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Shepherds Purse: Questioning the Results

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What do you have?

Start figuring out what you "know", based on your data. Try to be careful not to jump from strict observation to interpretation at this point.

Play with the analytic record of your data and begin descriptive analysis

Make sure your analytic record -- the one that keeps track of the characteristics of each example you've found -- is up to date, and start seriously putting it through its paces. Sort it on each factor, then on combinations of factors and see what sorts of patterns fall out. Some of the things that started showing up were the association of the netted-crescent style of bag with the 15th century, and the flapped style with attached tools with the 16th century. Beyond that, I started getting a sense of the respective proportions of various sub-types of bag, and of the associated objects.

Look for general background discussions on aspects of your topic that may help interpret the material

This, I have yet to do. I have a few leads on historic studies of medieval shepherds. Contemporary works that talk about what sorts of equipment and tools a shepherd might be expect to carry on the job would also help provide a context. For that matter, simply finding someone who has studied the topic of shepherds in medieval art would be useful. Some of these may exist -- so far I've been concentrating on digging up more artistic representations, so I haven't been putting much energy into the background angle.

Continue looking for existing discussions of your phenomenon

From the point of view of knowledge, the ideal result would be to discover that someone else has already done the exhaustive study of Shepherds Purses -- but that wouldn't be as much fun! Most research questions involve a complex and branching set of topics, however, and to get meaningful results in a reasonable amount of time, it will help not to re-invent all four wheels of your wagon. For example, if you're studying 14th century German pottery, even if nobody has written on that particular topic, you will find something on medieval pottery. If you're studying a particular clothing style, looking at how people have studied other clothing styles will help, even if their information isn't directly applicable.

This is time to check that you have complete data on all your instances -- you may need to re-find things and re-gather info

Organize your data and make sure you've got everything you'll need when you present your work. Your rule of thumb should be that anyone could duplicate your data, if they really wanted to. Make sure that you have kept track of what information is "fact" (or at least, is found in your references as fact) and what is your interpretation or hypothesis. For example, a number of the art works that I use didn't come with specific dating information in the sources I used, but I have usually been able to offer an approximate date by comparing the style with that of other, dated works. In my reference pages, I've indicated this and the basis for my approximations, but then in the various analyses of material by date, I simply use my estimates.

What don't you have?

Before trying to understand the data, you need to figure out what sort of essential information you may still be missing. In this case, the most important thing I'm missing are actual concrete examples of the artifact.

What patterns are there to the edges and holes?

The geographic scope of the examples are consistent with a center to the distribution in France and the Low Countries, with a much smaller number (and less typical) examples in regions bordering that area. (This could be explained either in terms of the spread of the use of an actual artifact, or in terms of the spread of an artistic style.) The relative shapness of the temporal "edges" correlates with changes in overall artistic styles, but those changes in turn correspond to larger social changes that might reasonably be reflected in artifact styles as well. The distribution of the various sub-styles of Shepherds Purse is not sharply clear-cut, but might reasonably correspond to stylistic changes in an artifact, rather than random pockets of different representations.

The pattern is clearest in terms of who is using the Shepherds Purse: people clearly portrayed as shepherds (identified by the genre context or by the presence of sheep), people carrying other accoutrements closely associated with shepherds (such as characteristic styles of staff, or bagpipes), or much more rarely with swineherds (identified by the presence of their pigs), having in common an occupation involving wandering from place to place tending to animals as they feed. (The one example of a reaper, in the background of a sheep-shearing scene, with a Shepherds Purse seems to be an isolated anomaly.)

What other phenomena in the context might affect the recording or survival of the topic?

There are plenty of factors that affect whether the data even exists to observe. I've previously discussed changes in artistic styles ("realistic" versus classical) and regional differences in what religious genres were popular in art. In some countries, the reformation had an effect both on what types of genres were chosen, and what types of objects were created. A variety of historical forces might have affected the survival of particular types of art. In England, the reformation and the dissolution of various religious houses dispersed the contents of a number of major libraries, often resulting the contents being lost. Particular schools of art (often geographically-based) might be more highly valued, and thus their works more often protected and preserved. For that matter, given that I'm researching primarily from published material, differences in the extent to which a particular culture's artistic efforts have been studied and published will affect whether I had access to them.

Often, survey collections focus on the most flashy and spectacular artifacts, limiting access to what might be more "typical" everyday objects. Different collections also may be more or less open to having their property used in publications -- so that often the same small set of objects are repeated time and again across multiple publications. Publications based on the collections of a single institution may be skewed in coverage based either on the explicit interests of the institution or on accidents of the collection's history.

