Wednesday, March 02, 2011

onward and upward

allow me to digress a bit... one of the great things about Richard Rutt's A History of Handknitting (if you're interested in the history of knitting) is the great number of fairly good quality illustrations.  there are lots of photographs of extant knitting as well as charting out of various knitting patterns.....i love this.  one could use the book to reproduce some of theses historic knitting patterns with what appears to be good accuracy. 

on the minus side, Rutt's book is very stream of conscious.  he wanders randomly from the Egyptian bits to a discussion of how chain mail is not kniting.  why?  there is no way to tell.  the book would have benefitted greatly from a different organizational method.  a chapter of all the "some people think this might be knitted, but it's really not" would have cleaned up the rest of the book to be more tightly focused on knitting.  little random bits tossed here and there in the text are off putting, and occassionally confusing. 

the Las Huelgas pillows. 
the next topic is two pillows recovered from a tomb in Spain.  The contents of the tomb, a bural for royalty of the 13th century, were recovered and conserved in 1944-45.  two truly important bits of knitting history came in the recovery.  they were sealed in the tombs, so they can actually be dated and are the first extant items of European knitting, time-wise. 

the first, is from the tomb of Fernando de la Cerda, hear of Alfonso X of Castile.  Prince Fernando died in 1275.  An important note about this pillow, and the other, is the skill involved in making them.  this first has approximately 20 stitches to the inch.  it's important to consider what exactly this means. when knitting socks it is typical to get between 8 and 12 stitches per inch.  the smallest gauge recommendation i found when searching was 60 stitches over 4 inches--that's 15 stitches to the inch.  this is not the product of some "new knitter" by any stretch of the imagination.  this is an incredibly detailed, involved piece knitted on tiny tiny needles, with 'yarn' smaller than sewing thread.  it seems unlikely that this was even a second or third generation knitting piece.  this was a masterwork from a masterwork knitter.  and it's very existance in 1275 implies that knitting is several hundred years older.Rutt's only conclusion tho is "We can say little more for certain than that they are works of the highest craftsmanship".  this is true, but what a textile historian could conclude from their existance, is likely very different than this simplistic statement. 

Rutt persists in making other comments for no apparent reason tho including "they must have been made on steel pins, which were probably hooked." why on earth does he conclude this?  is there evidence that he has left out of the book that leads to this guess, or more likely, is Rutt making suppositions of his own? 

the knitting madonnas are the next topic of discussion.  Rutt suggests that really all that can be concluded from this pieces of artwork (there are a number of them)  is that knitting was known in Europe and the particular artists knew how it was done. what he ignores is that several of the pieces (here's a link so you can see for yourself what they look like: ) include much more information than that.  two of the pictures found in the book (the second and fourth in the flickr stream linked above) show "specialized" items that were clearly used as part of knitting.  little peg boards that held the spools of yarn/thread.  this does tell more than Rutt acknowledges.  it demonstrates, for example, that specialized tools were being made for knitting already in the time these paintings were done.

 In Switzerland in two different locations--5 in Sion and 1 in Chur there are 6 knitted colorwork relic bags.  Rutt moves to these next.  One of his first and most questionable comments is this:  "they are considered to be of fourteenth-century origin and are notable similar.  doubtless all six came from one source, but where that source was is beyond conjecture."  what is also beyond conjecture is whether they came from one source or 6 or something in between.  the fact that 6 similar bags are found in two locations does not evidence anything.  even today, not all identical, but rare items come from the same maker.  in addition to all other issues with his discriptions, he has some of the desciptions actually wrong. 

for example:  he descibes the Chur bag as follows:  "the five band are alternately red and beige.  Two shield designs alternate on each band.  the shields on the red band are charged respectively, with a lion rampant and narrow chevrons, all worked in light blue.  the shields on the beige band are charged, respectively, with an octagaonal rosette and indented chevrons, worked in red."
please note that when looking at an actual image of the bag, Rutt reversed the colors.  this is a bit disturbing to say the least.  it is likely that Rutt simply reproduced an error from another book, but this leads to more disturbing questions.  he makes many statements that seem to imply that he is perhaps personally a textile expert, yet, it appears likely that he simply read other people's books and made suppositions based on those books (only the ones in English of course).  if Rutt were more clear about where exactly he came by his information his book would be much more helpful.  did he copy the description from another book in error?  did he ever see the piece in question? this last becomes more important when taken in light of the whole book.  did Rutt visit the museums and look at the pieces he is so carefully discribing?  what exactly are his credentials for some of the claims that he makes? 

