Thursday, February 24, 2011

A history of Handknitting by Richard Rutt

i obtained this book some months ago--maybe even a year or so--and i had up until now just sort of browsed my way through it.  recently i decided to start going through it chapter by chapter.  there are variety of issues with the book as a real history of anything.  i've heard it referred to by SCA people as the "bible of knitting" claiming that in the future there will be "BR" and "AR" --before Rutt and after Rutt.  my plan is to go through the book a bit at a time, posting my thoughts about what is good scholarship, and what is not., the preface and introduction (or at least part of it).

the preface of this work really changes many things about it, if you actually read it.  Rutt states that this is a pioneer essentially in discussion of hand knitting.  in this it is true.  i've looked at many of the books that were published prior to this and they simply aren't very researched.  he then goes on to say that this is an amateur work, uneven and incomplete.  this is completely true.  having browsed the rest of the book i can tell you that Rutt fails to make much of any effort to look at any literature that is not English.  for example, (in my copy on page 58 in Before 1500) his last comment about 15th century Pomerania is:  "these pieces have been described only in Polish and Latvian respectively, so we cannot yet know their significance."  this type of comment in a book that proposes itself as a "history of handknitting" is truly disturbing.  a friend suggested that the book was essentially "a romp" through the books in english about knitting.  if it had been stated as such, it wouldn't concern me nearly as much. 

Rutt goes on to state that since it isn't an academic thesis he has left out notes and page references.  this is bad enough, but it also only contains a "select bibliography" implying that there are book references completely left out.  all and all, this is quite concerning as a piece of research that is being referenced regularly by people.  it is, at best, mostly a tertiary source that contains some fairly good quality black and white photographs. (oh by the way, almost none of the photographs are Rutt's own, all seem to be borrowed from other books, implying in some cases that he never went and looked at the items since he reproduces errors from other books in some cases).  Rutt's conclusions are regularly questionable in numerous ways....

onward to the introduction:  at the beginning of the introduction it becomes even more clear that this is really just about english records of knitting.  the first line of the intro starts "The first English records of the history of knitting..." Rutt then goes on to discuss a variety of knitting references... this is somewhat interesting, but not very enlightening.  He does make reference to some scholarly work by Johan Christoph published between 1790 and 1805.  It appears that he referenced to an english translation--and unfortunately translations are always problematic.  he then goes through a list of other references and makes some general criticisms.  (many seem to be very fair) for example a reference to "History of Framework Knitters" which apparently in the 1st chapter suggests that there are Biblical references to knitting. 

From here, we launch into an interesting discussion of word origins and linguistics.  Let's just for a moment back up.  Harps are extremely ancient.  but until about the 13th century in many languages the word that referred to harp was a generic word that referred to stringed instrucments including lyre and harp and others.  by Rutt's theory that since there was not an ancient Greek word for knitting, there must not be knitting; we would have to conclude that there were also no harps.  (altho we see pictures of harps in the pyramids and in ancient artwork throughout the world).  I have a couple of friends who study linguistics, and all agree that a language having no "specialized word" for something proves nothing linguistically.  Moreover, when he goes on to discuss the English word for knitting he insists that since early uses of the word knit (or earlier spellings like knytt in middle english) have various meanings that this demonstrates something.  he states certain things are unreasonable, but given that he leaves out any references, it's hard to know why he reaches these conclusions.  again--we can't really conclude what existed or did not exist based on linguistics, at least not the way he makes his claims.  having no single word that is used only to refer to something is not indicative of much.  and Rutt takes this as proof that knitting does not exist earlier than certain dates.

point:  i'm not saying that Greeks knitted.  i'm saying that his arguments are flawed.  what we know is that between the fall of Rome and 1200 a number of regional languages emerge into venacular use.  some are languages that were used prior, and became more prevelent after the Roman laws of latin being the legal language across its are of affect (like German) and other languages actually develop OUT of Latin (like langue d'oc and langue d'oil).  these languages are in their infancy in this time, so their failure to label every single thing until the between 1000-1300 is not even remotely surprising.  and later revamping of words was not surprising either.  again as an example the word "harpa" was used in anglo-saxon to refer to both harps and lutes and other plucked instruments--it meant "to pluck", the fact that later words were utilized to specify the difference between a harp and a lute, and that the word harp stuck to harps, says nothing about how old lutes are. 

unfortunately, i suspect that much of the problem here lies in Rutt himself.  he was a knitter--or at least he did knit, but he was primarily a priest.  he did study medieval and modern languages at Cambridge, but became a missionary priest in 1954, knowlege of linguistics has come a long ways since then.  he, in the end, appears to have made knitting a hobby, and having written several books (about Korean and Chinese literature) decided that publishing his own thoughts on knitting was valuable.  i am not suggesting it is not, however, his conclusions are often seem to be based not on good research, but on his own conclusions, however good or faulty those are.  when reading A History of Handknitting, one must really take into account these things.  i make no claim to being a linguist or historian (my field of research is music history so in many ways i am much like him), but my conclusions leading me to different places makes me no more wrong than he... and no more right. 


Chris Laning said...

I don't think it's quite fair to hold Rutt responsible for the uses others have made of his book ;) We comb the book for every tidbit of information because there is *still* nothing better out there.

It's not the book many of us would like to have. I'm not the person to write a better book either. It would take someone who was a full-time scholar and able to spend a couple of decades researching to produce the definitive book we would like to see.

In the meantime, Rutt has inspired a lot of people to take an interest in knitting history, and in some cases, to take bits of his research further.

rita n/ said...

this is all absolutely true. and yes, i'm aware (sadly) that there is nothing better.

my problem and the reason that i chose to do this "review" is that too many people simply say "but rutt says" and leave it at that. in order for me, or others to suggest he might be wrong in certain situations, someone needs to look critically at the book and discuss what conclusions are legit and which maybe are not. (and which people have ascribed to rutt for no apparent reason :P )