In trying to track down possible examples in south-eastern Europe, it became clear that repeated and long-term political turmoil in the region had contributed to loss and damage to much of what might have been produced there. One of the available sources was church wall-paintings, many of which were in extremely bad condition, both from simple deterioration and from deliberate vandalism.

What other phenomena in the context might affect the existence of the topic?

Separate from factors affecting whether potential representations of the artifact might have survived, there's the question of what factors might affect its existence and use in the first place. Given that the style is associated with shepherds, one obvious question is whether sheep husbandry was a significant factor in a region -- and if it was, how patterns of care may have differed. If shepherds use this style while reapers don't because of the different patterns of work involved, then a different enough pattern of caring for sheep might affect the potential for use of the Shepherds Purse style.

One of my hypotheses is that the convergence (or at least parallelism) of the various sub-styles of Shepherds Purse is a "form follows function" effect, but I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that this is the only possible stylistic response to the needs of a shepherd. It seems likely that there is also a "contamination" effect, where familiarity with one sub-style makes it more likely for another sub-style to converge to a similar shape. So another bar to the existence of the Shepherds Purse style in a region might be lack of cultural contact with regions where it was already in use. So, for example, I wouldn't necessarily expect the style to show up in Russia if there weren't a continuous pattern of use across all of Germany, Poland, and the Baltic region.

What solid information about your topic do you have?

This is where a detailed descriptive catalog of what my search turned up comes in. It will be given in detail in the Description section. There is no such thing as too much detail -- you never know what your users may find useful or intriguing.

What information are you confident of inferring?

Now you can begin adding analysis to your basic observations. Here is one place where the non-photographic nature of medieval art is useful. If some detail is present in the depiction, it is there because the artist deliberately placed it there for some purpose. And while you need to be cautious, you can reasonably suppose that there's a meaningful purpose to how the object is portrayed. So, for example, the large number of pouches depicted with a hatchwork design suggest that this is not an isolated decorative motif, but probably reflects some sort of important integral structure. Two possible sources of that design suggest themselves from observation: netting, or a checkered cloth cut on the bias. The presence of objects that are clearly netting in connection with shepherds pushes the interpretation towards that side.

Similarly, when a painting is done in an extremely detailed pictorial style, as with the Portinari Adoration, it is a reasonable interpretation that the objects in it, depicted in a high level of realistic detail, are being worked from life -- while reserving judgment as to whether those "real" objects were in actual everyday use by shepherds.

While details may be glossed over (with sketchy representations) or omitted, it is reasonable to assume that any details that are depicted more likely than not existed on the artifact. So, for example, while the belt-fastening method is not shown for the vast majority of the pouches, when we see a sketchily-indicated buckled strap, as in the Bedford Hours, it is a reasonable assumption that some Shepherds Purses, at least, were fastened with buckled straps.

There are even more basic inferences. The rounded shape of the artifact is assumed to indicate some sort of internal contents -- this is a more plausible interpretation than that the object is a padded, decorative belt. The association of the pouch type with artistic representations of shepherds suggests that, at least at some point in time, something resembling it was associated (at least in the artists' minds) with shepherds, even if that association in real life did not correspond precisely to its appearance in art. There are plenty of other iconic ways of indicating that a figure in art is a shepherd (e.g., sheep, shepherds' staffs) that are much more directly recognizable. It seems a reasonable inference that the artistic motif of the Shepherds Purse did not originate as an iconic identification, although it may well have developed into one at some point.

What information do you feel you are lacking for a useful analysis?

Too many of the depictions are lacking in detail to be confident of interpreting their construction -- particularly in the earlier manuscript material. And some of the tapestry depictions of the crescent-shaped style strike me as being over-stylized, and so perhaps not a reflection of actual construction. With one exception, we don't see the pouches being interacted with as pouches -- we don't see their wearers in the process of placing things in them or taking things out. We don't see anyone in the process of putting one on. We don't see what the contents might be.

The sketchiness and potential stylization of the depictions raises the age-old question: do I try to "make it look like the picture", or do I assume that the picture is itself an approximation and aim for an interpretation that seems to proceed naturally from the properties of the (assumed) materials and the nature of the (assumed) precursors?

