Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Snippings

Yesterday, I visited the Archives Départmentales. The director had set out a selection of their most precious treasures for us to look at and and I got to pore over this map dating from 1485. It's actualy a portulan: an early vellum sea chart. This is how a Portuguese navigator saw the world at that time (Ireland is massively overproportioned and the rest of Europe is somewhat stunted).

There's something wonderful about being up close to something that old. The most moving exhibit, however, was a thick nineteenth-century register listing all of the babies abandoned at one of the hospitals in Bordeaux. Each baby is described in detail and a little piece of the cloth from the clothes s/he was wearing accompanies the description. Because the register has remained closed for so many years, the colours of the clipped cloth are still bright. Among the hundreds of entries, I noticed a square of shiny green silk, some creamy wool, a coiled piece of gold thread and a length of pink ribbon. All heart rendingly singular.

I wonder what those mothers would have thought as they dressed their babies for the first / last time had they known that hundreds of years later, long after the babies themselves had grown up and died, other women would finger the remnants of those very clothes and wonder what had pushed them to leave their babies on the hospital doorstep.

7 comments:

materfamilias said...

What an intriguing, compelling, material archive! Don't suppose you were allowed to take photographs? I think this would make a wonderful article -- are you writing one, perchance?

Frankofile said...

What a coincidence. I'm currently (re)reading Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin - a grim children's story of abandoned babies in 18th century England. So much misery - we hardly realise, do we?

Lesley said...

Materfamilias: Yes, we were allowed to take photographs and I took that one above with my iphone, but I was so taken with the baby register that I forgot to capture it for posterity. No plans to do a paper on this.

Frankofile: Yes, so much misery - lack of money, lack of a father, too many children already, social stigma, illness, disability ... Are we grateful enough to live when we do?

Dick said...

What a haunting image - the tiny pieces of still-bright fabric. There's a poem in there.

Jordan said...

As a genealogy buff I'm easily moved by such glimpses into the past. But wow, the glimpse you just had was more moving than most. It doesn't even matter that there are no photos. Your description paints a picture that's certainly vivid enough. Thanks for sharing this.

Lesley said...

Dick: Yes, there's definitely a poem in there but it would take a talent like yours to write it.

Jordan: I've been raading and enjoying your genealogy posts.

Lucy said...

Sometimes something unexpected like that really grabs you, doesn't it? Simon Schama looked at those kind of keepsakes that were left with babies at the Coram hospital in one of his British history programmes. Surprising that they were clearly sometimes dressed in what must have been expensive and rich fabrics, silk and gold thread and the like.