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 England, Handley 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.