Legends: Lace Makers and the Virgin Mary
In my quest for legends and folktales about lace making and lace makers, I have noticed that many of the legends involve the Virgin Mary. In fact, it would appear that these various legends are actually different versions of the same legend. I found them on the website Lace In Context, an extensive lace research blog by Professor David Hopkin and Nicolette Mokovicky.
As suggested on this website (links below), these legends seem to be literary creations, seemingly first published in the 19th Century.
I chatted to professor David Hopkin about this, and his belief is that they were part of an attempt to rescue the threatened cottage industry of handmade lace after the onset of machine made lace in Nottingham. I find this idea really fascinating – that inventing lace legends could actually be a form of propaganda to help give handmade lace a special status as a way to save it from dying out.
I would recommend a visit to the Lace in Context post about this particular subject, and how legends about lace making and women’s work became a political tool during the industrial revolution: https://laceincontext.com/tag/argentan/
I will try to summarise some of the versions of the Virgin Mary legends here.
These legends explore a special relationship between lace makers and the Virgin Mary. In one version, “The Legend of Argentan Point Lace” , a young lace maker, who is the sole provider of her elderly grandparents, prays to the Virgin Mary to ask for help with her work. She falls asleep with exhaustion, and the Virgin descends and continues the lace maker’s work while she is sleeping. This continues until the lace maker is able to support her grandparents. After their death, she is entered into a convent.
In other versions of this story, the lace maker, who is always a poor woman and the carer of either a sick child or an elderly relative, has a difficult task to complete: for example, she must finish a piece of lace for an important lady or a queen and does not have enough time in which to do it.
All these versions include some sort of divine intervention from the Virgin. In one version, a statue of the Virgin comes to life to finish the lace for the lace maker. In another, after the lace maker has prayed to the Virgin, an elderly beggar woman turns up at her hovel. She tells her the origin of Argentan lace: that spiders’ threads had woven together to create an adornment for a statue of Mary. The lace maker falls asleep, and the beggar woman is revealed to be the Virgin Mary.
From what I have gathered from my chat with Prof. David Hopkin and the Lace in Context site, as a major patron of lace (as patron of the lace schools and one of the main consumers of lace for clerical use), the Catholic Church was keen to preserve the divine and special status of lace. These legends draw upon the motifs of the poor, pious lace maker and their special relationship with the Virgin. Poverty was seen to be a pathway to Heaven, and the figure of the poor lace maker was romanticised for this reason. Lace makers would have worked from home, so remained under the control of husbands, while having to be very clean and organised to prevent tainting the pure white lace. Lacemaking was often associated with purity and virtue and perhaps even virginity (more about that in a different post!).