Sasha Handley: Emotional objects and a very special bed-sheet

We all have objects that lie close to our hearts, objects that we have an emotional connection to that we wish to preserve and keep close to us for our whole lives. These objects have stories behind them, those we write for them and those they can tell us themselves. A ring, an old toy, a photograph – such objects are often tokens of love and marriage, reminders of family and childhood, or memorials for loved ones lost. The themes of marriage, childbirth, and death similarly converge on objects in the early modern period, and as Dr Sasha Handley (University of Manchester) brilliantly explored in her talk on ‘Objects, Emotions, and an Early Modern Bed-sheet’ at Newcastle University (6-Dec-17), one such object was the bed-sheet.

Following on from her recent work Sleep in Early Modern EnglandHandley positions early modern bed-sheets as sites of deep personal connection and emotional expression. She explains that linen bed-sheets were popular throughout the period, with one sheet being made at home, given as gifts to congratulate births and marriages, and kept even for multiple generations. The association of the early modern bed-sheet with childbirth, the marital bed, and the shroud, made it a place of, as Handley puts it, ‘bodily and spiritual transformation’. Objects such as these are not divorced from their owners, inert ‘things’ with no life of their own, instead they are invested with meaning – emotional, religious, and even political.

Handley’s talk focused on one especially interesting object discovered in the Museum of London – a bed-sheet belonging to Anna Maria Radcliffe, Countess of Derwentwater (1693-1723). The bed-sheet was embroidered by the countess in memory of her husband, James Radcliffe – who was beheaded as a Jacobite rebel in 1715. With detailed stitch-work, there are also interlocked strands of hair woven into the fabric, uncovered by Handley and her colleagues at the Museum of London. I have taken the following image of the bed-sheet’s inscription from Handley’s blog post, which also provides more detail on this object and its history:


The historical and scientific work on this object has provided it with its own life, as it passed between owners for centuries after it owner’s death. I look forward to reading more on this fascinating object in Handley’s forthcoming article, as it is an object that both ‘speaks’ through its own history, and was embroidered and kept as an emotional ‘text’ by its maker.

The bed-sheet here is very much like a text not only due to the actual embroidered text found on the sheet, but in that it provides a narrative (one of emotional and spiritual creative outlet from a woman who may not so readily have been able to express herself in literary form), and as, like a historical book, its material elements all come together to form one text that can be ‘read’ for meaning. Explorations of objects such as these provide us with a whole new range of ‘literature’ – textiles, home-wares, sacred items, crafts. Handley’s work shows how the process of making is not unlike the process of writing, but in material objects we have the benefit of encountering stories from those whose self-expression would never make it into print: historically marginalised figures such as women, children, and illiterate lower classes. Even when objects are not as overt as this bed-sheet in its role as a site of creative expression and ability to tell a story, Handley’s work exemplifies how when positioned as texts with a history of composition (production), ownership, and interpretation, objects can be read as texts as well.


Medieval Media at Quadrivium XII

Durham Cathedral’s stony interiors, relic-filled spaces, and halls echoing with choir song was a fitting setting for Quadrivium‘s twelfth event, which focused on how we can explore the medieval period through material media. Stepping inside, the cathedral flaunts the richness of its past through the visual and material, as you gaze up at its carved stone arches, and explore the libraries and collections that are contained within.

The day began with a session on vellum led by Aditi Nafde. Vellum is prepared animal skin that is cleaned, bleached, and stretched to form writing material for manuscripts in the medieval period. This material was by no means cheap, and its use in books, especially once the cheaper and more easily printed upon paper emerges, denoted the quality and social status of the object itself.

We clustered into a room in Durham Cathedral’s Palace Green Library, and were set the task of leafing through several vellum manuscripts before us, asking ourselves what we can tell about these objects without looking at the text, only the materiality of the book itself. Some key clues might be the size and shape of the manuscripts and the text written on them, the collation of the pages, handwriting and annotations, and the binding. We had before us texts ranging from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to a 14th-century recipe book. One material aspect of these texts that illuminated their production and meaning was the use of space – where a devotional poem compiled by John Lydgate, with its precise clerical hand encased by wide margins, might indicate the luxury nature of this object, the worm-holed collection of recipes had every corner crammed with words.

This session was followed by a tour of Durham Cathedral, which included its Open Treasure exhibition. Here we saw the fragmented wooden coffin of St Cuthbert, alongside the treasures retrieved when his shrine was excavated in the 19th-century, including a stole, a gold pectoral cross, and even a wooden comb.

The afternoon was spent with Magnus Williamson as we explored the medieval voice through the medium of music books. These books ranged from the 11th- to the 16th-century, and we observed the changes in notation and layout as production of these items and their uses developed over the centuries. These objects are clearly performative and social, and one fragment of a table book had four vocal parts that were pasted adjacently on the page so that each singer could stand on one side of the paper and see their part (see below left-hand image). Such books and sheets are physically organised for a specific material use, a use that is often social, even allowing men and women (whose parts were often together on one sheet) to share physical contact as they share and sing from these books.

That evening we returned to Newcastle and met at Blackfriar’s Restaurant where we had a talk from Giles Gasper on food, as we discussed medieval ‘recipes’ discovered in Durham Cathedral’s medical collections from the period. The gastronomical and the medical see much overlap in these texts, with many early ‘recipes’ being for aphrodisiacs. The texts themselves were found hidden amongst other ‘recipes’ for ointments and remedies, giving both food and these recipe books a dual identity in how they were used. These recipes were for sauces, often bitter to taste with a heavy reliance on vinegar and garlic, and even more international flavours such as coriander and ginger. These books also pre-date the popularity of sugar cane that would transform Western diets, creating a preference for the sweet, in the early modern period. This final session was followed by a medieval banquet, including pork, beef and raisin pie, saffron butter beans, fig rolls, and traditional mead.

I was unable to attend the second day of the conference, which included talks from Rob Collins on stone, and from Johanna Green on digitising medieval materials and medias. The theme that runs across all sessions, though, is how much we can gain when we consider materiality alongside text. The layout of a music sheet, the binding of a religious poem, a hidden recipe, can all denote meaning beyond what is found in the words themselves. Here we see objects speak for themselves, allowing us to piece together history, ‘reading’ their materiality for clues, using all our senses to analyse their meanings.

Materiality, the early modern, and words…

Early modern studies have seen a wave of ‘material’ and ‘object’ related articles, conferences, books, and edited volumes over the last two decades. This has opened up an entire field of ‘material culture studies’ within the discipline, something that was once the sole study of archaeologists and anthropologists. Some have even dubbed this as a ‘Material Turn’. From the more literary materials of books, manuscripts, paper and parchment, and printing presses, to the early modern ‘everyday’: clothing, food, tableware, tobacco, clocks, and chocolate. No object can now be deemed as ‘unimportant’ to historical and literary study, for all provide insight into the early modern world not before offered by text alone.

My research seeks to examine the role of language in early modern material studies by exploring how words were conceived as ‘objects’ of exchange in the literary and cultural market place, with a special focus on Elizabethan and Jacobean prose and drama. It rejects any split between the word and the object, instead seeing the intersection between the two.

An interest in the material is not just for early modernists, or even academics. Materiality and the themes it entails appears in art, history, theatre, film, and culture. Materiality has become a buzzword for all explorations of objects, materials, embodiment, and consumption, and this blog will cover a range of topics to understand what the materiality of language might mean across disciplines.


Image: Frans Fracken the Younger, Chamber of Art and Curiosities (1636) —- Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna