Page images

vows over them, the highest honours were conferred on them. Their flesh is celebrated as the "nutriment of lovers," and the " viand of worthies;" and a peacock was always the most distinguished dish at the solemn banquets of princes or nobles. On these occasions it was served up on a golden dish, and carried to table by a lady of rank, attended by a train of high-born dames and damsels, and accompanied by music. If it was on the occasion of a tournament, the successful knight always carved it, so regulating his portions that each individual, be the company ever so numerous, might taste. For the oath, the knight rising from his seat and extending his hand over the bird, vowed some daring enterprise of arms or love:—" I vow to God, to the blessed Virgin, to the dames, and to the peacock, &c. &c."

In later and less imaginative times, the peacock, though still a favourite dish at a banquet, seems to have been regarded more from its affording" good eating" than from any more refined attribute. Massinger speaks of

"the carcases
Of three fat wethers bruised for gravy, to
Make sauce for a single peacock."

In Shakspeare's time the bird was usually put into a pie, the head, richly gilt, being placed at one end of the dish, and the tail, spread out in its full circumference, at the other. And alas! for the degeneracy of those days. The solemn and knightly adjuration of former times had even then dwindled into the absurd oath which Shakspeare puts into the mouth of Justice Shallow :—

*' By cock and pye, Sir, you shall not away to night."

In some of the French tapestries birds of all shapes, natural and unnatural, of all sizes and in all positions, form very important parts of the subjects themselves; though this remark is hardly in place here, as the tapestries are of later date, and not solely needlework. To return, however: mention is made in an old chronicle of antiquitas Congregatio Ancillarum, quae opere plumario ornamenta ecclesiam laborabant. It has been a subject of much discussion whether this Opus Plumarium signified some arrangement of real feathers, or merely fanciful embroidery in imitation of them. Lytlyngton, Abbot of Croyland, in Edward the Fourth's time, gave to his church nine copes of cloth of gold, exquisitely feathered.* This was perhaps embroidered imitation. A vestment which Cnute the Great presented to this abbey was made of silk embroidered with eagles of gold. Richard Upton, elected abbot in 1417, gave silk embroidered with falcons for copes; and about the same time John Freston gave a rich robe of Venetian blue embroidered with golden eagles. These were positively imitations merely; yet they evince the prevailing taste for feathered work, and, as we have shown, feathers themselves were much used. It is recorded that Pope Paul the Third sent King Pepin a present of a mantle interwoven with peacocks' feathers.

And from whatever circumstance the reverence for peacocks' feathers originated^ it is not, even yet, quite exploded. There are some lingering remnants of a superstitious regard for them which may have had their origin in these very times and circumstances. For how surely, where they are rigidly traced, are our country customs, our vulgar ceremonies, our apparently absurd and senseless usages, found to emanate from some principle or superstition of general and prevailing adoption. In some counties we cannot enter a farm-house where the mantel-piece in the parlour is not decorated with a diadem of peacock feathers, which are carefully dusted and preserved. And in houses of more assuming pretensions the same custom frequently prevails; and we knew a lady who carefully preserved some peacock feathers in a drawer long after her association with people in a higher station than that to which she originally belonged had made her ashamed to display them in her parlour. This could not be for mere ornament: there is some idea of luck attached to them, which seems not improbably to have arisen from circumstances connected originally with the " Vow of the Peacock." At any rate, the religious care with which peacocks' feathers are preserved by many who care not for them as ornaments, is not a whit more ridiculous than to see people gravely turn over the money in their pockets when they first hear the cuckoo, or joyfully fasten a dropped horse-shoe on their threshold, or shudderin gly turn aside if two straws lie across in their path, or thankfully seize an old shoe accidentally met with, heedless of the probable state of the beggared foot that may unconsciously have left it there, or any other of the million unaccountable customs which diversify and enliven country life, and which still prevail and flourish, notwithstanding the extensive travels and sweeping devastations of the modern " schoolmaster."

* "Opere plumario exquitissime praeparatas."

f In the classical ages, they were in high repute. Juno's chariot is drawn by peacocks; and Olympian Jove himself invests his royal limbs with a mantle formed of their feathers.

Do not our readers recollect Cowper's thanksgiving " on finding the heel of a shoe ?"—

"Fortune! I thank thee, gentle goddess! thanks!
Not that my muse, though bashful, shall deny
She would have thanked thee rather, hadst thou cast
A treasure in her way; for neither meed
Of early breakfast, to dispel the fumes
And bowel raking pains of emptiness,
Nor noontide feast, nor ev'ning's cool repast,
Hopes she from this—presumptuous, though perhaps
The cobbler, leather-carving artist, might.
Nathless she thanks thee, and accepts thy boon,
Whatever; not as erst the fabled cock,
Vain-glorious fool I unknowing what he found,
Spurned the rich gem thou gavest him. Wherefore, ah 1
Why not on me that favour, (worthier sure!)
Conferr'dst, goddess! thou art blind, thou sayest:
Enough! thy blindness shall excuse the deed."

Return we to our needlework.

We have clear proof that, before the end of the seventh century, our fair countrywomen were skilled not merely in the use of the needle as applied to necessary purposes, but also in its application to the varied and elegant embroidered garments to which we have so frequently alluded, as forming properties of value and consideration. They were chiefly executed by ladies of the highest rank and greatest piety—very frequently, indeed, by those of royal blood—and were usually (as we have before observed) devoted to the embellishment of the church, or the decoration of its ministers. It was not unusual to bequeath such properties. "I give," said the wife of the Conqueror, in her will, "to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, my tunic worked at Winchester by Alderet's wife, and the mantle embroidered with gold, which is in my chamber, to make a cope. Of my two golden girdles, I give that which is ornamented with emblems for the purpose of suspending the lamp before the great altar."* Amongst some costly presents sent by Isabella, Queen of Edward the Second, to the Pope, was a magnificent cope, embroidered and studded with large white pearls, and purchased of the executors of Catherine Lincoln, for a sum equivalent to between two and three thousand pounds of present money. Another cope, thought worthy to accompany it, was also the work of an Englishwoman, Rose de Bureford, wife of John de Bureford, citizen and merchant of London.

Anciently, banners, either from being made of some relic, or from the representation on them of holy things,were held sacred, and much superstitious faith placed in them; consequently the pious and industrious finger was much occupied in working them. King Arthur, when he fought the eighth battle against the Saxons, carried the "image of Christ and of the blessed Mary (always a virgin) upon his shoulders." Over the tomb of Oswald, the great Christian hero, was laid a banner of purple wrought with gold. When St. Augustine first came to preach to the Saxons, he had a cross borne before him, with a banner, on which was the image of our

* The name of Dame Leviet has descended to posterity as an embroiderer to the Conqueror and his Queen.

« PreviousContinue »