For Susanna Burghartz, on her birthday.
An enormous dowry of clothes, jewels, linen, and household valuables accompanied Maria Perez de Unçeta when she married Fernando Orexa, citizen of the village of Getaria in Gipuzkoa, Spain. A number of female witnesses later testified to having observed these goods being laid out as they were moved to Fernando’s house, as was customary.1 In 1505, when the contents of her dowry were the subject of a legal dispute, a group of specialists, including master silversmiths and tailors, were asked to estimate the monetary value of the goods. Maria’s numerous headdresses and associated parts, however, were singled out as beyond the remit of the assembled male craftsmen.
Under cross-examination, the tailor Juan Martines de Mantelola was reported to have said “that he would not know how to study them”, while his peer, the tailor Juan Sebastian de Olaçabal, replied that “as for the ornaments as much as silk as of linen … he could not examine them, and refers it to the women who know how to do such an examination.”2
“Maria’s headwear was part of a complex material culture practiced by women, for women, that was highly valued across early modern Basque society.”
Maria’s headwear was part of a complex material culture practiced by women, for women, that was highly valued across early modern Basque society. It was Gracia de Arreguia, an aunt of Maria’s in her sixties, who provided the court with a detailed breakdown of the headdresses (tocas and tocados) in question.3 Confirming that she had been involved in preparing and delivering the dowry items at the time of Maria’s marriage, she reported having seen them laid out by a female specialist who examined and evaluated them publicly.4 These headdresses, variously described as of gold thread, of silk, and of linen, complete with their “bodies” and “moulds”, represented a significant financial resource, the knowledge and specialism of which was firmly in the female domain.5
“One need only observe the imaginative shapes of these cloth headdresses as depicted in contemporary costume series to understand that these garments were fashioned with great skill.”
The expertise women brought to this art has yet to receive serious scholarly attention. One need only observe the imaginative shapes of these cloth headdresses as depicted in contemporary costume series to understand that these garments were fashioned with great skill. In the early modern period, Basque women’s headdresses were characterised by their use of long lengths of cloth, innovatively arranged into intricate compositions on top of the head.
The myriad forms these headdresses took was summarised the Venetian diplomat Andrea Navagero, as he journeyed through Gipuzkoa in 1526: “In this region the women wear a very capricious headdress: they wrap it with cloth almost in the Turkish style, but not in the shape of a turban, but a hood, and they make it so narrow by twisting it to the tip, and make it resemble the chest, neck and beak of a crane; this same headdress is spread all over Gipuzkoa where types of crests are made in a thousand whimsical shapes, making them resemble different things.”6
“Taken up by women upon marriage, or the reaching of sexual maturity, women’s headdresses negotiated contemporary practices surrounding sexuality and gender.”
The fashion for folding, twisting, tucking and binding veil-cloths into artful shapes was not a matter of “whimsy” within Basque society, however. It was a material culture that touched upon many areas of public life. Taken up by women upon marriage, or the reaching of sexual maturity, women’s headdresses negotiated contemporary practices surrounding sexuality and gender. They became the subject of legal disputes, moral proceedings, and sumptuary legislation. Throughout the decades of their heyday, male church authorities and moralist critics alike complained about their sumptuous use of fabric and the (in)decency of their form.
While the variety of elaborate styles associated with different parishes has been enthusiastically documented in several contemporary costume series, the rich, material world they inhabited has largely been forgotten. Surviving illustrations depict tall and twisted horns and mounds of cloth, sometimes adorned with trimmings or bright ribbons. These raise questions about the amounts of cloth consumed, the underpinnings upon which the headdresses were constructed, and the process of composing their unique shapes.
