03 September, 2009

Spinning in the Poem The Faerie Queene

There's this very long poem published in 1596 called The Faerie Queene written by a man who for a long time was as famous as Shakespeare. In the poem there are descriptions of clothes, tapestry, and spinning.

Here's the bit about spinning. Our hero Sir Artegall has just been thrown in prison.

Note that the language is deliberately archaic even for 1596, and the text is typeset with v's where you'd expect u's and a few other spelling oddities.

If you want a version that's a little easier to read, I recommend you get the one edited by Hamilton (who's Canadian by the way) and look up Book V of The Faerie Queene, Canto V, stanza 22 and part of stanza 23.
There entred in, he round about him saw
Many braue knights, whose names right well he knew,
There bound t'obay that Amazons proud law,
Spinning and carding all in comely rew,
That his bigge hart loth'd so vncomely vew.
But they were forst through penurie and pyne,
To doe those workes, to them appointed dew:
For nought was giuen them to sup or dyne,
But what their hands could earne by twisting linnen twyne.

Amongst them all she placed him most low,
And in his hand a distaffe to him gaue,
That he thereon should spin both flax and tow;
A sordid office for a mind so braue.
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J.C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 297, 298.

Spenser holds very definite opinions on gender roles and the value of spinning. If you didn't catch it, the four lines that start "But they were forst..." mean that the prisoners didn't get anything to eat except what they earned by spinning. Spencer presents spinning as degrading forced labour to make his point about the unsuitability of Artegall's subjection to a warrior queen because he's a guy and she's a girl. This assertion is all the more interesting given that Spencer's entire poem is about Elizabeth I, his sovereign.* A few lines later the author carefully points out that his opinions are no reflection on her since she rules by hereditary right.

Spencer uses the word distaff, which leads me to think he means a distaff and drop spindle. (In my post Quibble, in paragraph seven I go over how distaff used to mean distaff and spindle as opposed to a wheel.)

Why Spenser should use the word carding, I'm not sure. As far as I know linen is only hackled (combed) and its strands are too long to card.

I am surprised Spenser only mentions spinning flax and tow, and not wool, given the importance of wool to England's economy in his lifetime. However, wool was an export commodity back then, processed on the Continent, and perhaps Spenser only saw domestic production of linen. It's also possible he wasn't very familiar with spinning at all and only included this scene to make a point and to add colour. It's also possible that he deliberately chose linen only because he set the poem in King Arthur's day before the rise of massive wool cash crops. (Or do I mean its rise again? Didn't the Romans raise sheep for wool in ancient Britain? Anyway.)


*In a bit of symmetry, Hamilton sweetly and self-consciously dedicated his annotated edition of Spenser's The Faerie Queene to our sovereign, Elizabeth II.

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