Jousting with Distaffs and Other Women Tilting in the Margins

Yesterday my husband showed me a post that included an image of a woman jousting with a distaff, but the manuscript from which the image came was not identified, so of course I needed to find it. The image comes from Beinecke MS 229, on 329r. It is a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300.

Beinecke MS 229 329r, a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300 There is a similar image in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 95, 226r. It is also a French Arthurian romance, from 1201-1300.

BnF 95, Arthurian romance, French 1201-1300

Another example from about 200 years later is an engraving by Master ES of a wild man and wild woman. This German print from 1450-1467 is in the British Museum (1842,0806.38).

British Museum 1842,0806.38, engraving, Print made by: Master ES, German, 1450-1467

There is also a monk and a nun jousting (not using a distaff) on Beinecke MS 229 100v. I think there is one other image of jousting with a distaff in this manuscript but I didn’t notice it. [Update: I think the other image is the one above from BnF 95.]

Beinecke MS 229 100v, a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300

This manuscript has loads of other great images, such as this one, on 253r of a woman spinning. The interface is a bit annoying, but it is great Yale has made it available with high quality scans.

Beinecke MS 229 253r, a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300 I’m sure there are plenty more images of jousting with a distaff, but these were all I could easily find. If I run across more I’ll add them to this post.


There is another example of jousting with distaffs in Bibliotheque Arsenal, Li queste del S. Graal [La quête du Saint-Graal], MS 5218, 10r, a French manuscript from 1381

Bibliotheque Arsenal MS 8, Li queste del S. Graal, French, 1351, 10rOne more example of a woman jousting (but without a distaff) is in the British Museum, Yates Thompson MS 8, The Breviary of Marguerite de Bar, on f224 (French, between 1302 and 1303). It doesn’t look like this has been digitized yet, but there is a black and white reproduction in The Role of Woman in Middle Ages, edited by Rosmarie Thee Morewedge on page 176.


The Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B VII) has an image on f.197v. This manuscript is from England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?) between 1310 and 1320.

Royal 2 B VII   f. 197v   Women jousting

Princeton University Art Museum’s MS 44-18, f20 has a picture of a knight and a woman tilting. I have not been able to find any reproduction of this image. MS 44-18 is an hours  from Maastricht, 13th-14th centuries.

Update 3:

Thanks to a comment on this post, I learned of another occurrence. The 15th century Chroniques by Jean Froissart, MS Français 2644 in the Bibliothèque nationale, has two monkeys jousting, one with a distaff, on  f85r.

Chroniques sire JEHAN FROISSART, Français 2644, f85r

Decretals of Gregory IX

Yesterday I saw a picture on Twitter which I did not recall seeing previously. It is from the Decretals of Gregory IX, Royal MS 10 E IV, c 1300-c 1340. The tweet said it was a woman carding (which came from text the tweeter read about the image). However, it looks like wool combing to me. I wanted to find the picture and so looked through the British Library site to find the image. British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 138r

It is part of a sequence of a marginal scenes of the type miscellaneous tales and connected scenes, “A housewife sets tasks for her husband or lover; possibly a variant of the Wright’s Chaste Wife (ff. 137r-148r)”. The Wright’s Chaste Wife includes fiber preparation and spinning but of flax, not of wool. There are two wool combining images; the other images in this sequence are of carding and spinning wool. The British Library site says “The manuscript’s decoration was executed in two phases.  Phase 2 includes … more than 600 bas-de-page narrative scenes in colours added in London, probably on the request of John Batayle, a canon of St Bartholomew’s at Smithfield.” The first four images (137r-138v) seem less connected to the Wright’s Chaste Wife because it seems like two women are in the pictures.

British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 138vThese two images precede the above images. These show a great/walking/wool wheel and carding wool.British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 137r British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 137vI  have previously seen several of these images, which come after the two combing pictures. I didn’t notice any drop spindles, which is what would have been used for the combed wool.

British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 139r

British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 139vBritish Library Royal MS 10 E IV 140v British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 141v British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 142r British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 142v British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 143r British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 146r British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 147r British Library Royal MS 10 E IV 147v

The Wright’s Chaste Wife can be read in various places online, including the University of Rochester’s Middle English Text Series and Project Gutenberg (both editions include notes to help clarify the text). Some of the fiber related sections follow, from the Middle English Text Series

Line 214-231, swingling or scutching to prepare the flax for spinning (by the Lord so he can get his dinner)

For I have both hempe and lyne,
And a betyngstocke fulle fyne,
And a swyngylle good and grete;
If thou wylt worke, tell me sone.”
“Dame, bryng yt forthe, yt schalle be done,
Fulle gladly would I ete.”
Sche toke the stocke in her honde,
And into the pytt sche yt schlang
Wyth a grete hete:
Sche brought the lyne and hempe on her backe,
“Syr lord,” sche seyd, “have thou that,
And lerne for to swete.”
Ther sche toke hym a bonde
For to occupy hys honde,
And bade hym fast on to bete.
He leyd yt downe on the stone,
And leyd on strockes welle good wone,
And sparyd nott on to leyne.

