Since the shock of the financial crisis and a general reappraisal of ‘values’ there has been a move to revisiting some older traditions. People are interested in buying locally, knowing the maker and trusting in the small scale. Perhaps these sentiments, together with the Internet connecting artisans working in the same field though geographically remote, are factors that have contributed to a mini revival in the idea of the Guild.
Guilds, whether merchant or craft, were an essential aspect of European medieval life. They were the groups of organised craftsmen or merchants who collectively provided assistance for their members as well as setting standards for trading or production within their profession. There is evidence of guild activity from as early as the 12th century, and from the 13th to the early 18th centuries guilds wielded significant economic and civic power in their communities.
A guild could represent one or more trade sometimes named for their profession such as Carpenters’ Guild or sometimes named after a saint such as the most powerful merchant guild in Norwich, the Guild of St George.
In 1388 in England King Richard II required all guilds to record their membership details and activities. The returns for Norwich showed there were 19 guilds including the Dyers’, Weavers’, Fullers’, Mercers’, Drapers’ and Merchants’ guilds. By 1444 the Norwich based Worsted Weavers’ Guild was so influential they gained the power to regulate the woollen cloth industry throughout East Anglia.
Nowadays there are a couple of active textiles guilds in the Norwich area. They are the Broderers’ Guild at the Cathedral and the Eastern Region of the Embroiderers’ Guild. Although they are interested in maintaining craft standards they no longer wield commercial power or support their members with alms or perform Mystery Plays, but nevertheless they continue working within the handmade and craft traditions. I, myself, have recently joined the Guild of Silk Painters.
Community traditions are subject to the vagueries of fashion just as any other aspects of human society. A month ago I mentioned Mummers and a rural tradition that eventually became part of a Royal Christmas for Edward III. This Christmas tradition has ebbed and flowed in popularity across the centuries. It had been widely practised across England through the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely faded as a regular community activity with the onset of the First World War.
So it was with curiosity I went to Dragon Hall in Norwich to see some contemporary mummers. Local volunteer/supporters of the restored medieval hall, now a museum and tourist attraction, decided to revive some mumming entertainment. They performed a light-hearted, rhyming version of St George and the Dragon, a popular theme at Christmas for a mummers’ play. I expect this theme would no doubt have found favour with the successful merchant and alderman, Robert Toppes who had funded the building of the 15th-century Splytts (Dragon Hall) and had been a member of the Guild of St George.
The old village traditions of mummers’ plays were based on the death and re-birth theme. This theme was incorporated here not by the dragon being killed by St George, but by the death of St George. Having fought the dragon, poor old St George then has to fight a bully of a knight called, Slasher, who cheats and kills him with a much bigger sword. Luckily for St George, working within the traditional re-birth theme, a doctor armed with a magical potion brings him back to life. The play is introduced by ‘Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back’ and along with St George, Slasher and the Quack Doctor are all traditional mummers’ characters portrayed in Christmas shows from 18th-century Southern England. Often acted in disguise these performances allowed poorer members of the community to earn extra money during the festive season.
There was a homespun, local feel to the Dragon Hall performance in keeping with the informal roots of mumming. Although the mummers were costumed they didn’t have masks. I know it is difficult for actors (even professionals) to work from behind masks, but I think that the element of disguising would have added a medieval depth to the piece that the venue of Dragon Hall so invited.
Some products are the epitome of ‘form and function’ and, for me, Dr Martens boots and shoes are just that. I remember the feeling of liberation the first time I bounced down the escalators at Highbury and Islington tube station wearing my first pair when I was a 19 year old student. I had switched down from the high-heeled, dainty shoes that my mother approved of into black DMs that I could actually walk, run, and climb stairs in.
Last month, Dr Martens opened their second largest store in the UK in Norwich and needless to say I had to get along and have a look at all the fun designs. I do have some ‘lady-like’ party shoes, but most of the time I live in my boots.