The dowry items belonging to Gipuzkoan Maria Perez de Unçeta reveal some of the features of this material culture. Her dowry contents were preserved as part of a fraught legal battle began in 1504 against the heirs of Maria’s first husband, Fernando de Orexa. Before Fernando’s death, a devastating house fire had destroyed a large quantity of Maria’s dowry goods. She entered into her second marriage with Pero Lopes de Alçolaras lacking many of her former trappings, which the newly-weds believed they were owed compensation for. Although Fernando’s heirs disputed this, alleging that Maria’s negligence had caused the fire, it was finally decreed, after escalation to the Royal Chancellery in Valladolid, that Maria was to be monetarily compensated for her lost dowry goods.
A valuation of Maria’s dowry was ordered in front of a public notary. Six women joined two male tailors and two male silversmiths to estimate the value of the items noted to have been taken to Fernando’s house at the time of the union.7 Maria’s headwear was the principle subject for which the female testators were called to give their opinion. Along with her silver, gold, jewels, beds, and trousseau, the trappings of her dowry were family heirlooms passed down the female line, having been given to her by her grandmother.8
Making up Maria’s headwear were:
A toca of gold thread (filo de oro) and silk with its body of forty varas of linen
A toca of gold thread and silk called “urraychusy” of thirty varas of linen
A toca of silk with its body of thirty varas of linen
Four moulds, two of them with their silk tocas and the other two with good untreated linen
Eight linen tocados
Four gold-plated needles del tocado9
Mention of “bodies” and “moulds” (cuerpos and moldes) accompanying Maria’s headdresses indicates the under-structures onto which headdresses were mounted and formed. Her silk toca and her toca interwoven with golden thread are both noted to have been accompanied by “bodies” of thirty and forty yards of linen. Precisely what form these bodies took is uncertain. These large lengths of linen may have been the main veil-cloth itself, composed around its “mould”. Alternatively it was a piece of cloth folded or twisted into a support for other veil-cloths of costly textiles. Elsewhere, in a testament from Guernica dated to 1573, María Ibáñez de la Renteria bequeathed her sister tocados “y que cobre” (and what covers them).10 The moulds, on the other hand, were most likely padded and stuffed fabric supports, composed into the various kinds of bulbous and pointed shapes so vividly depicted in surviving costume illustrations. The four gold-plated needles del tocado were possibly ornamental fastenings or were used for stitching the fine fabrics that the headdresses employed.
The yardage seen in Maria’s headdress cloths points to her social standing and familial wealth. Since the Spanish vara (yard) equated to 837 mm, her toca of thirty varas of linen was an astonishing twenty-five metres in length – an enormous amount to rest upon the head.11 By comparison, the surviving wills of two neighbouring women from Gipuzkoa record headdresses substantially lesser in yardage, at eleven and thirteen yards in length.12 A century later, in the town of Celorio, Asturias, the great length of headdresses compelled two male residents to take legal action. Pedro Gurrea and Melchor Díaz de Posada entered their legal plea for reform “due to their great cost and the damage that they caused to their estates, because their ability to make these expenses falls short and because it was the cause of envy for others; the aforesaid headdresses will have to be reformed like those used in the town of Llanes, since Celorio’s married women wear lengths of twenty-one to twenty-two yards of fine linen without silk weaving and that each one had at least three.”13
This attempt at reform expresses the challenge ordinary families faced to afford the hefty volumes of cloth that had become the local norm of consumption for such headdresses.
“Once made up, they could be kept and stored in their composed state, ready for the next opportunity to be worn.”
The process of composing them must have been a labour-intensive task involving starching agents and many pins. Once made up, they could be kept and stored in their composed state, ready for the next opportunity to be worn. In her testament of 1541, Ana Lizarrarats of Arroa requested her headdresses be passed on in this condition: “To Maria Joanez, my niece … I send my silk tocado, everything as it is prepared (adreçado), to Maria San Joan de Echeuerria, I send a toca that was set earlier […] send it to her how it is.”14 The 1543 inventory of the Itziar villager Maria Martinez Erleteko lists eight new women’s headdresses “sin meter en agua” – that had not been put in water.15 Presumably this meant that they had not been washed, i.e. had not been unpinned and detached from their component parts. These comments emphasise the effort it must have taken to prepare the headdresses for use. Indeed, in the French Basque city of Bayonne, the infamous witch-hunting judge Pierre De Lancre recounted that it took the women “half a day to whiten them well and to arrange and put them on correctly.”16
When Maria Perez entered into her marriage, it was a female specialist, Catalina de Mutio, who was called upon to examine the headdress cloths and accessories heading to the new residence.17 Performing this evaluation was an important task for ensuring that the marriage contract was fulfilled and later became critical testimony for the legal dispute. The rich, material world these headdresses inhabited was the speciality and expertise of women, whose knowledge of the most important garment in the female wardrobe was imperative to its decisive position in Basque society.