then we're on to more stream of consciousness: knitted girdles.  only not.  rutt is right back to ignoring evidence that he doesn't like.  apparently the 1488 will of John Gregson has this sentence in it:  "lego Willelmo Rayner cappellano j knytt gyrdyll et harnast cum argento".  Rutt acknowledges that this appears to mean "I bequeath to William Rayner the chaplain one knitted girdle with silver appurenances".  then he goes on to suggest that the word "knytt" also meant plaited or braided (no references here) and concludes that "is more liekly to indicate some such technicque than what we now call knitting" (why?)  he uses a non-textile book--a book about ecclesiastical vestments (Die Liturgische Gewandung--1907) to reach this conclusion because this books says knitted girdles were first made in the 16th century in Italy. 

It is a given that knitting existed in Europe by 1488, so his assumption that one book is correct, and another is incorrect, with no explanation, no evidence to lead in that direction, is just that.  an assumption.  no better or worse than others.  what follows in his discussion of Asian spinning men, nuns' work and mediaeval gaiters is just as frustrating.  it is pointless to go through and note the minutia of his assumptions, suffice it so say that as typical, Rutt as taken things that agree with assumptions about when knitting started and he likes those, and anything that does not, he ignores or excuses as shoddy research. 

moving on to something that deals with actual evidence is nice.  liturgical gloves are the next topic that rutt addresses.  here he's right back to claims that are at best suppositional.  the first two sentences under this heading are: "the Roman's had no word for 'glove'.  Gloves must have originated in the early Middle Ages."  he appears to be suggesting one of these statements leads directly to the other.  that because Roman's nad no word for gloves, they could not have had gloves.  again:  these types of assumptions are simply not accurate.  when new items/methods are created, most often they are identified with words that are part of the language, that come the closest to describing a thing.  for example, when BLOGS first came into being, they weren't called a thing of their own.  no one sat down and came up with a name.  they were simply called weblog.  the word blog grew out of that word.  weblog was first coined in 1997.  are we to assume then that blogs did not exist prior to this date?  in reality in 1994 Justin Hall became a very early blogger. 

now remembering that today in the world of internetz and such, words and language are developing very quickly, it is not surprising that in Rome, they didn't come up with a totally unique word for gloves, rather just adapted other words "manica" which meant wristlet or cuff, or used a greek based word "chirotheca" that meant "hand-case".  Rutt's assumptions about the way that language develops are interesting, but without citations, it is hard to grant his opinion much weight.

Rutt suggests that the gloves housed at the Cathedral in St. Sernin at Toulouse can confidently be attributed to the 13th century.  they are knitted in fine white stockinet, and are plain with clumsy fingers and thumbs.  unfortunately this leads back to questions of why Rutt says this?  did he see the gloves in question?  simply repeat what was in a different book?  it is impossible to know really.  Regardless, the 16th century there are examples, extant, of involved colorwork gloves. 

Fifteenth-century Pomerania.  this is perhaps one of the most frustrating sections of the book.  frustrating because it is short and unilluminating and frustrating because of how he ends it.  In 1640 the book Altes Pommerland (p389) states that Sophia, hte daughter of Procopius, margrave of Moravia, who dies in 1417 when she grew old her eyesight was too poor for embroidery or sewing  and "nie die knutte von ehren Handen geleget".  She never put the knitting needles down.  In 1986 Irena Turnau discusses 6 knitted fragments of the 12th or 13th century found in a grave near Ketrzyn in Poland as well as other items including a cap and four pairs of gloves from teh 14th or 15th century in Latvia,near Riga.  Unfortuantely Rutt ends by stating that we can't know their significance since they are only described in Polish and Latvian. 

this is perhaps the biggest problem with this book.  Rutt's failure to seek out and find people who could read Polish and Latvian and find out what is said about the items leaves his readers, and himself in the dark.  his assumptions are often based on the idea that since there are no extant pieces of knitting in such-and-such a time, knitting didn't exist.  without bothering to find what is known about pieces in countries that don't speak english, an awful lot is left out of this book. 

