I’ve been very slowly working on putting together kit for my SCA persona, Sæwynn æt Cnolle, which takes on new importance now that Calontir will be holding the Lilies War in September. Yay, deadlines! Here is my list:
- Coif (done!)
- Cloth (purchased!)
- Cloth (purchased!)
- Tablet-woven band (in progress!)
- D-ring and end-fitting
- Chatelaine (in progress!)
- Belt knife (purchased!)
- Belt Bag/Pouch (still researching)
- Cup (purchased!)
- Roman-style book-hinged wax tablets and stylus (purchased!)
Eventually, I’d like to construct smoc out of linen and dresses out of linen and wool (and maybe add a surcoat). But for the time being, I am sticking with plain old cotton because it’s easier (and less expensive) to acquire. The dress is going to be black — not because I like the color (though I do), but because I got it for $.75/yard at Ye Olde Wal-Marte. I’ll post more about that, and the challenges I’m facing (largely self-inflicted) later.
The period which interests me is late 10th Century in the Anglo-Saxon England of the day, which got the opportunity to be England for just shy of 140 years before the Normans swooped in. What’s frustrating about this, though, is that it’s during a time when Christianity was the national religion (well, sort of, I imagine there were a lot of old traditions being maintained under the guise of “local superstitions” or whatnot). Why is this frustrating? Because Christians didn’t go in for the big burials with lots of grave goods. The Christian reward of heaven isn’t some place where you’d want or need to have your stuff with you — it’s eternal communion with God, so you’re not going to need hold onto those tablet weaving cards. I could get even a bit more cynical about why Christians were discouraged from taking their wealth along into their graves, but I’m not going to, because the point is: we just really don’t have a whole lot of archaeological evidence from that time period of what kinds of personal items people had, especially the commoners.
The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons took about 100 years, and happened roughly in the 7th Century (according to Wikipedia). Before that, between the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in what would later become England in roughly 450 CE lasting up to the conversion of the last kings and queens by around 690 (there is, of course, some argument), we have some evidence for stuff people had from pre-Christian burials.
While I was researching what a typical Anglo-Saxon woman might be wearing, one of the items that fascinated me the most was the chatelaine. If you’re familiar with the term as analogous to “majordomo”, or referring to the person who runs a household, or an event or (in the SCA) is in charge of hospitality (largely relating to the welcoming of newcomers), it’s because that use derives from what a chatelaine is: a series of tools & keys that hang in a cluster from the belt, typically by a woman who needs those tools & keys because she is In Charge of Important Things. It seems that early (wealthy) Anglo-Saxon women used these, from what we’re finding in their graves. By later on in Anglo-Saxon history, they appear to be less prevalent — again, it’s hard to say when we’re talking about a time when people’s burials didn’t include their stuff — but there don’t seem to be a lot of depictions of them in manuscripts1 .
Here are some period examples of chatelaines, courtesy of the ever-awesome Daegred Tools in Sheffield, England. Seriously, if you are looking for replicas of items ranging in periods from Rome up through the Medieval era, this is an incredible place to go. I got permission from Daegred Tools (thank you!) to use their photos and I will link to the product pages, but if you get a 404 error, it’s because someone snagged the item(s) — curse the luck!
This is the first chatelaine set that really caught my eye. From left to right they are: a “girdle hanger/key”, a spoon, a latch lifter, and a food pricker (precursor to a fork). The girdle hanger is an interesting item, thought to be derived from a key; according to Dr. Kathrin Meents from Cambridge University:
“Ideas about the possible meanings of girdle-hangers began to take shape from the mid 19th century (Smith 1852: 235; Neville 1852).3 Their enigmatic imitative charac- ter and their infrequent occurrence in the archaeological record prompted ideas of a specific, not immediately accessible, symbolism. Smith was reminded of Victorian châtelaines (Smith 1852: 235), a construction worn by women to suspend small house- hold items which often included keys. In another context he suggested that ‘keys may be particularly considered as insignia of the Saxon women, as they were, to a comparatively late period, of the English housewife’ (1856: xli). Similar connections were also drawn between female key possession and the domestic authority of the housewife in the Roman period (Pitt-Rivers 1883: 15). This was taken as evidence for the possible origins of this concept in pre-Anglo-Saxon times, and provided a closer historical analogy for a corresponding interpretation of early Anglo-Saxon girdle-hangers (Lethbridge 1931: 5; Steuer 1982: 204).”Dr. Kathrin Meents (née Felder), Networks of Meaning and the Social Dynamics of Identity. An Example from Early Anglo-Saxon England, downloaded from researchgate.net.
In her PhD thesis Girdle-hangers in 5th- and 6th-century England. A Key to Early Anglo-Saxon Identities (unfortunately, the paper at academia.edu only contains the introduction and the bibliography), Dr. Meents mentions that by the 7th and 8th Centuries, chatelaine items had become much less clearly functional – figure 5.3 shows a hanging item with a metal loop at the end that had an inlay of glass — maybe something like a kaleidoscope?