Dr Martens is a British company based in Northampton where they have been making footwear for over 100 years. Originally, the Griggs family started as traditional family shoemakers in 1901, but in the 1950s they began a collaboration with a couple of Germans, Dr Klaus Märtens and Dr Herbert Funck. Märtens and Funck had developed a novel air-cushioned sole made from rubber and together with Bill Griggs a new working boot was designed. The first pair of Dr Martens were made in the Northampton factory in April 1960.
Now, over 50 years later we can even find a Dr Marten boot for our tots or treat ourselves to an arty pair from the eclectic range made in the brand’s original factory at Wollaston, Northamptonshire, reopened in 2007 to produce vintage styles.
Please feel free to laugh at the somewhat quaint way some of us choose to live our lives, but twice a year I reorganise my wardrobe and generally have a sort and tidy session. It’s a boring chore, but last weekend it ended on a positive note when I came across one of my forgotten vintage/antique textiles. Actually, antique is the correct term to use as this Norwich Crape mourning cape is over 100 years old.
Norwich is an old city and during the medieval period it was England’s Second City (after London) with its wealth being built on the woollen cloth trade. Fine woollen cloth was a premium product exported to Europe. Weavers were based in Norwich and in the surrounding Norfolk villages and the famous worsted woven wool originates from the village of Worstead in North East Norfolk. The importance of cloth to the economics of the city is an interesting, long tale, but essentially comes to an end at the close of the nineteenth century. (Update March 2016 – An accessible and well researched account used to be able at norwichtextiles.org, but since the UK extensive funding cuts this website is no longer in existence. Ironically it appears to have gone the same way as the Norwich textile industry. A small local charity is attempting to provide some historical information, but it’s more geared to an ‘informed tourist’ than any serious research. And, unfortunately, as I write this, the most informative book ‘Made in Norwich: 700 Years of Textile Heritage’ by Thelma Morris, is unavailable.)
Norwich’s final notable textile product during the Victorian period had been Norwich Crape. Crape was the term used for black silk or imitation black silk used to make women’s mourning dress (the term crape comes from crepe a type of crinkled silk). According to Thelma Morris at the Norwich Textiles Org – ‘crape is a crimped plain woven silk cloth. The crinkling was produced by weaving a soft weft on a hard twisted warp, the latter causing the cloth to ‘curl’ in the finishing process when it was passed over a heated roller engraved with the desired pattern of the finished crape.’
Cloth for mourning dress was an important trade as an upstanding Victorian was expected to wear black for a period of two years’ after the death of a close family member. This practice fell out of fashion as the etiquette of mourning became less rigid in the early twentieth century and with the decline in demand for black silk the production of Norwich Crape ceased. I think my mourning silk cape must have been used by a woman who was expected to be out and visiting, but still in black, as it decorated with a delicate pattern of tiny black glass beads. Despite it being quite fragile due to its age I have worn this over an evening dress and as with all silk it does look better in real life than in the photos!
AND . . . THAT WARDROBE BUSINESS
You might not have guessed, but, I do like old stuff and I have this battered old Victorian mahogany wardrobe which was the only furniture I could fit into a small, cottage bedroom I once had – so I’ve got used to it even though you can’t hang clothes in it in the normal 21st-century way. Consequently, each spring and autumn I swap all my clothing round as I change from winter to summer clothes and then from summer back to winter outfits! Well, it helps to pass the time.
Late-Victorian mahogany wardrobe with bevelled mirror (silvering on mirror is deteriorating)
19th Century mahogany wardrobe detail.
Decorative door handle – a nice detail, but actually it’s broken!
A few weeks ago I was in Norwich’s City Centre which despite having two covered modern shopping malls still really radiates out from the old market place. It was a sunny, working lunchtime and the market was busy. I took some pictures, but nothing special.
Then The Reluctant Retiree posted about her visit to Warsaw and uploaded this stunning photograph of a pre-war Warsaw.
The contrast between these two images prompted some questions. Firstly, does our familiarity with our own everyday surroundings numb us to their intrinsic charm and energy? Or, are we always wearing our rose-tinted spectacles when viewing images of the past? Or is it much more to do with the art of the photograph and the difference between an image constructed by the professional photographer and the happy snaps of the amateur?