Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Hortus deleciarum puppets

I wanted something to enter into the local monthly summer picnic competition for toys. And being me, I couldn't help wondering if I could make a documentable 12th C toy.

I did some quick looking at medieval toys, and unearthed the following links:

But somehow none of these really inspired me. And then I was reminded of something I'd seen and been intrigued by several times before:

The Hortus deleciarum was a gloriously illustrated 12th Century german manuscript from Hohenbourg in Alsace, dated 1170-1200. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in the 19th Century. Fortunately several handdrawn copies were made before this happened, but unfortunately they were drawn by artists with strong preconceptions about what they would see in the pictures, and so many subtle errors have crept into the redrawings, for example women who look like they are wearing corsets. The above redrawing is by Engelhardt, the complete redrawings by this artist are online. Annother two Victorian era artist's redrawings of this scene can be seen here and here. While we cannot be sure of any fine details on these redrawings, the similarity between the various redrawings gives me confidence that the essentials of these pictures are correct.

This article gives a nice background to this drawing and points out that the people depicted are not children, but adults frivolously wasting time. This makes more sense to me, as the illustrations of this era do make some differentiation between adults and children, at least in terms of size, but often in the more naturalistic high quality german pieces of this era, also begin to show some of the proportion of children too.

At any rate, the picture depicts two people holding two ropes which manipulate two puppets, so I did a little research into medieval puppetry. This article and this article and this article are fascinating, but it looks like this is a very specialised topic, which would be challenging to research in greater detail.

The 1st reference refers to this kind of puppet as a "jiggling puppet", but I could not find any information on the web by searching for this kind of puppet - and my web searching skills are quite good. I briefly considered taking this research a step further and expanding my search to books, mailing lists and more in depth searches, but then decided to keep this a simple project.

Instead, I attempted to build a mock up version of how I believed the puppet might have worked. I was rather free in that all I had to recreate was the end effect, not a specific way of achieving it. It took a couple of pieces of cardboard, a rope, some twist ties and about 12 minutes. I cut the cardboard into a rough shape and used twist ties to attach one piece rope to each piece of cardboard.

Stunned by how simple this was to make something successful, I decided to make a fancy version of this. Wanting the puppet to have greater longevity, and to be able to be played with by rough children (even if the illustration is of adults, my version will go to children, in accordance with competition rules), I needed something sturdier than one sheet of cardboard. Multiple sheets of cardboard might work, but aren't very period. Leather would be harder to paint, and might bend if damp. Metal (thin sheets to keep it light) would be lovely, but metalwork is daunting to me, and I'd have to do a lot of work to finish rough edges. Wood seemed the right material for me.

A visit to my local harware store offered only balsewood (a bit weaker than I'd prefer) as a flat sheet of wood, not containing glue. Not containing glue was important since I had a new pyrography iron I'd like to test (the instructions with it contained instructions on stencil making), and I didn't want to burn glue and create noxious fumes. Also I don't think plywood was very common in medieval times, and I'm pretty sure no equivalent of craftwood and mdf (woodchips in glue) existed.

I did find a way to make the swords more study though - there was some very thin hardwood beading available, while looked quite like a sword from the correct orientation.

I traced out an image of fighting knights onto my balsawood, but I wanted a little more detail than was in the tiny Hortus deleciarum images. I'm fond of an image of knights fighting which is from an similar time and place, so I altered my traced images to look more like this image:

Middle Rhein, Allegorical battle scene, detached from a speculum Virginum, Inv no. 3984, Late 12th C, Hannover, Kestner Museum

The barrel helms also made drawing and cutting out the shapes easier, while the surcoat allows a more colourful image, which i hoped children would enjoy more (and so they could easily tell them apart - the red knight and the blue knight).

I proceeded to cut out my images with my pyrography iron, but that wasn’t working well, since the balsa wood was about 3 times thicker than it could easily burn through. If I had been able to get some hardwood sheets, I would have preferred about 1/3 of the thickness, so I think the pyrography iron would have worked well then.

Since pyrography was working so poorly, so I cut it out with a stanley knife instead. Since it was balsawood, instead of hardwood, it was easy to cut, except a few corners which split off and had to be glued back on again.

I carved/burnt the edges of the beading to form sword shapes, and glued these to he balsawood hands. I used superglue because it was quick. I think medieval people would not have used glue in such a crucial section (perhaps rivets, pins or good socketing), but then I expect the whole piece would have been stronger, so a stronger sword section is unlikely to have been a consideration.

Once I had cut out knights, I glued on strips of cardboard to hold the ropes. Perhaps I should have used strips of leather or shaped metal, and maybe should have pinned or rivetted it on, but I was running late and out of imagination at the time.

I painted the figures with acrylic paints because they were close at hand and non-toxic. I tried to paint in a 12th C manuscript cartoon style by outlining the image in black.

The knights run along their ropes quite well. The system I ended up using was to firmly attach one set of loops to the rope, and then use a loose second set of loops which were just to hold to rope loosely near the knight. The strip of cardboard was not tight enough, so used pins to hold the rope in place on the tight loop.

The toys turned out much better than I expected (especially the rush job of cutting and painting), and looked great. They were a hit with at least one of the boys, which luckily (for him) was the winner of the boffer tourney and had his pick of the toys to take home. I'm happy to see my toy where it will be appreciated, and I hope it won't break too easily.