Only vague indications of material are given. The prevalence of white pouches suggests linen as a possible material, but there are regular examples of brown-colored pouches, and a few more colorful examples. In some cases, the colorful versions may be artistic license -- the examples in Stowe MS 955 seem a good candidate for this interpretation. But the nature of the artistic medium makes a clear indication of the material impossible.

What sorts of finds might supply the latter?

Obviously, a survival of an actual artifact would be great, although given the variety of sub-styles depicted, it might only answer the questions for one version. Absent that, depictions of some of the interactive possibilities mentioned above would be nice. Close-up depictions from a period when the art had become more sophisticated and more "photographic" in detail would answer some questions. In some cases, simply having a picture of a work at a higher level of detail or resolution might answer some questions.

What is your likelihood of finding them?

More detailed versions of known works of art are the most certainly available. But given the overall lack of interactive scenes, finding more of those seems unlikely -- it simply doesn't appear to be part of the genre. Given the overlap between more "photographic" painting styles and the appearance of Shepherds Purses at least in tapestries, it seems quite possible that there are more detailed paintings waiting to be found. An actual archaeological survival, on the other hand, seems unlikely. Given the social status of the wearers, the likelihood that a Shepherds Purse would be included either in a well-preserved burial, or as a deliberate preservation (as with saints' relics) seems vanishingly small. And if I'm correct that linen is the most common material (the netted bags are also most likely to be made of vegetable fiber), then the available preservation conditions in the region where the artistic style is found militate against chance survivals in casual deposits.

What might you get?

At some point, you need to ask yourself if there are any good sources of information that you haven't tapped into yet.

Are there people or institutions you might correspond with about your questions?

If your artifact is concentrated in one particular region, or especially at one particular institution, you should consider contacting them for further information. This is more likely to be useful for material culture than for art -- the curator of a museum is unlikely to have detailed knowledge of the contents of the paintings he holds. But the people in charge of an archaeological site would almost certainly be able to give you pointers to specialists working on particular objects from their site.

The most important rule to observe here is to approach these people only when you have exhausted what you can discover on your own. You should have clear and specific questions -- not just a request for "everything you know about X". You should summarize the publications and other materials you have already had access to. And you should be aware (and make it clear you are aware) that you are asking a serious favor that would have to be worked into an already busy schedule. If you are corresponding with someone who most likely speaks a different language, consider it your job to accomodate the language issues. (If you write in English to someone who isn't fluent in English, your request may simply be ignored.) Try to find someone with at least school-level fluency in your correspondent's language to help you compose your request -- apologize for your deficiencies in the language. If there are technical terms you aren't sure how to translate, include the English terms as well. Assure your correspondent that you would be happy for them to reply in whatever language they feel comfortable in. Yes, this means you need to do the leg-work to do the translations, but you're the one who wants the information, after all.

These same considerations apply if you're corresponding with a historian rather than someone working with the artifacts. Remember that answering questions from amateur history buffs may not be what they'd choose to do for fun in their spare time. Make sure you're using them for focused, specialty information, not for general background that you can get from a book. Consider making your first requests on internet groups, where the request will not be directed at a particular person, and so will be less of an imposition.

Have you identified particular artifacts that might be worth examining in person?

This is for the truly dedicated. Do you need to actually look at some object in person to get information that will be vital to your research? I'm not going to go into the logistics of travel in Europe, but if you're planning a trip with a major purpose of looking at a particular object or objects, remember that not all objects are on constant display, and it will be best to write ahead to inquire about availability. It may be possible for you to arrange for a special viewing, but the details of that topic are outside the scope of the immediate discussion. In all likelihood, the best you'll manage is to press your nose as closely to the glass of the display case as possible and start madly taking detailed notes.

Formulating Hypotheses

Now is the time to indulge in relatively elaborate theories about what may be going on with your artifact. Always keep in mind how much interpretation you're putting into your data.

What is your best understanding of what is going on with this artifact?

Jumping ahead to my conclusions about the Shepherd's Purse (when I haven't presented the data yet), it seems fairly clear that there is not one Shepherds Purse, but rather three or four that have certain overall similarities. One style appears to derive directly from a sash style of belt that is wrapped around one or more objects before being tied. It seems possible -- both on the basis of depictions and logical evolution -- that this sash style may be one of the roots of the "flapped" style, where a shorter section of fabric (maybe equivalent to half the waistline), wrapped into an overlapping tube, and then gathered at the ends into straps that fasten around the rest of the waist. While there aren't any examples showing possible fastenings for this version, it might be reasonable to assume a tied knot (derived from the sash) or a buckle (parallel with the one buckled net-pouch example).

