The Lady of the Rivers: Hennins and Court Fashion in the 1400s

The Lady of the Rivers, by Philippa Gregory, is the first of her Plantagenet and Tudor novels, and it follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Countess Rivers and covers the reign of the (quite inept) Lancastrian King Henry VI. (For those unfamiliar with Philippa Gregory, she writes historical fiction, usually set in England, charting the rise and fall of different powerful women.) Jacquetta of Luxembourg (1415 – 1472) was born in what is now France, and what was, in the 1400s, English occupied France. One of the most striking things in the first part of the book, set in France in the 1430s, was the description of the gowns.

Joan laughs at me, as I have to duck my head to get my tall conical headdress through the narrow doorways.

“It is very beautiful,” she says. “But I should not like to wear such a thing.”

I pause and twirl before her in the bright sunlight from the arrow slit. The colors of my gown are brilliant: a skirt of dark blue and an underskirt of sharper turquoise, the skirts flaring from the high belt tied tight on my rib cage. The high henin headdress sits like a cone on my head and sprouts a veil of pale blue from the peak that drops down my back, concealing and enhancing my fair hair. I spread my arms to show the big triangular sleeves, trimmed with the most beautiful embroidery in gold thread, and I lift the hem to show my scarlet slippers with the upturned toes.

What is a henin, you might ask? According to Wikipedia, “the most extravagant headdress of Burgundian fashion is the hennin, a cone or truncated-cone shaped cap with a wire frame covered in fabric and topped by a floating veil. Later hennins feature a turned-back brim, or are worn over a hood with a turned-back brim. Towards the end of the 15th century women’s head-dresses became smaller, more convenient, and less picturesque.” In other words, a hennin is the cone princess hat that you may remember drawing as a child – my cartoon princesses all had a cone hat with a frilly veil, did yours?

Conical hennins first appeared around 1430, which is where The Lady of the Rivers picks up as well. The veil that flows out of the hennin is called a “cointoise” and could be long enough to fall to a woman’s shoulders, or even all the way to the floor. It was fashionable at the time to shave the forehead to raise the hairline, and to tightly tie up the hair into the hennin, so that it did not appear visible at all.

This is not how Philippa Gregory describes the hennin, but she may have decided that her description is a lot more picturesque, set against a mass of blonde wavy hair, to modern readers. There was often a “frontlet” or a small loop on the front of the hennin, resting on the forehead, which may have been used to easily adjust the hennin or to help keep the hennin in place. You can see an example in the picture above, which is a portrait of Margaret of York, the duchess of Burgundy.

Hennins were worn at an angle, about 45 degrees tilted against the back of the head, and the hennins varied in height. One source says the higher the rank of the wearer, the higher the hennin was, with some measuring over forty-five inches — that’s almost four feet high! Later, ladies started wearing crowns around their hennins as well, and experimenting with different ways to fold the veils and display fabric on the sides of the hennins as well.

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Some additional reading:

Pulitzer Project: The Store, T.S. Stribling (1933)

The Store is the second book in T. S. Stribling’s Vaiden Trilogy. I originally thought I’d try to read the first book too, but I had enough trouble getting on my hands on a copy of this book, that I gave up hope trying to find two Stribling novels! I ultimately was able to borrow a copy of this book from the University of Alabama library, thanks to my dad’s academic credentials there. In full disclosure, I finished this book years ago, but have taken a little break from writing here (didja miss me?)

A Brief Summary: The Store follows Miltiades Vaiden as he reckons with a changing racial and economic landscape. Post Civil War, Vaiden finds himself trying to “find his way” as he loses his job as an overseer of a plantation. The novel is ambitious and covers many hallmarks of Southern life in the 1880s – property disputes, “passing“, the Klan, and an underlying current of racially charged condescension and power dynamics prevail.

Setting: Florence, Alabama

Time Period: 1880s

Fun Fact: T.S. Stribling was the first Tennesseean to win a Pulitzer Prize (although Alabama also likes to take credit for him).

My Thoughts: One thing that struck me about the book was how aware Vaiden was of the power dynamics between Black and white people. He knows that the Black woman that he repeatedly rapes and abuses does not love him, and yet, even though he knows she is powerless to deny him, he turns to her for affection and to confide in her. Some readers may find the book hard to swallow due to interactions like that, or the constant racial slurs and racist remarks throughout the book. And yet, others may defend this as an accurate depiction of the 1880s. I wonder if reading this book when it was published in the 1930s was a very different experience than reading it in now, in the 2020s. While Stribling’s name has faded from the headlines and is now a pretty obscure author, I found this quote (from Wikipedia) which addresses Stribling’s legacy:

“Though not great literary art, Stribling’s trilogy is, nevertheless, historically significant; for in The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, Stribling introduced a subject matter, themes, plot elements, and character types which parallel and at the same time anticipate those that William Faulkner, who owned copies of this trilogy, would treat in Absalom, Absalom! and in the Snopes trilogy.”

