Dressing Society

28 November, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have conference volume, papers presented at the Sachsensymposium in Haderslev, last year in Denmark:

Arkæologi i Slesvig/Archäologie in Schleswig. Sonderband „Det 61. Internationale Sachsensymposion 2010 “, Haderslev, Danmark. Wacholtz Verlag Neumünster 2011.

I read an article by Sarah Croix: Status, gender and space on high status settlement sites from the Viking Age. Pp. 113-122.

On the one hand we hope that once upon a time in a straightforward world long forgotten, working with textiles was something every household did in a harmonious way, clothing itself. It was not by accident that Augustus’ third wife, the Empress Livia, who (reportedly) made the clothes of her household herself, became a paragon of household virtue, nor is it by accident that it is still remembered. In fact, the design is so obviously installed to create a false front of equality in duty that we doubt it. To our mind Livia Matrona was cunning rather than virtuous.

On the other hand, we know that to a certain extent working with textiles is a matter of taste, art and craft. Giftedness, therefore, is an obvious quality, but if you aren’t gifted you can nevertheless learn the craft as a duty and part of your upbringing. Thus textile production can easily be constructed as freedom or serfdom, as a paragon of virtue as well as exploitation. The gender aspect, e.g., can easily nullify the value of skill and good quality otherwise supposed to be  rewarded and recompensed. But since we have allowed clothes to express all kinds of creative contradictions, they grow in importance and become one of the prime markers of wealth as well as poverty. Eventually we shall have to admit that if a society is not dressed to display itself, then it is not a society.

That is why laundering and starching a 17th c. ruff collar, shaping and fluting it by means of cone-shaped and heated tubes or goffering irons [1], must be a day’s work for a servant. And that is why King Philip III of Spain used elaborate ruff collars almost every day dutifully protecting the extravagant clothes he had to wear, from being stained. Care and maintenance is what we must see in the portrait – not his head on a plate that some may have wish for. And when we seek refuge in the innuendo of the expression ‘cartwheel ruff’, then it takes just a moment or two to understand that ‘cartwheel’, as a load, lends itself to becoming a metaphor for the laundress’ tiresome and time consuming toil.

In her article Sarah Croix (SC) enters this intricate sphere of social relations by means of an analysis of space on manors or elite estates where we may expect social order to be expressed also in the organisation of the farms themselves. With her example Aggersborg, the farm that preceded the ring fort, she can point to a situation where textile production falls either in the cramped sunken huts among the common farm houses or in the central room of the hall building. This building, by the way, is one of those defined by Mads Dengsø Jessen [2] as indeed typical of Jutland in the Carolingian Iron Age (750-1025 CE). It is the stable in the west end that signifies these halls and consequently a situation in which horsemanship is starting to become essential to those lords who feel the need to invest in a retinue on horseback, thus raising the social status of the horse.

SC goes on to describe the milieu of the hall in the end she can point to two different textile workers, one who we may call a Livia of the hall and another, What’sHerName, in the pit house. Her status on the manorial farm, it would seem, is below that of the horses in the stable. Owing to the character of the craft the Scandinavian Livia sometimes worked in a splendid ‘room of one’s own’ (weaving played an important role in the grave chamber life of the so called  Oseberg Queen) while What’sHerName  was stuck in the 2.5×2.5 m pit house mockery of the expression.

The essential difference between the two workplaces is a matter of having or lacking light and open space. We may expect that the good life belongs to the hall and the bad to the dark and damp quarters of the pit house. This means that SC’s analysis emphasize a society that takes care to point out the importance of textile production and to show us that this craft befits society because this production lends itself to illustrating the social gap that should  indeed characterize society. Since weaving must always be done, by rich as well as poor, there must be a loom in the hall as well as in the hut.

The ulterior motive behind the production in pit houses, mostly visible as weaving and metal working, is a wish to produce goods that are needed in urbanized economies, but still too difficult to produce in the towns themselves. Before urbanisation develops this capability, manors, or villages with access to food, wool charcoal and iron, can feed farmhands and workers and eventually make a profit on the market selling their products. When towns become more sophisticated, the pit house dweller goes to town.

In societies where on the one hand women are pointed out as equa,l inasmuch as the weaving is a craft that everybody is obliged to engage in, and on the other pointed out as non-equal when they do what they are supposed to do, we may expect double standards and prejudice to play an important role.  They do! and thus we can point to one of the most blatant expressions of contempt for the lower classes and a corresponding devotion for the upper ones. Suffice to to quote the Eddaic poem Rígsþula.

Then there came to the farm (a woman) with the wanderer’s stout legs, there was filth on the soles of her feet, the arm was sunburned, the nose was bent down. She was called Þír (i.e. ‘female servant’. The spelling is Anglo-Saxon to point out her outlandishness).