Another strand of development seems to begin with a simple netted bag, probably a tube gathered permanently at one end and with a drawstring at the other. The gathering cords are then extended either into a shoulder strap, to fasten to a separate belt, or to tie around the waist. In order to be able to hold smaller objects, it seems natural to include some sort of liner to this netted bag. My first hypothesis would be that this began as a separate cloth wrapped around the contents, with the whole thing then placed inside the netted bag. This may have developed into a more permanent liner, given the depiction of the netted crescent-shaped bags where the assumed liner and the net lie closely together. While there would seem to be little advantage of a netted bag with an attached lining over a cloth bag alone, an evolutionary process of this type might produce a redundant structure simply by conservatism. One example of a netted bag shows it fastened around the waist with a buckle suggesting that there might be a belt running through the entire bag in some fashion -- a possibility to explore in the experimental phase.

The extreme shaping and occasional bottom-edge details of the crescent-shaped sub-style, especially in combination with a flap, suggest a version sewn from at least two separate pieces of cloth. In this case, there seems to be a clear notion of what the desired properties of a Shepherds Purse are, and a deliberate effort to design an ideal, rather than "accidentally" discovering the useful properties of other objects that can be adapted. If so, this style might have evolved from the gathered tube concept above (with added shaping to eliminate the excess fabric of the gathers, and to shape the bag to lie more smoothly around the waist), or it might have evolved from something like the "pilgrim" style of bag, but worn around the waist (shortening the bag to avoid excess motion and curving it at the top to fit the waist when fastened there rather than over the shoulder). The structure appears to involve a roughly oval piece sewn to another piece half that shape (on the long axis), with straps attached at both ends. In some cases, rather than an oval, the evolution may have been from a square piece of fabric sewn to a triangular piece half that size, but possibly with the point rounded somewhat. This would create a bag that tapers smoothly at the sides and -- due to the bias -- fits closely and smoothly to the waist. In all cases, the flap may simply hang loose, or it may be buttoned or tied to the fabric underneath, or it may have rings fastened to it to which tools are attached (where the weight of the tools helps hold the flap closed).

While these bags have significantly different origins and construction methods, the characteristics they share are a pouch worn closely around the waist as a belt, with a somewhat rounded shape in the middle that tapers somewhat towards the ends, with the "pouch section" comprising approximately half the waistline. While all of the sub-styles can also be found worn over the shoulder, the most characteristic method is to wear them around the waist. When the shoulder style of wear is added, we can also add the Spanish example in the del Barco annunciation, where the construction is extremely clear and consists of a tubular bag, attached to a strap at one (closed) end and gathered by a strap at the other. This corresponds conceptually with the netted bag described above (except that the gathering of the open end is much more obvious, due to the bulk of the fabric), and could, in theory, correspond to the appearance of many of the crescent-shaped pouches if one assumes that the gathered end is always carefully hidden out of sight behind the wearer. While the visible gathering is reminiscent of the pouch in the Stockholm-Kessel Hours, the underlying shapes of the fabric are clearly different. This latter pouch is a rather significant outlier in terms of style, and does not appear to shed direct light on the more common styles, although it is interesting in its own right. It appears to begin with a roughly square piece of fabric, hung from a belt along one side as if it were an apron, the folded up into a triangle, with the top edges buttoned together, and the remaining (open) edges gathered on a drawstring.

All of these interpretations will be explored and tested for practical results in the experimental reconstruction section.

What are the logical reasons and objections to this interpretation?

The largest problem with many of these ideas is that the pictures don't show some of the important details. Interpretations that rely heavily on essential details just happening to have been omitted by the artist (or positioned so they are invisible) seem contrived. (In response to this, I might point out that, in the vast majority of cases, the pouches have been positioned by the artist so that the "pouch section" is towards the viewer -- this means that certain aspects will be systematically omitted, such as fastening mechanisms.

I may be trying too hard to offer evolutionary connections between the different sub-styles. The crescent-shaped sub-style could have arisen all by itself, without being related to either shoulder bags or sash-like bags. It's possible that the apparently consistent sub-types are merely sub-types of an artistic model, perpetuating each other, and that by the late 15th century nobody was referring back to actual objects at all. This could explain a great deal of the fuzziness of detail -- perhaps the artists have a vague notion of a shape of pouch that a shepherd ought to wear, and various schools of representation evolved, filling in the details in different ways. (This would seem less likely to apply to the pouches with clearly variant styles that are carefully depicted.)

Some of the depictions are clearly fanciful in detail (e.g., the colorful, tasseled pouches of Stowe MS 955), so how can I have confidence that any represent a realistic artifact? (And yet, the similarities suggest that even fanciful representations touch base with some common idea, and the simplest interpretation of that common idea is an actual artifact.)

Given this hypothesis, what might you expect to have found that you didn't? Or expect to not find that you did?

Hard to say -- I might expect to see more clearly transitional styles, rather than the distinct style-groups, but there are a fair number of transitional examples, and furthermore, I'd expect some conservatism in art, where an established motif gets repeated in a fixed form before being "updated" to a new form. Fairly early on in this study, I became concerned that I was dealing solely with an artistic motif -- a "shepherd" label -- which led me to expect not to find the unusual variant styles that still fit the overall Shepherds Purse gestalt. Similarly, my initial impression was based on the overall gestalt and I hadn't yet started paying attention to differences in detail, so it was a surprise to realize that I did have distinct sub-styles among material that I'd initially assumed was homogeneous.

What is the larger cultural context of this artifact?

There are two contexts -- that of the artifact and that of the art. I've already discussed the artistic context to some extent, including the iconic significance of shepherds. Also important is the dynamic of the manuscript production industry in medieval Europe. It isn't accidental that I have so many French manuscript examples from the 14-15th centuries -- it was a major artistic center for the medium, and I haven't even begun to explore the interconnections between various workshops and schools, and how those connections may have shaped my data.

The "real life" context is that of sheep raising in medieval Europe. This is another field I haven't explored to my satisfaction yet, but I can sketch out some of the relevant aspects. Sheep were kept primarily for wool, although in some cultures, milk was another important byproduct (see, e.g., the Luttrell Psalter). In contrast with modern practices, meat was not the major goal, although some use was made of it. In contrast to the situation with cattle, where the optimal gender ratio for adults was heavily tilted towards females (providing milk), "surplus" male sheep not needed for breeding were still valuable wool-producers, although flock harmony might be maintained by neutering the majority of males. Especially if the sheep were not being used for milk production, they might not need to be returned to the farmstead every day, and it could be more efficient to keep them grazing relatively farther from home. Even if returned to a pen every night, they would need to be taken a significant distance away to graze every day (see, e.g., the Da Costa Hours, where the sheep are being herded from a building and led out of the yard through a gate). But sheep unlike, for example, pigs are lacking in the self-defense area (although there is some evidence that medieval sheep were still in the process of being bred into the brainless airheads we're familiar with today), so they would normally be accompanied in the fields by one or more shepherds, typically accompanied by a dog (although I don't know to what extent dogs may have been used for herding rather than for protection). The sheep would need to be kept moving to avoid overgrazing (or simply to search out the best areas). All this means that shepherds spent their days moving repeatedly with no immediate "home base", carrying with them everything they needed for the day, but needing to be fairly physically active at unpredictable intervals. My hypothesis is that this job description is significant in understanding the key features of the Shepherds Purse.

When does it arise, and why? Can you trace its spread?

Here, I don't have good answers. The start date is unclear, confused by clothing styles that may have made it less visible. I haven't yet researched possible changes in sheep raising practices that might have affected a shepherd's accessories. The epicenter of the style appears to be France, but the spottiness of the evidence outside the core area makes it difficult to think in terms of clear patterns of spread.

How does it change over time, and can you relate this to other historic developments?

With the caveat that stylistic changes may sometimes be an artifact of spotty data, there is an overlapping sequence of styles. Net-only pouches appear earliest and stop appearing in the early 15th c., with netted pouches showing up only a little later, and dropping out pretty much before the 16th century. Crescent-shaped pouches appear around the same time as the netted-crescent (early 15th c.), but persist consistently through the mid 16th century (with a couple possible 17th century examples). The crescent-shaped pouch with a clear flap shows up in the late 15th century and continues with strong popularity through the mid 16th century. Examples of pouches that look relatively sash-like appear in the same time-span as the netted-crescent style, but are more common towards the end of that period than the beginning (possibly corresponding to the beginnings of the classical shepherd?).

This chronology (if accurate) is consistent with the evolution of the netted-crescent from the simple net bag, and with the flapped style evolving from one or more precursors possibly including the crescent. The pattern is not consistent, however, with the sash style as a significant precursor to any of the others -- rather, it suggests that the sash style may be independent of the others, or even may be influenced by changes in artistic styles.

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