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The Collation

Malicious teaseling: or how a simple reference question got complicated

We had seven excellent answers to the Crocodile, which included an image titled “Malice,” but not the text below it. The general consensus was that the cowering man was winding thread or wool off of a drop spindle.

One of the great things about being a curator is that you get to meet all kinds of people doing all kinds of interesting research in areas that you know little about. I’m not an art historian or a fiber arts expert, so I am not entirely qualified to confirm the answer last week’s Crocodile Mystery with complete authority, but I know people who are! In fact, I wouldn’t have even thought to wonder about it if a reference question about it hadn’t been sent to Erin Blake and me. The question came from Jeff Beck, who had learned online that we had curated (along with retired curator Rachel Doggett) an exhibition in 2004, “Word and Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.” The image appears on leaf 186 of Folger MS V.b.232. Jeff wondered what the man was doing with his hands.

image of person being scolded and scriptural text on the theme of Malice

Thomas Trevelyon, Miscellany, 1608, “Malice” (Folger MS V.b.232, fol. 186). Click image to see it in

The image appears on the cover of a wonderful book by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). Tara and Catherine describe the frontispiece to their book: “A scolding wife stands over her subservient husband who is winding yarn while, in the background, a shocked neighbour walks in to discover such disorderly housekeeping. The image represents this book’s concerns with gendered work within the household, and the social significance and scrutiny of domestic matters at the middling level.” This seems right, but is he really winding yarn?

I thought I knew this image well. For the Folger’s 2007 facsimile edition of Trevelyon, I had located the source: an engraving from the workshop of Jacob de Gheyn II titled “A Man Ruled by his Wife.”

Engraving of a wife yelling at her spinning husband

Jacob de Gheyn II (workshop of), Een kijvende vrouw en een spinnende man, 1593-1597, Engraving, height 245 mm × width 178 mm (Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1891-A-16660)

The image fits the well known trope of the household turned topsy turvy when a wife forces her husband to do women’s domestic work. Paintings and prints from this period sometimes depict husbands not only as being forced to do women’s tasks, but also being severely chastised for doing the tasks badly (see Martha Moffitt Peacock, Heroines, Harpies, and Housewives : Imaging Women of Consequencein the Dutch Golden Age, Brill, 2020, 283-84, 290-93). Men were supposed to keep their wives under control, and wives were supposed to submit to their husband’s wishes. Prints like these inverted this gender relationship and, if viewed by younger men, were supposed to make them feel superior to the older, henpecked husbands depicted. They could also appeal to female viewers who were entertained by the subversive imagery of the tyrannical housewife.

But there are differences between the two images. Trevelyon’s version does not have the hen at the woman’s side, mirroring the wife’s stance, or the trapped rooster in the background, pecking at food through the bars of a table. The braid of onions hanging from a nail on the back wall has become… what? Trevelyon’s husband looks much younger than the old man in De Gheyn’s print. Believe it or not, Trevelyon’s image is milder.

De Gheyn’s print has a Latin inscription on the bottom of it, which reveals that the neighbor in the background has somehow incited the wife to control and abuse her husband. Peacock (p. 293) translates the passage as “Ah the monster! An evil woman rings out like empty bronze [a bronze bell], Giving a tongue lashing with loud voice. The neighbor woman caused this. Therefore, there is always some evil on account of a neighbor” (the original is “Hui monstrum? / Vacuo similis mala foemina aheno / Tinniet: stentorea verbera voce tonans, / His causam vicina dedit: sic disce malum tu / Vicinum propter semper adesse aliquid. C.D.” [Cornelius Duyn]).

Below his own version of the image, Trevelyon provides some supporting mysogynistic proverbs, taken from Ecclesiasticus and Job. His citations are slightly mismatched, but he lists his sources as Ecclesiasticus chapters 25: 14-22, 27: 15, 8: 1-3, as well as Job 39, verse 35. He includes verses such as “The greatest heauinesse is the heauinesse of the heart, and the greatest malice is the malice of a woman,” and “I had rather dwell with a lion and dragon, then to keepe house with a wicked wife.” The last few passages are not about women at all, but warnings to men about avoiding other men who are mighty, rich, or full of words, and to instead strive with the Almighty.

A few days after we received Jeff’s question about the man’s handiwork, needlework historians Erin Harvey Moody and Christy Gordon Baty of Relics in Situ, presented an online talk to Folger staff and docents. We’ve worked with Erin and Christy over the years on an assortment of early modern embroidery-related things, and with the question still hanging over us, I showed them the image and asked them what the man was doing with his hands.

