Looms in Minchen Lane
How Cornelys Bat, the Flemish Weaver, Befriended a Black Sheep and Saved His Wool
I T was early springtime, when lambs are frisking like rabbits upon the tender green grass, and all the land is like a tapestry of blue and white and gold and pink and green. Robert Edrupt, as he rode westward from London on his homeward way, felt that he had never loved his country quite so well as now. He had gone with a flock of English sheep to northern Spain, and come back in the same ship with the Spanish jennets which the captain took in exchange. On one of those graceful half-Arabian horses he was now riding, and on another, a little behind him, rode a swarthy, black-haired and black-eyed youngster in a sheepskin tunic, who looked about him as if all that he saw were strange.
In truth Cimarron, as they called him, was very like a wild sheep from his native Pyrenees, and Edrupt was wondering, with some amusement and a little apprehension, what his grandmother and Barbara would say. The boy had been his servant in a rather dangerous expedition through the mountains, and but for his watchfulness and courage the English wool-merchant might not have come back alive. Edrupt had been awakened between two and three in the morning and told that robbers were on their trail, and then, abandoning their animals, Cimarron had led him over a precipitous cliff and down into the next valley by a road which he and the wild creatures alone had traveled. When the horses were led on shipboard the boy had come with them, and London was no place to leave him after that.
They rode up the well-worn track into the yard of Longley Farm, and leaving the horses with his attendant, Edrupt went to find his family. Dame Lysbeth was seated in her chair by the window, spinning, and would have sent one of the maids to call the mistress of the house, but Edrupt shook his head. He said that he would go look for Barbara himself.
He found her kneeling on the turf tending a motherless lamb, and it was a good thing that the lamb had had nearly all it could drink already, for when Barbara looked up and saw who was coming the rest of the milk was spilled. She looked down, laughing and blushing, presently, at the hem of her russet gown.
"Sheep take a deal o' mothering," she explained, "well-nigh as much as men. Come and see the new-born lambs, Robert, will 'ee?"
Robert stroked the head of the old sheep-dog that had come up for his share of petting. "Here is a black sheep for thee to mother, sweetheart, " he said with a laugh. "He's of a breed that is new in these parts."
Barbara looked at the rough, unkempt young stranger, with surprise but no unkindness in her eyes. She was not easily upset, and however wild he looked, the new-comer had been brought by Robert, and that was all that concerned her.
"Where did tha find him, and what's his name?" she inquired.
Edrupt laughed again, in proud satisfaction this time; he might have known that Barbara would behave just in that way. He explained, and Cimarron was forthwith shown a corner of a loft where he might sleep, and introduced to Don the collie as a shepherd in good standing. He and the sheepdog seemed to understand each other almost at once, and though one was almost as silent as the other, they became excellent comrades.
Besides the sheep, Cimarron seemed interested in but one thing on the farm, and that was the old loom which had belonged to Dame Garland and still stood in the weaving-chamber, where he slept. Dame Lysbeth, rummaging there for some flax that she wanted, found the boy sitting on the bench with one bare foot on the treadle, studying the workings of the clumsy machine. It was a "high-warp" loom, in which the web is vertical, and in the loom-chamber where Barbara's maids spun and wove, Edrupt had set up a Flemish "low-warp" loom with all the latest fittings. Into that place the herd-boy had never ventured. But Dame Lysbeth saw with surprise that he seemed to understand this loom quite well. When he was asked, he said that he had seen weaving done on such a loom in his country.
"Robert will be surprised," said Barbara thoughtfully. "Who ever saw a lad like that who cared about weaving?"
But Edrupt was not as mystified as the women were. He thought it quite possible that the dark young stranger might have come of some Eastern race which had made weaving an art beyond anything the West could do. "I think," he said one morning, "that I will take him to London and let him try what he can in Cornelys Bat's factory."
Cornelys Bat was a Flemish weaver who had come to London some months before and set up his looms in an old wool-storeroom outside London Wall. He was a very skillful workman, but Flanders had weavers enough to supply half Europe with clothing, and his own town of Arras was already known for its tapestries. The Lowlands were overcrowded, and there was not bread enough to go around. Edrupt, whom he had known for several years, helped him to settle himself in England, and he had met with almost immediate success. Now he had with him not only his old parents, a younger brother and sister and an aunt with her two children, but three neighbors who also found life hard in populous Flanders. He felt that he had done well in following Edrupt's advice, "When the wool won't come to you, go where the wool is." He was a square-built, placid, light-haired man with a stolid expression that sometimes misled people. When Edrupt came to him with a strange new apprentice, he readily consented to give the boy a chance. It was the only chance that there was, for the Weavers' Guild would not have him
After a while Cimarron, or Zamaroun as the other 'prentices called him, was promoted from porter to draw-boy, as the weaver's assistant was termed. This work did not need skill, exactly, but it did demand strength and close attention. The boy from the Pyrenees was as strong as a young ox, and he was never tired of watching the work and seeing exactly how it was done. His silent, quick strength suited Cornelys Bat. Weaving is work which needs the constant thought of the weaver, especially when the work is tapestry, and just at present the Flemings had secured an order for a set of tapestries for one of the King's country houses. Henry II. was so continually traveling that the King of France once petulantly observed that he must fly like a bird through the air to be in so many places during the year. He had a way of mixing sport with state affairs, and a week spent in some palace like Woodstock or Clarendon might be divided evenly between his lawyers and his hunting-dogs. It is also said of him that he never forgot a face or a fact once brought to his notice. Perhaps he learned more on his hunting trips than any one imagined.
