January 2014

Queen Elizabeth in Cyberspace

As you may or may not know, I am–by day–a mild mannered computer programmer, whose job is to devise ways for billions of records to be processed, sorted, analyzed, linked and visualized using the latest and greatest supercomputing technology.

A far cry from Historic Dress, one might be tempted to think. But I’ve found ways to merge my two interests: the Elizabethan Corset Pattern Generator was one of the earlier ones, and my forays into Synonym and Sounds-like searching of historic texts is another.

My most recent all-consuming synthesis of costume and computing is my Wardrobe Concordance. This is a cunning master plan which, at its current rate, should see completion somewhere around 2030.

Cunning Plan Step the first: Here, take this shovel.

Find, Transcribe (or get transcriptions by others) of all the original manuscripts describing Elizabeth I’s wardrobe, and load them into Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Uploaded. Enter in new synonyms for words (like “verdingall” for farthingale, “crammoisy” for crimson, etc) into the glossary as I come across them, so that odd or unusual words are highlighted with their definition available if one hovers over the word.

This step is coming along; I’ve gotten, I would say, about half of Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts entered so far. As well as a couple of her inventories and a handful of Gift Rolls. There’s about 6,000 individual entries so far. I’m  halfway through the corpus; I still have to transcribe, upload and glossarize the 1593-1600 wardrobe warrants, a good copy of the Stowe Inventory, and the wardrobe warrants from 1558-1568 (which are in Latin. That’s going to be fun to learn).

It’s difficult, though; I come across so many other interesting texts and ideas for research that I’m continually distracted from my goal. I have, however, acquired a minion who also enjoys transcribing wardrobe warrants. Little did she know how addictive it would be! Which helps bring my goal a bit closer.

Cunning Plan Step the Second: Open the Wardrobe Doors, Hal.

Find a way to extract information from each entry so that they can be usefully analyzed.earched, analyzed, linked and visualized. What this means is taking an entry like:

Item to the said William Jones for makinge of a highe bodied gowne of greene veluet (for Thomasine our woman dwarf) laied with Siluer Lace the sleuis cut in panes the bodies styffened with canvas and buckeram and laied aboute with buckeram bordered with fustian and pocketts of fustian the bodies faced with Satten cut and lyned with sarcenet the playtes Lyned and a role of cotton with a paire of sleuis of Satten, cut and Lyned with Sarcenet

And turning it into the following:

Action: making. Garment: High bodied gown. Material: velvet. Color: green. Made by: William Jones. Made for: Thomasine de Paris. Date:1588. Lining: sarcenet. Facing: satin. Stiffening: canvas, buckram. Decoration: Silver lace. Garment sections: Sleeves, material satin, lining sarcenet, cut in panes. Bodice: stiffened with canvas,buckram. Roll, made of cotton.

This process is going to require several steps. First: standardizing spellings and terms across the corpus. This is fairly easy, using the glossary I’ve put together already. In fact, I’ve already done this.

The next step: parsing the text. Identifying words as garments, materials, colors, etc.; and, once that’s done, finding a way to figure out what is related to what. (lining material sarcenet, facing satin, sleeves are made of satin, etc.)

If I was rich, I would do what the EEBO did and farm the 10,000 entries like the above out to an offshore transcription company to crunch through.  But I’m not rich. I am something even better: a programmer.

A programmer who was graced by extraordinary serendipity in the past few weeks. At work, I was tasked with learning about Natural Language Processing, and figure out how to integrate it into our supercomputer platform so that we could run it against thousands of free texts simultaneously. This increased my knowledge base about how the heck one would parse this wardrobe data by a factor of ten in the first week alone, and brought me a lot closer to figuring out how it would have to be done.

And at the Folger Library last week, when I popped in to their 4 pm tea and chatted about this project with some of the people there, I was tipped off about two software programs: Morphadorner and Vard. Both of them were built to parse, standardize spelling, and extract meaning and entities from early english texts. I smacked myself on the head for forgetting the cardinal rule of problem-solving: the answer you seek is always available somewhere on the internet.

