Today I am pondering things. As I finish writing Veleno, a thought has me curious…would the 16th century characters in my novel react the same way to their things as I do with my own in the 21st century? The answer is no, which changes the way I need to write about them and their relationship with their stuff.
There is this scene I recall in the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring. The movie is an artful rendering of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s life at the time when he painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in the 1660s. Now, we aren’t sure who the ‘girl’ in the painting really was, some say one of Vermeer’s 15 children. But for the film, it is portrayed in a romantic way to be one of his household servants.
The scene that struck me entailed Vermeer’s wife Catharina discovering that her husband allowed said servant to wear her pearl earring to pose for this famous painting. Catharina freaks out in an almost animal-like breakdown before her husband. It was an uncomfortable scene that had me wondering…why would she flip out like that? Goodness woman, it’s just an earring! Your husband just borrowed it for his work, which provides your house income!
Now, the actress or director may have been simply illustrating marital jealousy. But I think they were showing us both jealousy and a historically real reaction someone may have had about their things.
As a voracious reader of history, I’m continually discovering how precious, status bearing and sacred personal and household items were for people in previous centuries. Common sense would say that the reason for this is that you couldn’t come by more things all that easily (no chain stores offering cheap deals), and that money was harder to secure.
The real-life Catharina during the 17th century would have had the role of manager of her house. Part of the job was to keep precise inventory of all household belongings. And there would have been far stricter rules about who could use what, many things kept locked up. She’d have been proud and serious about maintaining all boundaries. Plus, ladies of elevated social status didn’t (or legally were not permitted to) earn their own money. She’d be pretty careful with what she personally owned.
Catharina wouldn’t have left her pearls out. She wouldn’t have had many pairs. She would have considered that pair precious and would have ensured it was kept somewhere safe. She would have cared for them, and just owning them would have been lifting to her status…after all, few people could afford pearls and owning them showed her importance.
Though we do see plenty of wealth from history’s aristocrats, I think when we look back in time, we don’t realize how few and far between those cases of utter riches were. When you think of 15th century England, do you imagine knights, lords and ladies? The truth was that it was peasants, peasants and more peasants owning no valuable possessions at all. And even if you had more than others, you still took care of and coveted what you had because that was the culture of the time. It wasn’t just fine gems and good furniture that folks kept a careful eye on either, it was all of their things. Again and again, I trip over inventory lists in my readings. And on those lists are written even the smallest, most mundane things, whether brand-new or used. When was the last time you wrote a list like that? I never have. Why not now…
1 pair $4.99 pharmacy eyeglasses, red plastic rims, scratched in left eye.
1 orange hairbrush, used, a patch of bristles missing.
1 pink toothbrush, used.
2 pair black cotton winter gloves, used, hole in pinky on one.
1 pair brown leather boots, new.
3 decorative cheese plates, chipped.
6 copies of Venice, new.
1 wooden writing desk chair, broken legs.
Tiddo’s (the cat) Inventory:
1 catnip stuffed mouse toy, used.
2 grey cat boxes, used.
1 feather-on-a-stick toy, used.
1 window stool covered in cheetah print faux velvet fabric, used.
Now imagine I kept this list around, and routinely checked if I have what I’m supposed to have and kept my list updated. Everyone would think that I was a weirdo or miserly, or that I seriously have nothing better to do and needed to find a hobby. But in history, my lack of record-keeping would be considered lazy and I, careless for not having higher regard for my things.
This didn’t make them miserly however, it was simply normal and good economy and often a lifesaver. Take for instance Renaissance Venice. [Noblewoman gets married and brings along a portion of wealth with her to the marriage. She cannot legally get a job to earn money. Her husband turns out to be abusive and she is granted a divorce. She can take back what she brought to the marriage and is free to keep it to live on.] This is a good example of why even the quantity of the used linen handkerchiefs she owned, mattered. It could make a difference for her survival.
When reading Casanova’s memoirs, I was baffled to see how often he sold his personal goods to survive from one day to the next. Today, when we trot down to the pawnshop, it is interpreted as humiliating desperation. But back in Casanova’s time, you could resell your belongings for far better returns than you get for used goods today (again because the value of goods was taken more seriously), and it was common, and it was what you did. You wouldn’t throw away a soiled hanky or an undershirt the way we would today, even the worst items were sold to a rag-gatherer.
I’d bet if most of us had a conversation with even our grandparents about reuse, caring for our things, fixing our things, spending, etc., we’d see a generational juxtaposition on this topic. Now imagine the shock someone from some centuries ago, would express at our general waste. My guess is that they’d also be far more territorial over their personal possessions, and for good reason.
This last spring, I lost a gold band set with a pearl and two diamonds. I took it off to wash my hands and left it in my pocket with some tissue. I then forgot and threw away the tissue with the ring (or so is my best guess). I can see Vermeer’s wife Catharina right now. I was very disappointed, but I could see her having an epic outburst over the loss. I don’t think I could get away with that…