The tapestry weaving was far more complex and difficult than anything done by Barbara Edrupt's maids. The loom used by the Flemings was a "low-warp" loom, in which the web is horizontal. When the heavy timbers were set up they were mortised together, that is, a projection in one fitted into a hollow in another, dovetailing them together without nails. Wooden pegs fitted into holes, and thus the frame, in all its parts, could be taken to pieces and carried from place to place on pack-horses if necessary. An ordinary loom was about eight feet long and perhaps four feet wide, the web usually being not more than a yard wide, and more commonly twenty-three or four inches. Broadcloth was woven in those days, but not very commonly, for it needed a specially constructed loom and two weavers, one for each side, because of the width of the cloth. In tapestry weaving the picture was made in strips, as a rule, and sewed together.
The idea of tapestry weaving in the early part of the Middle Ages was to tell a story. Few colors were used, and instead of making one large picture, which would have been very difficult with the looms in use, the tapestries were made in sets, in which a series of pictures from some legends or chronicle could be shown. When in place, they were wall-coverings hung loosely from great iron hooks over which rings were slipped, or hangings for state beds, or sometimes a strip of tapestry was hung above the carved choir-stalls of a church, horizontally, to add a touch of color to the gray walls. When a court moved, or there was a festival day in the church, these woven or embroidered hangings could be taken from one place to another. Many tapestries were embroidered by hand, which was easier for the ordinary woman than weaving a picture, but took far more time. Kings and noblemen who had money to spend on such things would order sets of tapestry woven by such skilled workmen as Cornelys Bat and his Flemings, or the monks of Saumur in France, or the weavers of Poitiers. In Sicily, these hangings were often made of silk, for silk was already made there. Gold and silver thread was used sometimes, both in weaving and embroidery. Wool, however, was very satisfactory, not only because it was less costly than silk, but because it took dye well and made a web of rich soft colors. It was this which had drawn Robert Edrupt into Flanders to see what the weavers there were about, what sort of wool they used, and what the outlook was for their work. In Cornelys Bat he had found a man who could tell him very nearly all that there was to know about weaving.
Yet weaving is a craft of so many possibilities and complexities that a man may spend his whole life at it and still feel himself only a learner. The master weaver liked Cimarron because the boy never chattered, but kept his whole mind on his work. When Cornelys was revolving some new combination or design in his head, his drawboy was as silent as the weaver's beam, and the whirr and clack of the loom were the only sounds in the place.
The weaver at such a loom sat at one end on a little board, with the heavy roller or weaver's beam on which the warp, the lengthwise thread, was fastened in front of him. At the far end of the frame was another roller, the warp being stretched taut between the two. As the work progressed the web was rolled up gradually toward the weaver, and the pattern, if there was one, lay under the warp and was rolled up on a separate roller. Every skilled weaver had a number of simple patterns in his head, as a knitter has, but for a tapestry picture a pattern was drawn and colored on parchment ruled in squares, and a duplicate pattern made without the color, showing all the arrangement of the threads and used in "gating" as the arrangement of the warp in the beginning was called. Every weaver had his own way of gating, and his own little tricks of weaving. It was a craft that gave a chance for any amount of ingenuity.
In plain, "tabby" or "taffety" weaving, the weft or woof, the crosswise thread, went in and out exactly as in darning, and the two treadles underneath the web, worked by the feet, lifted alternately the odd threads and the even threads, the weaver tossing the shuttle from hand to hand between them. At each stroke of the shuttle the swinging beam, or batten, beat up the weft to make a close, firm, even weave. The shuttle, made of boxwood and shaped like a little boat, held in its hollow the "quill" or bobbin carrying the weft. When all the "yarn," as thread for weaving was always called, was wound off, the weaver fastened on the end of the next thread with what is now called a "weaver's knot." As the side of the web toward him was the wrong side of the cloth, no knot was allowed to show on the right side.