Cunning Plan Step the Third:  That’s not a moon, that’s a space station

I want to be able to link together all the records for a given gown.  This will  answer so many questions. How many gowns and garments did Elizabeth truly have, and in what proportions by type?  What sorts of alterations were most frequently done? How often were gowns altered? Were certain garments altered more frequently or mentioned more often, and could this be used to identify her preferences in clothing: favorite colors, styles, etc? Were there certain spans of time where a particular type of alteration was far more frequently seen than other times–like c. 1590, where “lengthening and widening” of skirts starts showing up with remarkable frequency, echoing the change in fashionable silhouette?

I could do this by hand, by starting at the beginning of the corpus, searching the database for all garments with similar descriptions, and eyeballing them to see if they really are the same gown, or different. Here’s an example of one such pattern found:

1572: Item for making of a french Gowne of russett and white damaske garded with carnacion taphata layed with bone lase of golde and silver the bodies and slevis garded very thicke lyned with carnacion and white taphata the Gowne borderid with carnacion taphata with a rolle of white cotten & rolls in the slevis coverid with white fustian all of our greate Guarderobe.

1574: Item for alteringe the bodies of a Gowne of russett and white damaske with a garde of carnacion taphata with a bone lase of venice golde and silver upon it of our greate Guarderobe.

1579: for lyninge of a gowne of russett and white damaske lyned with blak unshorne vellat in the forequarters with a newe steye of sarceonett

But this approach has problems, and not only the cripplingly huge amount of sorting and comparison that would need to be done. the 1572 and 1574 records are clearly the same…but is the 1579 record? It mentions black unshorn velvet. Is there another record for, say, a french gown of orange and white damask lined with black unshorn velvet, that would be a closer match?

Fortunately, performing automated fuzzy linking like this is exactly what I do at work. My employer takes 360 billion public records and links them together using some extremely iterative, arcane and impressive fuzzy matching and statistical algorithms. Once I have all the data parsed out into separate fields for material, color, gown type, etc., I’ll be able to run it through some matching algorithms that will link it all up as nice as you please, providing confidence scores about the certainty of the match into the bargain.

The other thing I want to do is to be able to take the parsed data and build a visualization front end for ad-hoc quering and charting of data.

In English, that means creating a webpage where someone can say, “give me a line chart of the number of spanish farthingales made and altered between 1558 and 1602, grouped by year.” And then they can add another line to the chart for the number of half farthingales made and altered, and another line for the number of rolls made and altered, and voila: the transition from Spanish to French farthingales over the course of Elizabeth’s reign is laid out as neat as you please.  What would have taken hours and days of poking through records is shown in 5 minutes.

Once I have this, I can answer idle questions like “I wonder how Elizabeth’s color preferences changed over her lifetime” or “were her garment linings switched out between fur and lighter fabrics based on time of year?” with a few clicks of a button. Spotting trends in different types of garments, different sorts of decoration, and different materials become trivial.

And then I can turn my attention to all of the other topics of research that have been queuing up…


Book Review: The Inventory of Henry VIII: Clothing and Textiles

The high point of this Christmas was the appearance of  The Inventory of Henry VIII: Textiles and Clothing under the tree. My husband had ordered it years and years ago for a gift, and it had been delayed and delayed again until both of us had completely forgotten about it.

The book itself costs an arm, leg and kidney. If I’d had to buy it for myself before Christmas, I’d have refrained. But now, having read through it, I have to say that it’s worth every penny I didn’t have to pay for it; and if I hadn’t got it for Christmas, I’d be saving up for a copy even now.

So, in the spirit of enablement, I’m passing on the details of just what’s in this book to all y’all, so you have an idea of whether or not you need to buy it.  I initially intended to make it a facebook post to my historic costume list. two typed pages later, I had to reconsider; each one of the articles in the book deserves its own review.

The book is a series of essays, each one based upon the information on a particular topic to be found in the various inventories of Henry VIII, each written by a person at the top of their game in that particular field. The first is on King Henry’s Tapestry collection, written by Thomas Campbell. Then comes the section on the clothing of King Henry, and his hunting equipment, by Maria Hayward.  She also writes the following section, on the textiles, tents, flags and costumes that were in the care of the Office of Tents and Revels.