Cap Knitting is the next secion.  Rutt concludes that caps seem likely to be the first items knitted in England, but acknowledges that perhaps other articles of earlier date exist and the records and extant items do no exist so we don't know about them.  This is a bit of a problematic conclusion to reach, but as he says, there is little evidence on either side.  Regardless by the late 1400s cap knitting has taken off in england.  a variety of cap styles came quickly into being from the "monmouth cap" to others. 

his discussion is brief but as far as i can tell, quite to the point.  while he is conclusory on many occassions, his conclusions do seem to be supported by much of the other disucssion in books. 

his last tiny note about pre-1500s stockings is too short and not helpful.  as typical he throws out the little bit of information that is apparently available and then says that much study remains to be done. 

tomorrow, we're talking about Henry the VII!


Chris Laning said...

Rutt's descriptions of the Sion/Chur purses do indeed get the colors badly wrong, and the charts are also messed up. I believe, however, that here at least he did consult a non-English source -- it's in his bibiography: _Mittelalterliche Textilien in Kirchen und Klöstern der Schweiz_. As far as I've been able to find out, this is the only other published description of these purses. Unfortunately the photos are difficult to use as sources for charting because they are black and white: I feel this probably accounts for most if not all of these particular mistakes.

I personally think Rutt is generally a good scholar, because in a number of places he *does* display his evidence and reasoning. You're quite right that he doesn't cite every source or explain why he believes some sources but not others. I'm not discounting your criticisms: this is very annoying for the serious researcher, but I don't think that's the audience this book was intended for.

Also, I think the barriers between English-speaking and Eastern European researchers were much greater in the 1980s than they are today. Irena Turnau wrote a book that came out about the same time as Rutt, but it's very clear she was working in almost total isolation from anyone else working on the history of knitting. I personally think Turnau is the worse scholar of the two -- detailed critiques on request ;)

Daria said...

I believe that Rita's point is exactly that: the book is being used far beyond the intention. There is no caveat warning the inexperienced that this is, at best, a tertiary source.

Also, a good scholar is always a good scholar. Rutt is a lazy scholar with a too-willing publisher. Hardly an example we should ever consider valid.

rita n/ said...

i do believe that rutt has some very positive points. he brings up things, and brings them together into a single volume, that weren't together and noted before.

on the other hand, if he were a good scholar he would have given sources. footnotes do note make a book less readable. at all.

the fact that rutt makes some good points does NOT make him a good scholar, and his lack of scholarship (ie: fact checking, finding translations of books that he says may have valuable information, etc.) all make him less than a good scholar.

Chris Laning said...

A few specific comments:

The tools you describe as being used for knitting, such as the spool rack, originated as weaving tools, so would have been quite familiar to the painter from that alone.

On the Chur purse: color photos of these purses are rare and hard to find. I can tell from some of the mistakes he made (not only on the Chur purse) that he didn't have access to the photos I have, and he could have if he had gone looking for them (since they existed in the 1970s). He may well not have seen the color photo of the Chur purse before the book was ready for publication: admittedly if he had been able to get a good look at it, he *should* have corrected the description and chart, or his editor should have. Also, the photo may not have been good enough for unambiguous charting. The photos I have of the Sion purses -- and they're museum photos and pretty good ones -- certainly are not.

As for Roman gloves, there is other evidence to consider. You're right that linguistic evidence is not conclusive, so the fact that there's no word for something does not prove it didn't exist. But there are also no surviving fragments of Roman gloves, and more important, no indication from other media (such as documents or surviving statues) that gloves existed. We do, for instance, know from surviving statues that socks or some form of thin, flexible leg coverings existed, even though the renditions are not detailed enough to say how they were made. We also have quite a lot of surviving Roman documents that would likely mention such things, as for instance they do mention socks -- most notably the letters and other ephemeral documents from Vindolanda.

In general, I don't think Rutt is a lazy scholar, I think he is an *amateur* scholar, with limited time to work on his book around the demands of another full-time job (when he wrote this). Under those circumstances I don't think it's fair to fault him for not chasing down every lead.