Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Margaret's bead bequests

Margaret Paston, PART II

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I found four clear references to "bedes" or "bedys" (meaning paternoster beads) in the Paston Letters from 15th-century England. I discussed the first one last time; here are the other three.

In 1470 -- almost twenty years later than the first reference -- Margaret Paston's brother-in-law William Paston received a set of coral beads as part of the collateral for a loan. What's particularly interesting here is that the beads are the very first item listed, ahead of such items as twenty silver spoons and several valuable cups. Here's the text:


This bill endentid [bill of indenture, a record of the loan] made the xv day of August the xth yer of King Edwarde þe iiijte [Edward IV] betwixt William Paston, esquyer, on þe ton partie [on the one part] and Thomas Vyall of Norwich, payntur [painter], witnessith þat þe saide Thomas Vyall hath borowid of þe saide William Paston v li. [five pounds] of lawfull mony, vpon plege of j par of corall bedys with xxj gaudys ["gauds," i.e. marker beads] of siluer and gilte weyng [weighing] vj vnc. [ounces] with þe lace and þe knopp, xx siluer sponys weyng xvj vnc., j standyng pes ["standing piece", probably a covered cup] of siluer with a couer weyng x vnc., a large maseer ["mazer", a type of elaborate wooden cup wil silver fittings] parcell [partly] gilt weyng, þe tymber ["timber", i.e. the wood] and all, xv vnc., j maser siluer and gilt weyng viij vnc., a maser weyng vij vnc. dj. and j quarter and a mase[r] with þe fote [foot] broken, not weyde. And the saide Thomas Vyall byndith hym-silff, his eyres and executours [bindeth himself, his heirs and executors] to pay to þe saide William Paston the saide v li. of lawfull mony at þe fest of þe Natiuité of Our Lorde ["feast of the Nativity of Our Lord", i.e. Christmas] next commyng affter þe date of this present writyng. In witnesse wher-of þe parties beforsaide enterchaungeably haue set to ther seallys. Writen þe day and yer above saide. Wyl[ia]m Paston

The description of the beads is more detailed than most: "j par of corall bedys with xxj gaudys of siluer and gilte weyng vj vnc. with þe lace and þe knopp." This translates as, "One pair [i.e. set] of coral beads with 21 gauds of gilded silver, weighing 6 ounces including the string and the 'knop'." (A "knop" is literally a knot or knob: probably here meaning a large decorative bead or pomander.)

A dozen or so years later, we have the 1482 will of Margaret Paston herself. Several things about it are interesting, and two sets of her beads are mentioned specifically.


(This brass isn't of Margaret Paston, BTW, but it seemed appropriate even though I don't know who it is. I can tell you that it's English, at least.)


In the name of God, amen. I, Margaret Paston, widowe, late the wiff [wife] of John Paston, squier, doughter and heire to John Mauteby, squier, hole of spirit and mynde, with parfite avisement [perfect awareness] and good deliberacion, the iiijte day of February in the yer of our Lord God a ml cccclxxxj, make my testament and last wille in this fourme folowyng.

Item, I bequeth to Anne, my doughter, wiff of William Yeluerton, my grene [green] hangyng in my parlour at Mauteby, a standing cuppe with a couer gilt with a flatte knoppe, and a flatte pece with a couer gilt withoute [i.e. gilded on the outside], xij siluer spones, a powder boxe with a foot and a knoppe enamelled blewe [blue], my best corse girdill ["coarse girdle," i.e. a large belt], blewe herneised ["harnessed", i.e. decorated] with siluer and gilt, my premer ["primer", i.e. prayerbook], my bedes of siluer enamelled. Item, I bequeth to the seid Anne my fetherbedde with sillour, curteyns, and tester in my parlour at Mauteby... (followed by blankets, sheets, pewter dishes et cetera)

Item, I bequethe to Marie Tendall, my goddoughter, my peir bedys of calcidenys [chalcedony] gaudied with siluer and gilt...

Parenthetically here, those who know the story of this family will appreciate that Margaret's will leaves NOTHING to her youngest daughter Margery, though Margery's sons do get the same bequest as the rest of the grandsons. Young Margery, after many arguments and not a few beatings to discourage the relationship, persisted and secretly married the family's bailiff Richard Call, a descent in social status which her mother strongly disapproved -- in fact, her mother actually went to court to try to have the marriage declared invalid.

The list of valuable items bequeathed to Margery's older sister Anne begins with a green wall hanging (possibly embroidered), a silver "standing cuppe" and covered dish, then smaller items of silver. Next is listed a blue belt, perhaps of silk, with gilded silver fittings (likely a gilded buckle, belt-tip, and several decorative rivets or sewn-on badges). Next come the paternoster beads, and only after all that, bedding and other household stuff, and last of all, money.

This sequence probably means something, and we see similar sequences in other wills and inventories. Some of it is clearly set by custom: a will is a sort of ritual, and things may be listed in a certain order just because that's how it "should" be done in a will. But perhaps this sequence also contains some indications of relative value, whether this means monetary value or perhaps social value or status. By and large, the most costly and precious items seem to be listed first, progressing to those that are more common, practical, and subject to wear and tear.

