Friday, 29 January 2016

Wool and the Ancients. . .

I've been horribly neglectful of this reading project, but am getting slowly back on track now.  I have finished the Greeks and Romans and have curiously come across several references to knitting and wool, which I'd never really associated with ancient classical literature before.  Penelope and her weaving yes, but somehow I'd always thought all those togas were made out of cotton as a more appropriate material for hotter climes.  As it turns out, with a little cursory research, I've learned that one of the most common fabrics used for weaving clothing was wool, although there was no knitting with needles as we know it today, so the term in the texts reflects a very contemporary sensibility in the translation. I used the Loeb Classical library for Aristophanes' Assemblywomen, translated by Jeffrey Henderson.  I looked up a different translation and it used "carding wool" for "knitting" which is probably more accurate.

At any rate, some things never change; knitters will use any spare time to keep their hands busy.  In this comedy, Praxagora has gathered a bunch of women together in the early morning to outline her plan.  They will disguise themselves as men and go to the Assembly where they will then become the majority of members and thus be able to pass a law that the government should be turned over to the women to rule.  One of the women produces a knitting basket: "That's exactly why I brought this along, to get some knitting done while the Assembly's filling up. . . Won't I be able to listen just as well while I knit? And my kids have nothing to wear."  Praxagora gets angry with the woman because if she knits, her gender will be revealed: "Listen to you: knitting!  When you shouldn't be showing any part of your body to the men."

For the Two Menaechmuses by Plautus (the basis for Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors), I also read the Loeb Classical Library edition, this one edited by Wolfgang De Melo.  In one scene an old man warns his daughter to stop complaining about her husband's bad behaviour, including sleeping with the prostitute next door and stealing her clothes: "Do you demand that men should be your slaves? By the same token you could demand to give him something to spin, to tell him to sit among the slave girls, and to card the wool." This activity is clearly one that men would find humiliating to do; there are certainly gender and class associations with the processing of wool and clothing in these ancient times, perhaps not that different from more modern stereotypes.

Onwards to the medieval and Renaissance periods, mostly English drama, where I fully expect there will be more references to sheep and all things wool.

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