she who keeps this diary

08 September 2004 - 1:01 PM

The Weight of Evidence

I allowed myself to get drawn into a discussion on a list about the interpretation of a particular painting -- mediaeval, of course. I knew better. I knew one of the women who started the discussion is more interested in always being right, no matter what, than actually learning anything. I'd remarked it (to myself) in another thread not two weeks ago. Should have known better. Tried to be a good shrub and do a little teaching anyway. Mistake. As Daddy used to say, never get into a fight with a pig. The pig has fun, and you get dirty.

I pulled out of the discussion, but have (perhaps stupidly) continued following it. Apparently I'm all wrong to consider the place of Christian symbolism in a mediaeval painting which shows the BVM engaged in a textile activity. The only thing we really need to consider is the fact that this proves people practiced the technique in question (and never mind that we have surviving artefacts from two centuries before the painting which are even better evidence to the existence of the technique).

I want to beat my head against a wall. Not just because a handful of people on one list are idiots, or because I am equally an idiot for attempting to engage them in logical discussion of a thorny issue when I knew demmed well they were idiots, but because I see the same kind of idiocy (mine and theirs, but especially theirs) repeated over and over again in SCA contexts.

You can't strip religion from your consideration of mediaeval art, literature, or history. You may not like religion. You may not believe what they did (and even the most orthdox modern Catholic would be heretical in the eyes of a pre-Reformation European Christian). That doesn't matter. What does matter is that you understand what they believed and why they believed it and how it affected how they looked at their world.

Yeah, that's a tall order. It takes some study. I'm sure it's a sign of my basic Laurel evilness that I think it would be worthwhile for SCA people to step away from their sewing machines and venture into the religious studies section of the library. Unreasonable, really. What am I trying to do, anyway?

Well, I'll tell you what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to convince people that there's more to research than finding one picture of someone doing (or wearing, or using, or carrying) something and assuming that everyone in Europe was doing (wearing, using, carrying) similar things. One picture might be a fluke. How about finding three pictures? If we're dealing with a craft, are there surviving artefacts? Are there guild records which indicate that the craft was regulated?

Here's the deal, folks. Just because the Buxtehude Madonna (painted by a German Master Bertram c. 1375-1400) appears to be knitting a shirt doesn't mean you can document woolly jumpers to fifteenth-century England. We don't have surviving mediaeval knitted pullovers. We don't have other paintings of people knitting shirts. We don't have guild records or account books which record the production or purchase of knitted body garments.

And when we look at the rest of the painting, we see the child Jesus and an angel carrying instruments of the Passion -- nails, a cross, et cetera. So is that really a piece of warm woolly clothing the virgin is knitting? Or is it meant to represent the seamless garment for which the soldiers diced?

Of course, the painting raises more questions than that. Did people really knit shirts? Or baby clothes? Or did the painter exercise imagination, and, knowing about knitting, make the logical leap to the seamless garment being knitted? How much knitting was really done domestically anyway? (The evidence is spotty, but most of it suggests that cap-makers' guilds had control over the commercial process and probably very little was done domestically).

But the religious element is also there, and a mediaeval viewer of the painting would have recognised it instantly. If you think religion is the opiate of the masses and wouldn't enter a church for love or money, that's your business, but don't think that your beliefs (or lack thereof) erase the religious aspect of the painting.

And if you want to knit a shirt like the one in the painting, that too is your business. Just don't expect me to believe you when you tell me the Buxtehude Madonna is incontrovertible proof of knitted pullovers in mediaeval Europe.

verso - recto

The WeatherPixie

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