Anne's beads are gilded silver, clearly a high-status item and quite costly, and they are duly weighed (string and all!) and grouped with the other silver items. Goddaughter Marie's beads are chalcedony, a very hard, semi-translucent stone that could also be quite valuable.

Beads don't appear in exactly the same place in all lists. But the three lists analyzed here make one thing clear: bedes (beads) are definitely worth more than beddes (beds :)

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

What did Margaret mean?

I'm always grateful for all the blessed souls who have painstakingly typed (or scanned and proofread) long medieval manuscripts so they are available -- and searchable! -- on the Internet.

I recently had occasion to look at the Paston Letters, a famous series of letters and documents from a family of English gentry in the mid to late fifteenth century (1400s). They provide quite a bit of insight into the realities of everyday life for a moderately wealthy family of the period. I'd seen something quoted in translation, and I wanted to see what the original text said.

As usual, I was looking for mentions of prayer beads. At this period, the word "beads" by itself with no qualifiers almost always refers to prayer beads. Once you figure out that "bedys" and "bedes" usually mean "beads", it's fairly easy to do a text search for them and see in what contexts beads are mentioned. I found a couple of citations that were pretty much what I expected, and one that was a surprise. (The search also turned up a few references to "bedes/beddes" that were clearly beds, along with a couple of "fetherbeddes" -- the vagaries of text search and English spelling.)

Here's the surprising one. It's from a 1453 letter by Margaret Paston, the mother of the family, to her husband who is away in London. I love this language, so I'll reproduce as much of this as I have room for.

On the text: The spelling of this period is usually pretty easy to decipher if you try reading the text aloud -- these words may not look like the ones we know, but they do sound like them. The original also spells the word her as "here," which I find entirely too confusing, especially since the word here is spelled identically. I've taken the e's off the ones that mean "her." And I've translated a few things [in brackets].

Unknown woman by Jacobsz Dirk (fl.1500-1567)

Right wurshippfull hosbond, I recommand me to yow [you], praying yow to wete ["wit", i.e. to know] that þe [the] man of Knapton þat owyth yow mony [oweth you money] sent me this weke xxxix s. viij d.; and as for þe remenant of þe mony, he hath promysid to bring itt at Wytsontyd [Whitsuntide, i.e. around Pentecost Sunday]. And as for þe prest [the priest], Howardys sone, he yede [went] to Canbryge þe last weke and he shall nomore come hom tyll itt be mydsomer [Midsummer], and therfore I myght not [i.e. could not] do yowr erunde [errand].

As for tydyngys, þe Quene come in-to þis town on Tewysday last past after none [last Tuesday afternoon] and abode here tyll itt was Thursday iij after none, and she sent after my cosyn Elysabeth Clere be [i.e. "at"] Sharynborn to come to her. And she durst not dysabey [disobey] her commandment, and come to her. And when she come in þe Quenys presens þe Quene made ryght meche [much] of her, and desyrid her to have an hosbond, þe which ye shall know of here-after; but as for that, he is non nerrere [no nearer] than he was before. The Quene was right well pleasid wyth her answere, and reportyht of her in þe best wyse, and seyth be her trowth ["by her troth", an exclamation] she sey [saw] no jantylwomman [gentlewoman] syn [since] she come into Norffolk þat she lykyth better þan she doth her...

I pray yow þat ye woll do yowr cost ["do your cost" i.e. spend some money] on me ayens Witsontyd ["against," i.e. before, Whitsuntide], þat I may haue somme thyng for my nekke [neck]. When þe Quene was here I borowd my cosyn Elysabet Cleres devys ["device," i.e. probably an enameled necklace or pendant], for I durst [dared] not for shame go wyth my bedys [with my beads] among so many fresch jantylwomman as here were at þat tym. The blissid Trinyté have yow in his kepyng. Wretyn [written] at Norwych on þe Fryday next before Seynt George. Be yowrys [yours], M. Paston.

Clearly, she is thinking of her paternoster beads here simply as an item of personal jewelry. Displaying her wealth and good taste in the Queen's company, including being well dressed and appropriately jeweled, is simply what she owes to her station in life. She concludes that if she is going to be in the royal presence again, she needs more jewelry.

But what I find most interesting about this is that she mentions needing "something for my neck" in one breath, and in the next, says she felt ashamed to go before the Queen with only her "beads." This clearly implies (though it doesn't prove) that she was wearing her paternoster beads around her neck. Is that what she meant?

Today wearing a rosary around your neck is regarded as irreverent -- which is probably why some modern entertainers do it. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was apparently fairly common. I've mentioned some examples in an earlier article here.

I'm told it was a practice that was discouraged at the time, but I still haven't found any reference saying so. If anyone has more specifics on this, I'd love to hear them.

