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Shepherds Purse: Initial Stimulus and Data

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Spot interesting observation

In this case, my first spark of interest in the topic is recorded in a sketch I made from a tapestry I saw in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1981.

It's a habit of mine to carry a sketchbook when traveling -- it usually turns into a combination diary - accountbook - "shapshot" album - research notebook. Since I am not, by habit, a photographer, when I visit museums I tend to make annotated detail sketches of interesting features, supplemented by commercial images (postcards, slides, publications, etc.). I find this helps sharpen my observation, as well as giving me a chance to point out details that may not be as obvious in the available commercial images (or may not be available as commercial images). I was interested in costumes -- particularly unusual or vivid costume details -- and clearly the Shepherds Purse in this work caught my imagination at the time. Then I forgot about it. In fact, at the time I made the sketches, I took only very vague notes as to the identity of the work -- I had to interpolate later to figure out which museum I had seen it in. (I'm not offering this behavior as a model!)

Compare with current knowledge

At the time that I first noted this object, I really didn't have sufficient background of knowledge to understand it in context. I filed it away and noticed it occasionally when I had other reasons to go through my old sketchbook. Many years passed, and then in the context of a question about the Rennaissance Faire custom of hanging tankards and other random objects off the belt, I recalled this sketch and went back to look at it.

Having, in the mean time, spent a lot more time studying historic costume, I had a better context for noticing how unusual the pouches in this tapestry appeared -- both in their general structure, and in having the attached tools. (The attached tool motif was a relatively large part of my initial curiosity in this field.) There was also a bit of a modern angle: the functional similarity between these pouches and the modern "fanny pack" (yes, I know this name is rude in some dialects of English, but it's the normal name for the object in my dialect) struck me as amusing, and I got to thinking about the functional parallels and why this particular style of carrying mechanism might be used in preference to others. (For example, I won't normally carry a purse or shoulder bag, largely because they tend to get in the way, are accessible to snatch-and-grab muggers, and distort my posture. I will habitually use both a fanny pack and a small backpack for the comparable reasons. Might medieval people also have had personal or occupational reasons for carrying things in a particular way?)

Once I'd re-examined my original sketches, it brought to mind other, similar objects I could remember seeing. But none of them satisfactorily addressed the question of how common or typical it would have been for a medieval or Renaissance person to have worn such things as tankards from a belt. And having realized how unusual the "medieval fanny pack" style now appeared to me, I was curious to know whether this was an isolated example or whether it was a common artifact. And -- I confess -- I was wondering whether it was a style that would be compatible with my SCA persona.

Decide to explore further

When the Shepherds Purse again came to my attention, I was in a much better position to investigate it further. My personal library now included a lot more general and focused books on medieval art and artifacts. I was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley with access to a world-class university library. And I had a more substantial level of general background knowledge to work from. I was ripe to explode into a research project.

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