James J. Martine, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume Nine

I haven’t read Absalom, Absalom!  yet, although it is on my shelf. I am curious to see the ways that I see Stribling’s work reflected in Faulkner’s.

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I would recommend this book to people who are currently thinking about race — the ways in which progress has been made since the 1880s and the ways in which things are very much the same; to people who, like me, love to read books set in the South and, in particular, in Alabama; to people who don’t mind reading about flawed and infuriating characters.

Extra Curricular:

Summer Camp Series: Mr. Fox

I feel like Helen Oyeyemi‘s work is often described as playful, and Mr. Fox is certainly a collection of games tied in with fairy tales. Suggested related activities:


To Do

Following Mary Foxe, make a list of experiences that are memorable to you or that you still want to experience.

She wanted to experience things; she had a list. She planned to attend a big band concert, and she planned to walk through a field of yellow rapeseed, and she planned to get an injection, and anything else I might recommend.

Browse upscale dining restaurant menus. Maybe when the pandemic is over I will actually go to one of these restaurants for dinner, but until then… I do like a good menu.

Upscale dining near me: Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, Spago by Wolfgang Puck, Il Cielo, and Caulfield’s Bar and Dining Room

I wondered if we could go out to dinner together. Someplace fancy. And if I could wear a nice hat.

Make a paper cutting. I always associate these crafts with fairy tales; they feel whimsical and romantic in a similar way to me.

Sarah Trumbauer; image source here

To Read

For more foxes: “Reynard the Fox“, the epic poem written by Goethe, and the short story Fox 8: a story by George Saunders

For more fairy tales: Sur La Lune collection of fairy/folk tales – what I particularly like about this collection is that it includes stories from non-European origins.

For “hasty women” (the list given in the book): La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, Therese Raquin by Emilie Zola, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Summer Camp Series: Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a great summer book. It follows Kya who lives alone in the marshes along the coast of North Carolina. Here are some activities I thought would be fun for the book. Tell me if you’ve read the book and have any other things in mind.


To Do

Do a little painting. Grab a basic set of acrylics and follow along with “how to paint a swamp

Go birdwatching. Even if you can’t go anywhere, you can try to identify the birds in your neighborhood. Audobon has a phone app for this! Bonus points if you have binoculars.

Visit a marsh. If you can go to one, then pack a little picnic (see more below) and make a day of it. A friend and I put on our masks and visited the freshwater marsh of the Ballona Wetlands. If you live in west LA, I recommend going. We saw some cool birds (including a great egret!) and it was overall really nice and beautiful.


To Bake

Real Deal Southern Caramel Cake – an incredible three layer yellow cake with caramel icing!


Additional Reading

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: if you want more southern lit from a female author. Bonus, it also involves a courtroom scene.

The Bird Artist by Howard Norman: if you want another protagonist who lives in a remote place and paint birds

Bog Girl” by Karen Russell: another female author from the south. A short story set in similar environment, but that’s about where the similarities stop.


To Eat

I saved this section for last because it is the longest. All the food in the book sounds dang good! Here is the menu I would put together from all the dishes mentioned. Choose one or two items from each category for a great picnic!

Basket of breads
cracklin cornbread
hush puppies (serve with honey butter)
yeast rolls
sour cream biscuits (add bacon or jam)

Sides
beans: red, butter, or baked
grits
hoe cakes
deviled eggs
chicken salad
mashed potatoes with red eye gravy
black eyed peas

Veggies
corn fritters
stewed turnips
collard greens
peas in butter
sliced red tomato
mustard greens
coleslaw
summer squash casserole

Entree
pimento cheese sandwich
backbone soup + biscuits
chicken pie
chicken and dumplings
cold fried chicken
chicken fried steak
fried pork chops
fried shrimp
fried fish with black pepper crust
grilled flounder stuffed with shrimp
seafood medley: mussels, oysters
ham trio: salt-cured, molasses, and fried
hot pork sausage

Dessert
banana pudding
peach cobbler
blackberry pie
blackberry cobber
pecan pie
4-layer cake
top any with a scoop of ice cream or hard cream


Summer Camp Series: A Brief History of Seven Killings in Jamaica

By the time you finish “A Brief History of Seven Killings in Jamaica” by Marlon James, you will feel like you have really gone on a journey. This book is not really an easy summer camp kind of book, but it is the book I was reading when I thought to myself, well, I have two more months of summer (school doesn’t start until October on the quarter system) and ??? more months of social distancing. Am I revisiting old hobbies and thinking fondly of better times during Covid times? Yes.