Line 374-396, more swingling, by the steward

Butt thou wylt helpe to dyght this lyne,
Much hungyr yt schalle be thyne
Though thou make much mone.”
Up he rose, and went therto,
“Better ys me thus to doo
Whyle yt must nedys be do.”
The stuard began fast to knocke,
The wyfe threw hym a syngelyng stocke,
Hys mete therwyth to wyn;
Sche brought a swyngylle at the last,
“Good syres,” sche seyd, “swyngylle on fast;
For nothing that ye blynne.”
Sche gave hym a stocke to sytt uppon,
And seyd, “Syres, this werke must nedys be done,
Alle that that ys here yn.”
The stuard toke up a stycke to saye,
“Sey, seye, swyngylle better yf ye may,
Hytt wylle be the better to spynne.”

Lines 504-521, spinning stricks of line flax, by proctor

The good wyfe rawte hym a rocke,
For therto hadde sche nede.
Sche seyd, “Whan I was mayde att home,
Other werke dowde I do none
My lyf therwyth to lede.”
Sche gave hym in hande a rocke hynde,
And bade hem fast for to wynde
Or ellys to lett be hys dede.
“Yes, dame,” he seyd, “so have I hele,
I schalle yt worke both feyre and welle
As ye have taute me.”
He wavyd up a strycke of lyne,
And he span wele and fyne
Byfore the swyngelle tre.
The lord seyd, “Thou spynnest to grete,
Therfore thou schalt have no mete,
That thou schalt well see.”
Thus they satt and wrought fast
Tylle the weke dayes were past.

Lines 522-531, when the husband returns home, the three men sent to tempt his wife are processing linen for her:

Then the wryght, home came he,
And as he cam by hus hows syde
He herd noyse that was not ryde
Of persons two or thre;
One of hem knockyd lyne,
Anothyr swyngelyd good and fyne
Byfore the swyngylle tre,
The thyrde did rele and spynne,
Mete and drynke therwyth to wynne,
Gret nede therof hadde he.

A Reply to the “Knitting Mania”

I happened to see this in my work twitter feed:

So of course I needed to find the whole poem. “The Knitting Mania” has been transcribed by The Knitting Genealogist. The original can be found in the Gale database 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II. (Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, December 11, 1847; pg. 7; Issue 1269. Sourced from the British Library. Gale Document Number: R3208548744).

[After I posted this, I learned from meta-cat that it was reprinted in the “latest issue of Knitting Traditions, a Piecework special issue from Interweave Press.”]

A response was published a few weeks later, which I have transcribed below.

Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian (Southampton, England), Saturday, January 01, 1848; pg. 7; Issue 1272. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II. Sourced from the British Library. Gale Document Number: R3208786495

A Reply to the “Knitting Mania,”

My knitting friends have taken, sir, a great offence I find.
At these remarks addressed to them—they think them most unkind;
And have requested me to write immediately, through you,
A short reply to him, and all the “anti-knitters” too.

The nobler sex (?) may smoke cigars as often as they please,
And waste their time and money in such low pursuits as these;
And yet the innocent employ of knitting they condemn,
And women must not work in peace without consulting them.

But while this grumbling brother tries his sisters to deride,
I fancy all the industry exists upon their side;
I don’t suppose he works too much, or else he would not feel
So sadly vex’d and discomposed at their perpetual zeal.

And after all, why does he thus the “knitting mania” blame?
Is it that women ought to have a nobler work and aim?
Is it that they should cultivate their minds with ardent care,
And of the wealth of intellect possess their proper share?

Ah, no! such blessed truths as these to him are dull and dim;
He murmurs that they do not knit nice comforters for him!
He frets because a button is not always in its place;
Oh! selfishness is plainly stamp’d on his fault-finding face.

I speak with boldness, sir, because I am myself exempt
From this sad knitting which excites our poet’s stern contempt;
I mention this to prove I am a fitting judge in strife
And not to recommend myself as his appropriate wife.

His wife! oh no! I’d rather be unmarried all my days,
Or practice knitting till I won all his four sisters’ praise,
Then wed myself with one who deems that women’s loveliness
Consists in mending day by day his articles of dress!

Pray, Mr. Editor, can you reveal this grumbler’s name?
I have no doubt he kept it back for very fear and shame;
Ladies, whether they knit or not, such cowardice detest,
And therefore I subscribe myself,

Yours truly,
Katherine West

Skein, Hank and Ball

When reading Yarnplay last night, I noticed that the author (Lisa Shobhana Mason) defined the term skein differently than I think of it (from my spinning background). Today at lunch, SS used the terms skein, hank and ball in the exactly the same way as Mason.

