In this holiday season, many of you will be searching for gifts to loved ones. You could do far worse than to obtain a Persian rug, one of the great icons of traditional Iranian culture. As this recent article explains, while Persian rugs had been around since antiquity, it was in the seventeenth century that they were produced and exported on a massive scale, due to the boost to the textiles industry as a result of the measures taken by Shah Abbas the Great (r. 1588 – 1629). The rugs found their way to Europe, including Britain, France, and the Netherlands, and were depicted in such works of Dutch masters as Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-1662). To see the rug in this pitcher picture, click here. Less well-known was the European craze for west Asian domesticated animals to entertain and divert passengers during their long coach rides: these Persian car-pets were also useful for catching vermin who accompanied Persian textile shipments, i.e., rug-rats.
If a Persian rug is out of your price range, however, here are some early modern gift ideas: fret no longer about what to get for your early modern sweet-tarts (see below for more on desserts)! Philip Melanchthongs: Embarrass your Catholic enemies with these sexy Protestant undergarments, which give Sola Scriptura a whole new meaning! Jacobeanbags: relax your weary limbs between episodes of bloody murder & revenge and reach new depths of discomfort ‘resting’ on these plank-filled burlap sacks (product warning: high likelihood of piercing by thousands of poisoned splinters inserted by your nemesis). Margaret Cavendish towels: glossily embroidered with depictions of the Grand Empress and her Animal-Men Courtiers; excellent for handling hot Fire-stones during maritime conquests. Jean-Jacques Rousseauing kits: flee social persecution and return to nature by knitting your own grubby pseudo-peasant garments (product warning: you will eventually imagine that the kits were devised by David Hume, loose Parisian women, and other enemies; why should anyone wish you harm, lovable creature that you are?). Maximilien Robespierre goggles: Booze will never look or taste the same with this classic fraternité-Boy gear–will instantly make any friend or acquaintance appear to be a sworn enemy of la République and worthy of the guillotine.
Humanity cannot live by gifts alone, however. Fortunately, the early modern period is replete with yummy (and not-so-yummy) desserts for the holidays. This delectable piece on that classic Yuletide treat, mince pies, discloses that while the recipe for pies filled with mincemeat goes back to the fourteenth century, the association with Christmas was certainly at play in seventeenth-century England. Indeed, Cromwell’s puritanical regime seems to have disapproved of spiced treats at Christmas as a ‘Popish indulgence’, as reflected in this 1661 rhyme on the Interregnum: ‘All Plums the Prophet’s sons defy / And Spice-broths are too hot / Treason’s in a December-pye / And death within the pot.’ The next time you bite into a mince pie, think of it as an act of defiance against Cromwell’s Protectorate: down with Roundheads, up with round-bellies!
The article goes on to note Samuel Pepys’s expectation of mince pies at Christmas, though he also had arranged for no less than 18 mince pies to celebrate a friend’s wedding anniversary: one pie for each year of marriage! Very sweet indeed. But the aftermath of consuming that many pies filled with mutton, suet, cloves, currants, prunes, dates, et al. is infamously known as ‘The Diarrhea of Samuel Pepys’.
And on that downward note, I bid you adieu till next week.
Director, Early Modern Studies Program