Here are the additional activities I did along/after reading the novel. Comment if you have any ideas to add 🙂


To Eat

Jerk chicken! I ordered from a local restaurant (Janga) and got jerk chicken and an appetizer combo (fried zucchini, jerk wings, plantains, and fried shrimp).

Accompany all this good food with an iced hibiscus tea.


To Read

A Massacre in Jamaica (Mattathias Schwartz, The New Yorker, 2011)
The actual events that occurred after a certain Jamaican drug lord was extradited. It’s a good read.

Tracing Jamaica’s bloody history via A Brief History of Seven Killings (Scott Carey, Medium, 2016)
More on the actual events/people that are incorporated into the novel.

Dark Alliance (Gary Webb, San Jose Mercury News, 1996)
The OG expose linking the CIA to the crack epidemic of the ’80s. Publishing these articles ruined his life.


Consider Watching

I haven’t actually watched either (very short attention span when it comes to TV and movies) but they are related, and I did, ya know, consider it.

Kill the Messenger: (link to trailer) available on Netflix. Jeremy Renner stars as Gary Webb as he researches, writes, and publishes the Dark Alliance articles.

Snowfall: (link to trailer) available on FX and Hulu. Follows the lives of characters living through the crack epidemic in Los Angeles.

Bring Up the Bodies: Some Haiku

We have recently been enjoying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, on audiobook. This is the first time that we’ve actually read (or listened to) the same book at the same time, and it’s been such a juicy, hilarious and infuriating book to discuss. I found myself making up haiku about the various courtiers in Henry VIII’s court, and Kimberly was kind enough to humor me. Here’s the best two that we came up with:

Thomas Wolsey, by Unknown artist, 1589-1595, based on a work of circa 1520 - NPG 32 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Wolsey, Artist Unknown; © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cardinal Wolsey / was fat and wore a red cape / only Tom liked him

 

Jane Seymour, after Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1537 - NPG 7025 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Seymour, after Hans Holbein the Younger; © National Portrait Gallery, London

I won’t open this / letter from you but I will / kiss the envelope

Recommended Reading:

Leave your best Tudorian-inspired haiku in the comments!

 

#21.4 Starting from Paumanok, verse 6

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We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 6 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.

 6
  The soul,
  Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
      than water ebbs and flows.
  I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the
      most spiritual poems,
  And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
  For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and
      of immortality.

  I will make a song for these States that no one State may under any
      circumstances be subjected to another State,
  And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
      night between all the States, and between any two of them,
  And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of
      weapons with menacing points,
  And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
  And a song make I of the One form'd out of all,
  The fang'd and glittering One whose head is over all,
  Resolute warlike One including and over all,
  (However high the head of any else that head is over all.)

  I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
  I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously
      every city large and small,
  And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism
      upon land and sea,
  And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.

  I will sing the song of companionship,
  I will show what alone must finally compact these,
  I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love,
      indicating it in me,
  I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were
      threatening to consume me,
  I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
  I will give them complete abandonment,
  I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
  For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
  And who but I should be the poet of comrades?

I like the appearance of “song” here, because (spoiler alert) the next poem in this book is Song of Myself. I like finding the recurring themes that we’ve been seeing so far – first, Whitman writes to a “certain cantatrice“, and then we have heard America singing, and now, finally, Whitman is starting to sing himself. This entire poem so far seems like it has been a long manifesto of all the things that Whitman intends to make happen – I’m looking forward to getting this show on the road!

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Behind the Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier lincoln in the bardo.jpgthis year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)

Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:

  1. Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
  2. Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
  3. Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
  4. Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
  5. Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
  6. Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo

Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.

willie lincoln

Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)

A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.

Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Additional Reading:

Artists in Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy references a few artists in Far From the Madding Crowd and seems particularly influenced by those in the Dutch Golden age. The Golden age, which spanned the 17th century, paralleled the Baroque movement going on around much of Europe but favored realistic details over idealistic styling. In this time, many believed there was a hierarchy to paintings, listed here in descending order:

  • history paintings
  • portrait paintings
  • genre paintings
  • landscape paintings
  • still life paintings

The Dutch Golden Age saw numerous paintings produced in the “lower” groups. It is fitting that Hardy, who spends much of the novel describing the natural world surrounding his characters and developing his land of Wessex, would mostly reference the landscape artists of this time.