A hank is yarn that’s been loosely looped and then twisted and tied. It must be wound into a ball before you can knit with it. You can wind it by hand or with a swift and ball winder.
A skein of yarn is oblong in shape, and the free end is usually drawn from its center, which keeps the yarn from rolling around.
A ball of yarn is, well, a ball. It’s round, and the free end is usually on the outside, which means it will do a fair bit of rolling.

Most balls that I am familiar with are actually center pull and made with a ball winder or nostepinne, but basically I agree with the definition. I have also been seeing the term “yarn cakes” applied to the thing that comes off a ball winder.

I don’t exactly disagree with the term “hank,” but it isn’t a term I use. Instead, I call these things skeins because they are made with a skein winder (or a niddy noddy).

The OED does not give very different definitions of skein and hank. I believe the main difference is an Old French or Norse origin of the terms.

skein, n. [ad. OF. escaigne (1354 in Godefroy; mod.Picard dial. écaigne, écagne), of obscure origin. Cf. med.L. scagna (1294 in Du Cange).]
1. a. A quantity of thread or yarn, wound to a certain length upon a reel, and usually put up in a kind of loose knot. A skein of cotton consists of eighty turns of the thread upon a reel fifty-four inches in circumference.

hank, n. [Found in 14th c.; app. from Norse: cf. ON. hnk fem. (:*hanku), genit. hankar hank, coil, skein, clasp; also hanki m., the hasp or clasp of a chest; Sw. hank m., string, tie-band, rowel; Da. hank handle (as of a basket), ear of a pot.]
1. A circular coil or loop of anything flexible.
2. A skein or coil of thread, yarn, etc.; a definite length of yarn or thread in a coil. A hank of cotton yarn contains 840 yds.; of worsted yarn 560 yds. to make a ravelled hank, to entangle a skein hence fig. ‘to put anything into confusion’ (Brockett).

This definition of skein obviously doesn’t match everyone’s common usage. Perhaps this means I should avoid the word skein and use instead use the term hank.

That leaves the question of what to call an oblong machine wound length of yarn that can be pulled from the center. I don’t think it is a skein, but some people call it a skein. I call it a ball, but it isn’t exactly globular, which is the OED definition for a ball (A globular mass formed by winding thread, a clew or clue. L. glomus.) I think we need a new term for this thing.

And because I care about the historical usage of terms, here are some excerpts from an article which just adds another term (lea) to the whole hank/skein issue.

A Tale Untangled: Measuring the Fineness of Yarn
Author: Biggs, Norman
Source: Textile History, Volume 35, Number 1, May 2004, pp. 120-129(10)
DOI: 10.1179/004049604225015701

An Act of 1610 (7 James I c.7) concerning the wool trade in Essex mentions a
‘Reele Contayning Two Yards about’, and the worsted weavers of Norwich and
Norfolk gave more details in a petition, laid before the Privy Council in 1616:

a paire of iron pinnes were driven into a post at half a yearde distance, for measuring the said yearne, and . . . every rowlestaffe of yearne (as they terme it) did containe a sett number of threades . . .

From this, and other contemporary documents, such as those listed by Kerridge, we may conclude that the system was as follows. The yarn was wound around two nails fixed in a piece of wood, known as a reel-staff. The unit was called a thread, a certain number of threads forming a continuous piece was a lea (or cut), and a certain number of leas bundled together was a hank (or skein).

In 1630 the Privy Council sanctioned a settlement that specified that ‘as hath beene accustomed’ yarn should be measured by a ‘Reelstaffe being a full yard about, and conteyninge fourteen leys and every ley forty threads’. This wording almost certainly implies a thread of one yard, a lea of 40 yards and a hank of 14 x 40 =560 yards.

But the fineness of cotton yarn was important before the introduction of the machines, and John Wyatt’s investigations in London in 1739–43 provide ample evidence of this. Wyatt uses the word skein, but he remarks that ‘hank is another word for skein’. He speaks of coarse yarns at ‘12 skeins per lb’ and discovered that more was paid for yarns ‘above twenty-four’.

A few other interesting bits can be found in

British and American yarn count systems: an historical analysis by David J. Jeremy The Business History Review Vol. 45, No. 3, Autumn, 1971 pp. 336-368

It was important to know how much yarn one was buying, so some consistency was important. The reel size was variable, but it seems to be limited by what one person can easily hold, or 3 yards. The tensile strength also went into the reel size, with some weaker yarns having a smaller reel. Other factors that the effected how much yarn was wound onto a reel include the fineness, ability to count easily (larger reel so fewer revolutions) and the ability to easily measure various lengths (1/4 yard multiples). It was also important to be able to load the skein winder/reel smoothly and without distortion, about 200-300 strands depending on the thickness.