Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Handkerchief

Richard II (1367-1400) had all of the elegance and none of the political savvy or military skill required of a king of England in the 14th century. He was given to--and ridiculed for--extravagances and fastidiousness that shocked many of his contemporaries. In an attempt to curb his excesses, he was put under the regency of a council called the Lords Appellant. Richard decided to negotiate a peace with France and devote his energies and finances to overthrowing the Lords Appellant. (Imagine what Congress would have done if, at the height of the Cold War, Lyndon Johnson had declared "I'm going to make peace with Russia and focus on controlling the GOP.") The Merciless Parliament of 1388 was called to curb him. During the process, Parliament convicted most of Richard's advisors of treason. The charges against them include lists of extravagances such as richly decorated garments and household furnishings.

At a time when such excesses were worthy of condemnation, something like the following line--a description of an order from the king's tailor, Walter Rauf--would surely make heads turn and eyes roll:
parvis peciis factis ad liberandum domino regi ad portandum in manu suo pro naso suo tergendo et mundando
"small pieces made for giving to the lord king to carry in his hand for wiping and cleaning his nose"

Why does this stand out?

Prior to this, the sleeve was the primary receptacle for the things for which we now use handkerchiefs or tissues. Stella Mary Newton, in her Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince,  does not find any evidence of handkerchief use in the courts of Europe. This seems to counter the theory that Richard picked up this "foppish" practice from France.* We know the Romans used a piece of cloth called a sudarium for wiping sweat, but that is not likely where Richard got the idea, since there is no evidence that the sudarium survived as a custom in Europe. So maybe Richard did invent the pocket handkerchief.

For more details, see Margaret Roe Designs, who also covers the Roman use of the sudarium.

*Richard was raised in France, where his father, Edward the Black Prince, held much land thanks to Edward III's successes in the Hundred Years War. In fact, it's pretty certain that Richard never bothered to learn English.

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