“but the grey, after years of sun and rain, had been scorched and washed out of the more prominent locks, leaving them of a reddish-brown, as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner’s pictures.”

J M W Turner (1775 – 1851) is an English Romanticist landscape painter. Like Hardy, he had a beginning in architecture. Turner is called “the painter of light” and is well known for his maritime scenes. He is also credited with elevating landscape paintings to the same status of historical paintings in his time. Despite the fact that more durable pigments existed at the time, Turner used paint materials that looked pleasing when freshly applied but faded very quickly, which Hardy may have been alluding to in the quote above.

Goldau and Fishermen at Sea

“The beauty her features might have lacked in form was amply made up for by perfection of hue, which at this winter-time was the softened ruddiness on a surface of high rotundity that we meet with in a Terburg or a Gerard Douw; and, like the presentations of those great colourists, it was a face which kept well back from the boundary between comeliness and the ideal.”

Gerard Terburg (also ter Borch) (1617 – 81) is a Dutch painter in Dutch Golden age known for his genre scenes and work with cloth textures. Gerard Douw (also Gerrit Dou) (1613 – 75) is another Dutch painter who lived in the Dutch Golden age. He was a pupil of the renowned Rembrandt and is known for his genre scenes and use of trompe l’oeil and strong chiaroscuro to create 3D forms. (For non-art people like myself, trompe l’oeil is French for “deceive the eye” and refers to creating the optical illusion that the subjects painted exist in 3D by using perspective. Chiaroscuro refers to the technique of using strong contrasts between light and dark tones to create 3D forms via highlights and shadows).

Lady at her Toilette (Terburg) and Girl Chopping Onions (Douw).

“The rain had quite ceased, and the sun was shining through the green, brown, and yellow leaves, now sparkling and varnished by the raindrops to the brightness of similar effects in the landscapes of Ruysdael and Hobbema, and full of all those infinite beauties that arise from the union of water and colour with high lights.”

Jacob van Ruisdael (Ruysdael) (1628 – 82) and Meyndert Hobbema (also Meindert) (1639 – 1709) are both Dutch landscape painters in the Golden age. Hobbema was actually a pupil of Ruisdael, who was considered the landscapist of his time. Ruisdael comes from a family of painters (his father, uncle, and cousin were painters as well). Nearly 700 paintings have been attributed to Ruisdael (though it is difficult to be sure when he and his family all signed using their last names), and his works went on to influence many following movements including the American Hudson River School. Both Ruisdael and Hobbema are known for their extraordinarily detailed portrayals of natural forms.

Landscape with Dune and Small Waterfall (Ruisdael) and Marshy Wood (Hobbema)

“The strange luminous semi-opacities of fine autumn afternoons and eves intensified into Rembrandt effects; the few yellow sunbeams which came through holes and divisions in the canvas, and spirted like jets of gold-dust across the dusky blue atmosphere of haze pervading the tent, until they alighted on inner surfaces of cloth opposite, and shone like little lamps suspended there.”

Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) (also a Dutch painter in the golden age) is the most well known artist that Hardy references. Unlike the other painters on this list, Rembrandt’s works span across all types of paintings, not only landscapes. Known for his use of chiaroscuro, he is sometimes called the King of Shadows.

Philosopher in Meditation and Landscape with a Stone Bridge

#21.3 Starting from Paumanok, verse 5

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We are about 1/4 of the way through Starting from Paumanok. I read verses 3 + 4 last week and am picking up today with verse 5.

5
  Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
  Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
  Language-shapers on other shores,
  Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
  I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left
      wafted hither,
  I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
  Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more
      than it deserves,
  Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
  I stand in my place with my own day here.

  Here lands female and male,
  Here the heir-ship and heiress-ship of the world, here the flame of
      materials,
  Here spirituality the translatress, the openly-avow'd,
  The ever-tending, the finale of visible forms,
  The satisfier, after due long-waiting now advancing,
  Yes here comes my mistress the soul.

If you didn’t believe me last week that America had a weird sibling rivalry with Europe’s literary traditions during this time, do you believe me now? The first half of this verse is describing Europe’s artists, inventors, and language-shapers “on other shores.” Whitman has found it admirable, and admits that he was even a fan for a while, but he thinks “here” (which I think is the U.S.) is where the future is – the “due long-waiting now advancing”.

I am not exactly sure what to make of that last line, “yet here comes my mistress the soul.” Is he saying that the future of art and literature is going to be driven by the soul? Or is America his metaphorical soul-mistress? What are your thoughts?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!