Oh, he’s holding a fuller’s teasel, Christy immediately replied, confirming Erin Blake’s suspicion. The dried prickly flower-head or burr of the fuller’s teasel is used for “fulling” cloth: roughening it up to raise a nap on the surface. Erin Blake had doubted herself because that’s not how you are supposed to use a teasel. This person seems to be applying the teasel to newly-spun yarn. That would ruin the yarn.

fuller's teasels

Fuller’s teasels in real life. Image courtesy of Relics in Situ.

And it turns out, that’s the point, if this is indeed a teasel and not a spindle. Instead of using the teasel to make wool cloth softer by teasing out fibers, he is maliciously destroying spun yarn. Erin Moody reached out to fiber arts historian Fara Otterbeck for further explanation, and Fara explicated the image even further, writing to Erin Moody (which I’m reproducing with their permission):

“…he tipped over the big basket and is sitting on it. The tool basket is over turned. The spindle is laying about. He is using a teasel on spun yarn. He purposefully is destroying the work. I think he is unwinding that skein in his hands. It is really deliberate and cruel”.

Fara also observed that it probably wasn’t the husband, who would likely have a beard, but a son. We had always assumed it was the husband because of the apocryphal text below the image and the title of the source print. But as many things in Trevelyon, word and image are not always a perfect fit, and we can’t assume that Trevelyon was interpreting the image as it was intended. Maybe he intentionally altered the drop spindle and old husband in the de Gheyn print to a teasel and a younger man in his version, who could be a son or a servant or a laborer. Or maybe he copied the image from a now-lost simplified English woodcut of the Netherlandish engraving. Or maybe Trevelyon’s heavy cross-hatching and honeycombing led a couple of curators and embroidery experts down the wrong path, mistaking a spindle and a braid of onions for teasels.

Teasels and a drop spindle? Or braided onions and a loose vegetable?

In this detail from the engraving, it is more clear that the man is holding a drop spindle with yarn which is being transferred to the niddy-noddy, rather than a fuller’s teasel.

The “Malice” in Trevelyon’s version of this image is confusing no matter which way you look at it, drop spindle or teasel. Trevelyon’s text from Ecclesiasticus suggests that the wife is the malicious one. But if the man is using a teasel, then he is the malicious one since a teasel would ruin the yarn. Or maybe the maliciousness is mutual, the henpecked husband retaliating against his berating wife. Or, in keeping with the hen-pecked husband trope and the expression on his face, he is unintentionally doing his female chores badly, whether it be getting behind on making the yarn into skeins or thinking that he was supposed to use a teasel at this stage of production. The female neighbor at the door is also a candidate for maliciousness, since she is the one, according to the accompanying verses to the engraving, that stirred up trouble by encouraging the woman to set her husband to domestic housework. Maybe they are all unhappy and discombobulated by the undulating green tuft-like floor, which caused the work basket/pot to tumble over. Whatever the actual interpretation, the image represents domestic disorder caused by gender reversal.

As Erin wrote in her follow-up reply to the original questioner, Jeff Beck: “Never underestimate the power of librarians to hang onto a question like a dog with a bone.” Turns out this is one of those Crocodile answers that raises more questions than it answers. Thank you to everyone who responded to the Crocodile post. Because of your answers, I’m now leaning back to the spindle theory. And am ready to drop the bone!



This is a bit of a nitpicky point, but isn’t the impression of youth in Trevelyon’s version largely down to his 100% wrinkle-free style of drawing faces? He is great with colour, but shading and cross-hatching doesn’t really seem to be his strongest point (as you can see on the man’s neck, which looks a bit like that of a turkey), which may be why he always focuses on the outlines of the head but leaves the face itself smooth, so that even when he is clearly trying to portray certain historical figures as old men (e.g. Foxe and Wycliffe on 194r), they typically come out looking like fresh-faced 12-year-olds with beards stuck on. So I’m not sure there’s really any reason to believe he intended to make the husband (or the wife or the neighbour) look younger than in the original image. Of course he could have added a beard to indicate age, but that would have altered the image, so for him to do that you would have to assume that he was aware that a) the man in de Gheyn’s image was supposed to look old and b) his age was significant in this context. Otherwise Trevelyon would probably just have imitated the composition of the original image with a few simplifications – which appears to be what he did here. He has omitted details, but apart from (possibly) the teasel he hasn’t really added any. And even that is in the exact same position as the spindle, so the composition of the image itself hasn’t been altered…

Elisabeth Chaghafi — June 3, 2021