(Footnote: the portrait I've reproduced above is not Margaret Paston; I haven't found any surviving portraits from the family. And it's about a generation later. But it fits my image of her perfectly. It's actually a portrait of an unknown woman from the early 1500s, probably painted by Jacobsz Dirk, and is in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Lille, France.)

(to be continued)

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Friday, August 10, 2007


Consider this a bonus post for this week, especially since it's rather off topic :)

August is traditionally "silly season" in the newspaper biz -- when a dearth of the usual news means journalists are scrambling for stories, and things that wouldn't ordinarily get noticed make headlines.

I've been amusing myself recently creating "LOLsaints" -- analagous to LOLcats. Actually, I would have thought that LOLsaints were an obvious development. I'm amazed no one else seems to be doing them yet.

I have more ideas than this, but here's a start. Anyone should feel free to copy and use these icons (though obviously, not to commercialize them).

Aplz-t Brushn-t Itz-watchin-t

X-marx-t Sebastian-t Lawrence-bbq

Lucy-see-t Simon-saw-t Teehee-t

Veronica-t Owie-t WTF-t

EDIT: Oops, forgot one:

Both large (300x300 pixels) and small versions of all of these are available on my Flickr page.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

When pi(ety) R square

(Apologies for the lack of recent posts here. I'm trying to get back to a regular schedule.)


As I've commented before, rosary beads in many eras tend to follow the same fashions as other jewelry of the same time period. I suspect this was actually even more true before the Protestant Reformation, since it seems to have been more common before that time to see a rosary worn as an everyday accessory, much as a modern person might wear a wristwatch or a cell phone. Of course, you would be even more likely to wear a rosary every day if you were a well-off or wealthy person, or if you wanted to show off beads that were particularly costly or precious.

What's interesting here is that in modern times there seems to be something of a time lag in styles. While there are a few decidedly modern rosaries for sale here and there, the overwhelming majority of rosaries are still the styles that were popular in the 1960s: 6-millimeter faceted glass beads, usually round or double-cone shaped, with a chain construction, a flat metal medallion at the joining of the loop, a five-bead "drop" or "tail," and a metal crucifix.

To some extent, the popularity of these faceted beads also shows up in today's jewelry. And if you consult bead catalogs, which carry beads and other supplies for making jewelry, there are still more styles, varieties, finishes, and colors of these small faceted beads than of any other bead type.

But especially with the rise of bead crafting, other types of beads have emerged as new favorites. These include flat cut shapes such as crescents, hearts, squares, diamond shapes and round disks. In the last few years, more and more such shapes have become available, including flat or rounded rings, some with a thread hole along the diameter, so that when they are strung they lie flat, edge to edge. I've also seen flat cutout bird, flower, shell, cross, star, and several varieties of leaf shapes, either cut from natural materials or made from pressed glass. The occasional rosary with star, heart, flower or shell-shaped beads has been showing up for years, but the shape that especially intrigues me at the moment is cubes.


While "cube" rosaries still aren't common, they are beginning to show up in some numbers. At least one of the major "brand name" rosary companies (HMH Regina) now offers a rosary with cube beads.

Cubes come in several styles: some are press-molded glass, with slightly rounded edges and corners. More expensive ones are cut glass, usually with faceted edges, so they're slightly octagonal in cross-section. The edge facets may occupy a greater or lesser proportion of the faces of the cube.


Still others have the eight corners of the cube cut off, making a more rounded shape with 14 facets -- though it's still recognizably a cube in origin.


One of the frustrations of historical research on rosaries is that the data on bead shapes is so spotty. (As is the detail on a lot of other aspects, of course, but this one in particular.) There are basically two sources of information. One is the collection of beads that survive from historical times. Most of these are found loose, with no indication of what they were originally part of, which limits what they can tell us. Still, if beads of certain types did not exist at some past period, they could not have been used for paternoster or rosary beads in that period.

The other source of information is written descriptions. Here's where the major frustration comes in -- we have the words, but exactly what do they mean? Many descriptions come from inventories and wills, which means their main purpose is to explain how many of them someone owns and (often) which ones are bequeathed to whom. They are written for people who have the actual beads in front of them, so they only need to include enough detail to say which is which.

I have yet to see any historical beads described as "cubes." But I've seen several beads described as "square." Are these cubes, or are they flat square or diamond shapes? In a few cases it's clear, as with a famous strand of gold-enameled beads once owned by Louis of Anjou (which I mentioned briefly here). The description, as given by Ronald Lightbown in Medieval European Jewellery, says:

"In 1379-80 Louis of Anjou had a set of twenty-one
gold paternoster beads of very capricious design.
They were small and square, with concave sides;
on one side they were enamelled with chequer-
work like a board for chess, on the other with
chequer-work like a board for tables [checkers?].
To each of their corners was riveted a tiny pearl."

Here it's clear they are flat squares, since they are described as having only two "sides."

As I've mentioned before, it would be nice for my purposes if I could document cubical beads in the Middle Ages, because it would give me one more shape to choose from in making modern beads in medieval styles. But them's the breaks: alas, our ancestors didn't have us in mind when they made their style choices :)

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