In brocaded, figured or tapestry weaving, leashes or loops called heddles were hung from above and lifted whatever part of the warp they were attached to. For example, three threads out of ten in the warp could be lifted by one group of heddles with one motion of the treadle, the heddles being grouped or "harnessed" to make this possible. It can be seen that in weaving by hand a tapestry with perhaps forty or fifty figures and animals, besides flowers and trees, the most convenient arrangement of the heddles called for brains as well as skill of hand in the weaver who did the work. The drawboy's work was to pull each set of cords in regular order forward and downward. These cords had to raise a weight of about thirty-six pounds, which the boy must hold for perhaps a third of a minute while the ground was woven. He was in a way a part of the machine, but a part which had a brain.
A ratchet on the roller which held the finished web kept it from slipping back and held the warp stretched firm at that end, and in some looms there was a ratchet on the other roller as well. But Cornelys Bat preferred weights at the far end of the warp. These allowed the warp to give a tiny bit at every blow of the batten and then draw up instantly taut, no matter how heavy the box was made. "This kindly giving," explained the weaver, "preventeth the breaking of the slender threads. No law may be kept too straitly and no thread drawn too strictly. That is a part of the craft."
Cornelys may have been thinking of something more than weaving when he made that observation The quiet tapestries of Arras had caused an uproar in the Guild of London Weavers. A few cool heads advised the others to live and let live. The Flemings would be good English folk in time, and whatever they knew would help the craft in the future. But others, forgetting that they had refused to let their sons serve apprenticeship to Cornelys Bat when he came, railed at him for taking Flemings, Gascons, Florentines and even a vagabond from nobody knew where, into his employ.
"We will have no black sheep in our fold," vociferated the leader of this faction, a keen-faced, tow-headed man of middle age. "These foreigners will ruin the craft."
"Tut, tut," protested Martin Byram, "I have heard Master Cole of Reading say that thy grandfather, his 'prentice boy, was a Swabian, Simon. And he brought no craft to England."
There was a laugh, for everybody knew that the superior skill of the Flemings was one main cause of their success in the market. Some of the weavers even had the insight to see that so far from taking work away from any English weaver, they were thus far doing work which would have gone abroad to find them if they had not been here, and the gold paid them was kept and spent in London markets.
For all that, the feeling against the Flemings grew and spread, and might have broken out into open violence if they had not been working on the King's tapestries. Nobody felt like interfering with them until that job was done, for the King might ask questions, and not like the answers.
How much of all this Cornelys Bat knew, no one could tell. Cimarron watched him, but the broad, thoughtful face was placid as usual. One day, however, the dark young apprentice was set upon in the street, where he had gone on an errand, by a crowd of other lads who nearly tore the clothes off his back. They had not reckoned on effectual fighting strength in this foreign youth, and they found that even a black sheep can be dangerous on occasion. The threats which they muttered set the boy's mountain-bred senses on the alert, and he went back to the master weaver with the information that as soon as the King's tapestries were finished the looms and their shelter would be burned over their heads.
"I hid in the loft and heard," said Cimarron earnestly. "They are evil men here, master."
The Fleming frowned slightly and balanced the beam of his loom—he was about to begin the last panel—thoughtfully in his hand. "So it seems," he said. "Well, we will finish the tapestries as early as may be."
One of the weavers saw lights in the Flemish loom-rooms that night, and reported that the strangers were working by candle-light, contrary to the law of the Guild—to which they did not belong. But Cornelys Bat was gathering together the work already done, and he and Cimarron and two of the other men carried it before morning to the warehouse of Gilbert Gay, the merchant, where it would be safe. They also took there certain bales of fine wool, dyes and some household goods, and all this was loaded the next day on a boat and sent up the Thames to a point above London, where Robert Edrupt's pack-horses took it to King's Barton.
"It is no use to try to fight the entire Guild," said Edrupt ruefully. "You had best come to our village and make your home there. When this has blown over you may come back to London."
"If I were alone I would not budge," said the Fleming with a sternness in his blue eyes. "But there are the old folk and the little ones. We have left our own land and come where the wool was; it is now time for the work to come to us."
"I will warrant you it will," said Master Gay. "But are you going to leave your looms for them to burn?"
"Not quite," said Cornelys Bat, grimly.
The mob came just after nightfall of the day after the women and children, with the rest of the household goods, had gone on their way to a new home. It was not a very well organized crowd, and was armed with clubs, pikes, and torches mainly. It found to its astonishment that the timbers of a loom, heavy and well seasoned, may make excellent weapons, and that the arm of a weaver is not feeble nor his spirit weak. It was no part of the plan of Cornelys Bat to leave the buildings of Master Gay undefended, and the determined, organized resistance of the Flemings repelled the attack. The next day it was found that the weavers had gone, and their quarters were occupied by some of Master Gay's men who were storing there a quantity of this year's fleeces. Meanwhile the Flemings had settled in the little road that ran past the nunnery at King's Barton and was called Minchen Lane.