people. Believe me, my coif - 4 hours and counting and I've not even finished drawing up the pattern or putting on the needle-lace yet - it's not a thing that I would treat casually. But I would happily give it to an interested little girl (or an interested little boy, or his dad, or her grandmother, for that matter) to hold and turn over and stroke, no matter how grubby hands are or how rough baby fingers might be with my embroidery. Because that's what it's for. You can't touch Margaret Laton's jacket, because it's 400 years old and fragile, but you could play with my coif, and stroke the snail, and lift the peapods, just like I imagine that long-ago lady's little nieces and nephews once did, laughing at the little golden peas inside as they sparkled in the sunlight.

Margaret Laton's jacket is a distinct level 5 - a lady realising her personal potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences. Impossible to tell if it was made by a professional embroiderer or a competent, accomplished amateur. A lady four hundred years ago, loving being herself, loving the skill of her fingers, probably loving the way it sparkled and shimmered and the way her Hugh might look at her at dinner when she was wearing it. A real person, who had a best jacket that she put on for dressy occasions. Who maybe had little sticky-fingered nieces and nephews admiring her birds and bugs. I imagine her jacket probably smelt of rose-water, or lavender water, and maybe a little bit sweaty under the arms, maybe a little bit of the ghosts of half a hundred suppers. But a woman you could probably sit down and talk to comfortably enough, a woman with whom you might have things in common - who might talk knowledgeably about gardens, and orderly households, and the cost of a loaf of bread. (Her Hugh was a merchant, you see, in the City. A wealthy lady, but one of not the nobility.)

So I'm embroidering my little coif, and embroidering what I imagine Margaret Laton was like, and hopefully, one day, at a re-enactment - this summer, next summer, some time - people will touch that embroidery and think about what sort of lady might wear it, and take pleasure in it.
A lady a bit like me and you, really. Black velvet gown, whitework apron. Looking a bit awkward to have her picture made, but a bit shy, and a bit proud, like a lot of young women on formal occasions, all done up in her finery. Creative and joyful. Not a pretend-person out of a history book, not a formal pretty jacket on a dummy inside a glass case. 


Making museums into children's play areas is a terrible thing, in so many ways. It demeans our history, it patronises its audience. But we all have a right to play - to touch, to engage, to dream. To learn through doing, what it might be like to be someone else. 

So. If you happen to be at the Fairfax Battalia event at Wallingford in late June, come and help me find my bugs and beasties.


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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists