The Flemish Evidence for the Gender of Weavers and the Boat Shuttle
Paper by Constance H. Berman, University of Iowa
Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference, Boston College
Professor Berman’s paper details a story about changes in weaving found in the Gesta abbatum Trudonsium, the chronicle of a Belgian abbey. It was started by Rudolf, who wrote up to 1106. When he became abbot in that year, the work was continued by Giselbert from 1107-1137.
This account is from circa 1135-1138, and details how those whose job it is to weave cloths were “reputed to be bolder and prouder than other such wage-earners.” This led to “a certain poor rustic invented this diabolical cunning device,” which was called a boat “and having put it on wheels made carriable over the weft or land. He also understood by its powers (or from his knowledge) that by throwing it by ropes or threads it could be dragged from here or there.”
What the chronicle is describing is a boat shuttle, a small weaving device that made it much easier to weave cloth. The item is brought into Flanders, but Abbot Rudolf “hearing of this ship, it being elsewhere absolved (undone) of all bad omens, (Rudolf) feeling foreboding that they might do so preached avidly (with spirit) that they (the leaders or nobles) avoid accepting it because of the evil spirits that were brought with it in this trickery.” He even feared that “rapine would occur, and much human blood would flow forth.”
Despite the abbot’s pleas, the local citizens started using the boat shuttle, which the chronicle adds, “just as the Trojans perished when they dedicated the fatal horse in the middle of their market.”
Professor Berman suggests several possibilities for this text – perhaps it was a kind of joke that Abbot Rudolf was telling to the chronicle’s scribe or maybe that Rudolf totally misunderstood some kind of oral report he received – the descriptions of the boat shuttle are very fanciful (the chronicle even adds that it “had been improved by adding an evil sail.”)
But Berman believes the text reflects anxiety among some in the community when changes in technology occur, and how much the weaving industry would change with this shuttle,where ou can produce twice as quickly on a loom.
Before, men would work on a vertical loom that was much harder to do, now you could use a horizontal loom, which was much easier, and could be used by women. Also, the boat shuttle made the quality of the cloth better than using the older stick-shuttle method.
Could this text also reflect worries that this new technology would put people out of work, or would make some weavers more successful than others?