Now, my persona is from about 200 later, and it’s my understanding that the chatelaine fell out of use the more urbanized and settled the country became (I can’t find where I read this now, but if I do, I’ll come back and update this article). But I like the idea of a chatelaine: I think it’s handy for feasts and whatnot to have the tools at hand, plus I just think it’s kind of cool. Also, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when people stopped burying folks with grave goods. So I have a conceptualization for my persona that has her being more back-country, non-urban, more of a wanderer, probably much more in tune with those “local superstitions”…but also not quite the person who would be tied down to a household and so would not likely be wearing a girdle hanger (generally made of copper alloy and not designed to function as a key) as a sign of domestic status, nor would she likely be carrying around a key (the one in the image above is made of iron and would work in that style of lock). Likewise, I’m not sure she’d have a latch lifter (though I’m thinking about it). So I have engaged Takahara Otoshi of the Kingdom of Calontir (I wanted to stay local) to make me my own set of food pricker and spoon, using 3/16” square stock that he’s twisting (so the shaft of the tool will have a nice twist in it). Otoshi has an Etsy shop: High Plains Ironworks.
This chatelain consists of all metal pieces (no cords to tie the tool to the belt here), and the bottom piece is just a simple loop at the end. At Daegrad, the description says that the loops “contain[ed] fragments of corn stems with a presumption that corn was hung from the chatelaine in some possible ritual”. (Note that in Great Britain, “corn” means “grain” — what we call “corn” here is “maize” there, which is why you see heads of wheat in the photo.)
I’m a little bit skeptical about the idea of “ritual use”, myself (your mileage may vary) since that seems to be the catch-all for archaeological finds people don’t recognize. I seem to recall (and am too lazy to look it up) that tablet-weaving cards were labeled as possible ritual objects, too…until someone found people in South America actually engaged in tablet weaving using the same kinds of cards.
I think that part of the reason why I’m a bit skeptical about this in this particular case is that these pieces are made out of metal. When I think about what goes into getting to the point where you have this cool thing, it’s not like today where you throw a bit of bar stock you’ve purchased from The Convenient Modern Iron/Copper/Steel Source and into your propane-fired forge or crucible (seriously cool!). No, the process is more like this: first you have to dig up some ore. Then you have to chop down some trees and make a big honkin’ pile of charcoal. Then you have to smelt the ore. And then you have to draw the metal into wire stock, but even if you skip that step, you still have to either cast your copper or forge your iron — oh yay! Time to chop down more trees to make more charcoal! — into these beautifully-made looped rings, keys, girdle-hangers, etc. Am I looking at the originals here? No, no I am not. But Daegrad tools specializes in reproductions and I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that these are pretty darned close2.
Anyway, my point is that this would be kind of a lot of work for something that is used in a periodic ritual, which I don’t imagine to be an every day thing — although it could be, if there were daily rituals, so there is that. Or this could be a rich person’s Fancy Ritual Gear, who’d be able to afford it.
Anyway, though, working off of the basic assumption3 that this is something meant to be used on a daily basis and so it needs to be sturdy, it got me to thinking: could it be related to, like the girdle hanger, one’s social status? Could it indicate a level of education and/or experience, like the three levels (apprentice, journeyman, and master) of Medieval guilds and modern Freemasonry? (Obviously, in this case, there would be at least five levels in whatever that was.)
Maybe the number of corn loops be related to the number of children a woman had birthed? (In this, I am thinking of the “Boys’ Day” fish-banners in Japan, where you fly one flag for each boy in the family on and around Boys’ Day.). Maybe it’s some way to propitiate the Old Gods, by carrying a constant offering, for the safety of said children? Maybe it’s that, but for anyone the wearer particularly loves?
It could also be that instead of individual heads of wheat/barley/rye/what have you, that small stem poppets or wreaths or even crosses were attached to them (I can see the making of poppets particularly related to protective magic for children). Alas, we’re not like to find any actual plant material (or chatelaine items carved out of wood, perhaps for the less well-heeled lady of the house), unless some Anglo-Saxon woman fell into a bog somewhere sometime in the 5th or 6th Centuries and we just haven’t found her yet.
Anyway, I think these are pretty cool also, so I’ve asked Otoshi to make me one of those as well. I have one child, so that’ll do, and it could also denote my status as a beginner in the SCA (technically, though, I’m not even an apprentice to anyone yet).
1 That I have seen, and admittedly I have not done a deep dive. Also, note to self: start going through the various women’s wills that we know of, and see if anyone talked about leaving a chatelaine to someone. <return>
2 Note to self: do another article about what they do for their reproductions — do they use modern-made materials, such as bar stock? Or do they do it all from scratch? <return>
3 I know, I know. <return>