Then she sat down in the midst of the floor, the son of the house next to her. They bargained and whispered, made themselves a bed. Þræll and Þír crowded together (for the rest of) the day. (þryngva/þringan, i.e., to press, is the same word as throng and since it is used postpositively i.e. placed after the word(s) it modifies, we may take it to mean (more than ordinarily) busy as in Yorkshire dialect. In fact we may understand the whole expression ‘þrungin dœgr’ as indeed postpositive – ‘Þræll and Þír busy the day’. The infamous contemptuous character of the expression is obvious even in today’s Scandinavian usage: Þræll och Þír trängdes dagen lång.

Þír tours the country. She is a potential pit house dweller and the prejudice of the lines describing her is massive, building up to the ironic description of the copulation comparing it to a busy day’s work in the lives of serfs. Þræll and Þír are meant to work and Þír’s is to produce children, 21 according to the poem, who will grow up and start working. Cows are used in animal husbandry, Þírs in human husbandry.

When we approach the upper classes in their better houses, things change:

And the housewife looked at her arms, stroked her clothes, stretched her sleeves and wimple. The brooch was at her bosom, her train was wide, her gown was blue, her brows bright, her bosom more shining and neck whiter than pure new-fallen snow.

True to his male gaze the author starts by observing a demure woman who doesn’t look at him, her name is Moðir≈Matrona, Then little by little her appealing manners, dress and sensuality become apparent to him. He likes what he sees because he things he was meant to see it this way. When he observed Þír the appalling filthiness, the whispering and bargaining, and the far from sensual endeavour on the floor stared him in the eyes. His fantasies are male too.

A cartoon by Fritz Jürgensen. Transformed to bigotry the Eddaic understanding of social behavior passed on into modern times : ’I have removed the kitchen chair, but now she has him sitting on the chopping block. And the other day, while my husband and I are out, my daughter and her fiancé sit on the sofa in the nightfall. – They are sitting quite still – of course – and then they hear that the maid drags him into the kitchen and has him hanging around for more than one and a half hour! My God that is more than one should tolerate in a decent house!’—Jeg har taget Kjøkkenstolen fra hende, men nu har hun ham siddende paa Huggeblokken. Forleden, mens jeg og min Mand er ude, sidder min Datter i Mørkningen i Sofaen med sin Forlovede. — De sidder ganske stille — naturligviis — og saa hører de at Pigen trækker Kjeresten ind i Kjøkkenet, og har ham drivende der i over halvanden Time! Det er dog ved Gud mere end man bør taale i et ordentligt Huus!

Because most Scandinavian archaeologists are reasonably broad-minded and liberal, we do not subscribe to the prejudice of the poem and in fact we have for a long time been prepared to look at pit houses as rational workhouses where is was actually nice to be weaving or hammer away as a blacksmith. But our view upon pit houses started to change when some 10-15 years ago the odd historian suggested that pit houses were in fact the dwellings of thralls[3]. And nowadays it seems that Rígsþula and archaeology alike reflect society.

SC is on to something important in her case study: a disgusting society that chooses ostentatiously to construct itself by means of blunt and significant material metaphors, taking for granted the following: since we happen to live in a society with huge gaps in social status we shall have to introduce a concept of ‘overarching necessity’, such as the necessity to produce textiles, on all levels of society. ‘Necessity’ works as a social glue. This means that although it is irrational and difficult to set up the loom in the pit house, it must be done because that is where the lowest stratum in society lives. And their conditions for doing the necessary, as well as those experienced by everybody else, must be obvious. We cannot blur the basic social division: ‘main house dwellers’ vs. ‘pit house dwellers’. On the contrary we must endeavour to strengthen it and show it to be fundamental. We must never forget the difference between Mother and female servant.


[1] See e.g. http://www.oldandinteresting.com/fluting-goffering-irons.aspx

[2] Mads Dengsø Jessen has published most of his research on this and other topics in his dissertation. The relevant published and forthcoming papers can be checked at http://www.forskningsdatabase.dk/Search.external?operation=search&search-query=au:%2Jessen+Mads%20Dengs%C3%B8%22

[3] See Annette Hoff 1997:58ff; 81, i.e. Hoff, Annette. 1997. Lov og landskab. Landskabslovenes bidrag til
forståelse af landbrugs- og landskapsudvikling i Danmark ca. 900-1250
. Aarhus universitetsforlag.
or Mats Olsson 1999:24, i.e. Olsson, Mats. 1999. Vikingatida träldom. Om slaveriets plats i Skandinaviens ekonomiska historia. Lund Papers in Economic History. No 67. Department of Economic History. Lund university. Lund.

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