Empfohlene Zitierweise/Suggested citation: Katherine Bond: Cloth Headdresses and their Female Specialists in Early Modern Basque Society. In: Tina Asmussen, Eva Brugger, Maike Christadler, Anja Rathmann-Lutz, Anna Reimann, Carla Roth, Sarah-Maria Schober, Ina Serif (eds.): Materialized Histories. Eine Festschrift 2.0, 17/05/2021, https://mhistories.hypotheses.org/?p=1072.
Cloth headdresses were an important women’s garment in early modern Basque society. Women were masters of this intricate material culture, specialising in the preparation and valuation of what were the most significant items in a woman’s dowry. Despite being popularly depicted in contemporary costume illustrations, little has so far been uncovered about their materiality and composition. This essay brings to light new archival evidence about the make-up of these complex headdresses.
- Archivo de la Real Chancillería de Valladolid (ARCV): Pleitos civiles. Varela. Pleitos fenecidos, 1974/2. Reproduced in Archivo Histórico de Protocolos de Gipuzkoa (AHPG): AGIRITEGIA. 1501–1505 bitarteko agiriak [XVI. m. (01) 1] – [XVI. m. (05) 6]. 2018, p. 352, 357.
- Ibid., p. 356: “en quanto a lo que podrian montar e baler las tocas de fillo de oro e de seda e de lienço e moldes e tocaduras este testigo dixo que no sabria esaminarlas e lo rremite a los maestres que lo saben”; p. 361: “en quanto pudieran montar e valer las joyas e arreo asy de seda como de lienço dixo que este testigo no sabria esaminar, e lo rremite a las mugeres que lo saben faser tal esamen.”.
- Ibid., p. 357, 390.
- Ibid., p. 357.
- Ibid. p. 352, 356, 357, 359, 364.
- Cited by Carmen Bernis: Indumentaria española en tiempos de Carlos V. Madrid 1962, p. 71.
- ARCV: Pleitos civiles. Varela. Pleitos fenecidos, 1974/2. Reproduced in AHPG: AGIRITEGIA. 1501–1505. p. 350.
- Ibid., p. 342.
- Ibid., p. 352, 427, 519.
- El Archivo Histórico Foral de Bizkaia (AHFB): Salazar 2506.
- Javier Elorza Maiztegi: Eibar: orígenes y evolución (siglos XIV al XVI). Eibar 2000, p. 287.
- José Antonio Azpiazu Elorza: La historia desconocida del lino vasco. Donostia 2006, p. 106.
- Matías Sangrador y Vítores: Historia de la administración de justicia y del antiguo gobierno del Principado de Asturias y colección de sus fueros, cartas pueblas y antiguas ordenanzas. Gijón 1989, p. 308.
- AHPG: 289: 2/001623. Reproduced in AHPG: AGIRITEGIA. 1541. urteko urtarrileko agiriak [XVI. m. (41) 1] – [XVI. m. (41-I) 31]. 2018, p. 566.
- Ibid.: 278: 2/001624, p. 731.
- Pierre De Lancre: On the Inconstancy of Witches: Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des Mauvais Anges et Demons (1612). Tempe, AZ 2006, p. 62.
- ARCV: Pleitos civiles. Varela. Pleitos fenecidos, 1974/2. Reproduced in AHPG: AGIRITEGIA. 1501–1505, p. 357.