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The Shepherds Purse: Introduction

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This article serves two purposes: to explore the nature of a particular historic concept, and to discuss the research process itself. The research concerns a type of object that shows up regularly in medieval and Renaissance art in Western Europe, and especially centered in France and the Low Countries. Rather than being a specific, single type of object, as it turns out it is a cluster of different types of objects that are related by an overall "gestalt appearance" -- that is, they give the same immediate visual impression, and appear to be shaped by similar functional needs, even though the specific structures involved may be unrelated. (This feature turned out to be one of the more interesting aspects of my research.)

This "type group" as identified and described in my research I have labeled the "Shepherds Purse", and whenever that name is used (in capitalized form) in this article, I'm talking about the group of artifacts that fall within the identified "gestalt". This is, of course, somewhat circular and self-referential. I hope that, after examining the evidence, the reader will come to agree with me that there is a stylistic concept here to which it is valid to give a unifying name.

The particular name "Shepherds Purse" is not my own invention, of course -- it's the name of a type of wild plant, named after the shape of the seed-pods (which, however, are an entirely different shape from the “shepherd's purse” of this article!).

A note on the illustrations: My original intent was to replace all the scanned artwork with re-drawings, in order to be scrupulous about copyright. As it became clear that this goal would prevent me from ever getting the article on-line at all, I hope that I will be forgiven the lapse in the name of research.

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