Sunday, July 16, 2006

Possibly Unintended Imagery

Possibly Unintended Imagery

From a book I'm currently reading:

Those excluded from mainstream society were also distinguished by external symbols, such as the badge stitched on the clothes of Jews or the uncovered, unkempt hair of prostitutes. In short, someone's place in society could be known at a glance. In towns the identity of each social category was regularly displayed through grand processions: each group would parade in the appropriate attire with distinctive insignia, in an order of precedence that reflected its place in the social hierarchy.

First thought -- I get the uncovered heads of prostitutes, but unkempt hair? Was this a rule? "You, whore! Put that comb down! Can't have your hair look tidy!" I'm serious -- was it a rule? Time in question is say, 12th c. For no good reason (or probably too many historical novels?), I was under the impression that in the MA unmarried women often left their hair uncovered (I've heard unbound, as well, but that makes no sense to me at all -- I've had hair down past my waist, and it gets in the way -- for people who work for a living, unbound hair makes no sense), but it seems to me that, were I to make my living as a prostitute, I'd want my hair to do its job and help attract custom.

And that last part. Yes, I know it's true. And I love the processions. But when I read that sentence, I was struck by two images: one was all of the guild masters of Ankh-Morpork trying to haggle with Lord Vetinari over who got which place in the procession -- and I bet the Seamstresses weren't last in that procession; the other was of a very flamboyant gay wedding procession organizer, probably a monk, or maybe like the clerk in Life of Brian ("Crucifixion? Right, that way ..."), organizing the ranks for the procession just so.

I probably need to get out more.


Anonymous said...


Perhaps unbound got interpreted as unkempt at some point, by a historian? Personal grooming wasn't such a fetish then, so hair left down (as you say, logical for prostitutes) probably did become a tad unkempt, especially in comparison to the neatly tied back or covered heads of respectable and elite women.

Once loose hair became the sign of a loose woman, then it would be an unofficial rule by inversion--respectable women must keep their hair kempt--and possibly enforced by women's social interaction. I've got an 1820s document sneering at a woman who called herself Madame based on a common-law marriage, so there may have been similiar attacks on a woman who pretended to respectability (by keeping her hair neat and covered) when the community considered her a whore.

Just guesses, I'm not a medievalist.

I also love Terry Pratchett, partially because I think he makes a lot of astute historical comments in his work. I use one in class, even.

Wegie said...

Hang on. Badges for Jews in the C12? I've just finished Paul Kriwaczek's "Yiddish Civilisation" and whilst he's a pretty bad writer and no historian by trade, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the (checkable) dates of badge enforcement for Jews, which has the earliest one at 1253 for England.

Kriwaczek also quotes from the 4th Lateran Council (1215), making it pretty clear that it was proving rather difficult to tell the Jews from the gentiles:

The confusion has reached such proportions that a difference can no longer be perceived. Hence it happens at times that, through error, Christians have relations with Jewish and Saracen women and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore . . . we decree that such of both sexes in every Christian province shall at all times be distinguished in the eyes of the public from other peoples by the character of their dress.

(ellipsis in K's original quote and he unfortunately doesn't footnote a source for the translation)

The other point he makes is that the badge of the Jews (and even the colour they were made to wear) was pretty varied until well into the modern era. You could have a wheel, a taget or a pair of tablets of the law. The association with yellow comes from Augsburg and some of the Hapsburg lands, whereas in Barcelona a Jew had to wear pale green and the star of David is a very late attribution (he places it in the C17). In fact, in the period your book is talking about, the Jew is more likely to be wearing a rather natty hat that looks remarkably like a sink plunger!

Hmmm. Surely poor Drumknott would be lumbered with the details of arranging this procession?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

He would, indeed! And as for the earlier part, that's one of the probelms I'm having with this chapter (I'm reviewing) ... in an attempt to provide a good genereal overall narrative, I think the author is so general the audience have a hard time following.

Wegie said...

It's also occurred to me as I work my way down my nightcap (or morningcap as it now is) that the whole history of sumptuary law flies in the face of your author's assertions. If we could tell people apart in the procession, there'd be no need for that unending stream of legislation saying that you can't wear fur unless you have freehold property of X amount, and if you're not a peer you can't wear ermine and nobody outside the royal family can wear purple silk (look, it's cerise with a tint of blue, not purple, ok?).

I'm also very chary of the use of the badge for the Jews as a descriptor in any case. It's far too easy for people to just immediately get a yellow star of David in their heads, with all associations that come with it, and thus completely miss both all the positive features associated with livery and the nuances that come with a badge.

Come to that, I'm not certain about the juxtaposition with the ladies of negotiable virtue as well. I'm not exactly the world's most politically correct female, but that first sentence in your quote has me worried. Let's put the badges on the apprentices and the aldermen for a change, eh?

Ooof. Well gone two in the morning here. Definitely time to put the laptop under the bed!

Anonymous said...

I think your author is eliding what was desired and what happened - people *wanted* to be able to tell social groups apart at a glance, but they couldn't always do so. (Hence sumptuary legislation. Although there is no evidence that it was ever enforced in England, although it was in Italy.) I think processions were the ideal - everyone neatly in their places - but not very much like ordinary life.

Ian Myles Slater said...

Looks like another attempt to reconstruct a moment in time from second- and third-hand evidence of varying dates and locales.

At first glance out of period, but possibly more enlightening, is an essay by Robert Darnton. His book "The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Culture History" (1999) includes, as chapter three, "A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as A Text." This offers a look on the social function of civic processions, and the sumptuary regulations functioning on such occasions, in eighteenth-century France. It is based primarily on a laudatory account by a contemporary.

The nice thing is that Darnton is working with a period document, professed by its author to be descriptive and comprehensive, and not with a debatable reconstruction from fragmentary evidence. (The account seems idealized, and he does take that into account, including reflections on the explicit and implied ideologies of official rank and social status.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, this is a general textbook, but this particular chapter seems almost too general.