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drawstring purse detail

Probably English, ca. 1700

This extraordinary purse, brilliant in its combination of vivid colors against a glistening metallic ground, highlights the importance of symbolic gift giving in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Composed of four woven shield-shaped panels, this type of purse is known to have played a ceremonial role in marriage rites. According to tradition, the bridegroom gifted a small donation of money to his betrothed during the service; embellished purses, usually of precious materials, served as elaborate packaging for the symbolic number of coins. There is evidence that this practice existed in Pre-Reformation England, as described in The York Manual (1509): “With this rynge I wedde thee, and with this golde and silver I honoure thee, and with this gyft I dowe thee.” This custom of “endowing purses” appears to have persisted until the end of the seventeenth century, though the gift was no longer explicitly referred to in the Protestant wedding ceremony.

Small purses such as this stunning example were used throughout Europe as tokens of love. Two designs of particularly English flavor alternate on the tightly woven silver panels, each with charming variations. Both feature a golden vase issuing a central branch of flowers, with two floral vines spreading upwards on each side. The branches bear a multitude of gaily colored flowers, including striped parrot tulips, irises, pansies, and carnations. In one arrangement, two confronted black birds flank a stylized cornflower, while dainty insects with spotted wings flit against the silver field. The other design, grouped similarly, shows exotic chartreuse parrots with sprigs of plump berries in their beaks; in the center is a magnificent open rose with scalloped petals shaded from deep red to the palest pink. The distinctive shape of this flower suggests a Tudor rose, an instantly recognizable symbol of England.

The purse is bound at the edges with a combination of couched and twisted silver-gilt-wrapped thread; gilded metal strip is threaded throughout to accent the trim. Lined in blue twilled silk, the purse cinches closed with finely plaited drawstrings. Golden basket weave tassels with silk fringe and gold loops form decorative pendants from the cord drawstrings, and a terminal tassel adds the final flourish to the bottom of the pouch. The pristine condition of this purse suggests that it was treasured and preserved rather than used. A woven purse with related motifs is in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (552-1901).

drawstring purse
pages 4-5 pages 8-9  

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