Communicating without words: Historical tidbits #1

I write historical fiction, which means I spend a lot of time researching the way people lived their lives in, say, 1632 Holland, or 1936 Spain, or 1880 Guadeloupe. As L. P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." There may be more commonalities than differences in our shared humanity across the years, but I find comfort in the uniqueness of a particular era. Maybe because it suggests the uniqueness of our own times -- and thus, ourselves. So here is one in an irregular series of historical tidbits from my research.

Four hundred years ago, most people weren't literate. They might be able to puzzle out the alphabet, or scratch their name onto a document, but that would be the extent of it. In 17th century Holland, school was more like daycare for children, a place for their parents to leave them as soon as they were weaned and walking, and the beleaguered master or mistress had to manage them all. Children aged three to seven attended infant school, then they were passed off for five more years of primary school. Both boys and girls attended, and neither learned much, though apparently the boys faced slightly stiffer expectations. 

I suspect the situation was worse elsewhere in Europe and certainly in the European colonies. Parents needed children to work, and few had the resources to allow those littlest workers to invest in their own futures for fifteen or twenty years.

So yeah, many people couldn't read much. But they still needed to communicate beyond face-to-face conversation. Writing has the advantage of permanence and portability; before recording, speech was neither. So naturally, people resorted to images. (*I don't want to overstate the case. Certainly there were many literate Dutch citizens, as evidenced by the relatively robust publishing industry of the 16th and 17th centuries.)

In some Dutch towns, the birth of a baby was announced with a small placard made of wood and covered in red silk, trimmed with lace. For a girl baby, the proud parents would place a square of white paper of the center of the board. Stillbirths were announced with black silk (or linen, for poor families), instead of red. Twins, naturally, had two placards. 

Babies weren't the only things that needed announcing. People had to have a way of finding the right store they sought, even if they were new to town. So, in a precursor to today's branding, different types of stores labeled themselves in different ways. An apothecary would hang a stuffed crocodile outside the door. A craft guild (say, St. Luke's guild for painters and silversmiths) would display its emblem and heraldry on the exterior facade of its guildhall in a public demonstration of guild strength and contribution to the town's prosperity. (I've used quite a few of these images in my novel about artist Judith Leyster.)

Criminals' bodies left to rot in the elements, swinging from the trees, were an eloquent way of expressing the consequences of disobeying the law. So too the heads of traitors left on London Bridge in England -- and I suspect seeing those reminders kept the stories circulating. A new visitor to town is sure to ask how that not-yet-decomposed body got himself into so much trouble.

Even the signature economic craze of 17th century Holland was an effort to communicate without words: the tulip. Owning a tulip and letting it flower was an incredible, ostentatious display of wealth. The highest reliably documented price paid for a single tulip bulb was 5200 guilders, and other less prized tulips still went for hundreds and thousands of guilders, at a time when eight fat pigs were 240 guilders, two hogsheads of wine were 70 guilders, a silver drinking cup was 60 guilders, and a ship (yes, a ship!) was 500 guilders.

Interestingly, clothing in the United Provinces (today's Netherlands) during the first half of 17th century was not used much as a means of communication. Reportedly, the mistress and the servant would be nearly indistinguishable in their humble brown dresses. Protestant modesty prohibited flashy clothes, at least for a time. Eventually, it seems, people couldn't help but express themselves, and skirts got brighter and doublets more colorful.

I could go on -- paintings alone were a major method of communicating using known iconography. Even the way a figure posed or splayed his legs told the savvy viewer something about the artist's intention. But that's enough for now. Certainly the advent of wider literacy doesn't preclude the use of communicating with images. We do that every day, with baby photos on Facebook or brand symbols on our jeans. Though I'm still waiting to see CVS switch its logo to a stuffed crocodile.


Daily Life in Rembrandt's Holland, by Paul Zumthor, Trans. Simon Watson Taylor

Tulipomania, by Mike Dash

Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries, Ed. Prak, Lis, Lucassen, and Soly

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