This is followed by an article on table carpets and coverings for tables, seats and floors by the esteemed late Donald King, “The Art of the Broiderers” by Santina Levey, and a section on table and bed linens by David Mitchell. Then comes an article focusing on the textiles in Henry’s Store, by Lisa Monnas, another essay by her on the ecclesiastical textiles and costume in the inventory, and finally, an article on Furs in Henry’s wardrobe by Elspeth Veale.

A solid block of knowledge, indeed! 365 pages of brand new research on Tudor textiles and costume and I was determined to go through every page, even the sections I didn’t really expect to enjoy, like the articles on tapestries, carpets, table linens and ecclesiastical textiles. Even if they were dry, or ancillary to my interests, they were bound to be extremely informative and I was duty-bound to read them.

I had forgotten something, however. When a person is truly and whole-heartedly obsessed with a particular subject, and when they can write well, their love of it becomes infectious. They pass on the contagion of their passion via the written word, captivating the unsuspecting reader and carrying them along into unexpected areas of research.


The Folger Files

I spent Friday in that particular circle of academic heaven known as the Folger Library in Washington, DC.

photoThe Folger Library is beautiful and absolutely uplifting to walk through. It smells divinely of dust and old paper and leather. The Folger’s reading room is full of Tudor woodwork and Tudor manuscripts and their basement holds  an enticing array of microfilms from the British Library.

The Folger is also rather exclusive–unlike the plebeian British Library, British Museum and National Archives of England, which require a mere driver’s license and a couple of forms signed before allowing any Tom, Dick or Harry to handle as many 12th-century charters as they wish, the Folger insists upon a letter of intent describing precisely what the person wants to view, plus two references from professional academics (sent from an institutional address) before allowing non-academic-affiliated researchers to view items in their collection.

This exclusivity bemused me the first time I encountered it. But I suppose it’s understandable; one can’t be too careful when it comes to those independent researchers. Turn your back on them for two minutes, and they start folding Queen Elizabeth’s letters into paper airplanes and running naked with them through the stacks.

But! I can definitely tell you that their collection is worth the hoops that one must jump through to get access to it.

I initially went to follow up on a lead of possible tailor’s bills in the Stiffkey Estate Papers collection. A dead end, alas. However, I did get to see and photograph my own copy of the 1600 Inventory of Elizabeth’s wardrobe of robes. The ink was a faded brown, hard to read in many cases, but oh, the mouthwatering descriptions of petticoats, kirtles and cloaks! I can’t wait to transcribe them all and start linking them to entries in the wardrobe accounts in DressDB

I also got a look at Freyle’s 1588 tailor’s book.  Unlike Alcega, Freyle includes several patterns for breeches laid out alongside doublets, jerkins, sayas and ropillas. I’m looking forward to making a pair up to see how they look in wool and silk.

He also had a layout for a farthingale that was slightly different than Alcega’s, though the pieces looked to be about the same when laid out, and some patterns for women’s sayas that had high necked doublet bodices with a distinct fish in the front seam under the bust. All in all, a fascinating find!

After these two highlights, the rest of the day passed fairly quickly in inventory-fishing. I’d requested a large number of inventories and household accounts in the hopes that some of them would include apparel in the inventories. I struck out with most of them; they included napery, drapery, bedding and household textiles, but no apparell. One item of interest was the prevalence of red-and-green fringe in the decoration of furniture and bedding; it brought to mind the remarkable amount of red and green fringe sold by the haberdasher William Wray. Red and green, much more than red fringe, green fringe or black fringe, was a popular item in his inventory.

There were only two docs that repaid my investigation. The first  were the Inventories of Elizabeth Berkeley, a set of three wardrobe inventories of her wardrobe taken in 1605, 1611 and 1617. I’d transcribed them in haste the last time I’d been here, and hadn’t had the wherewithall to photograph them. The three inventories themselves are intriguing; not only do they illustrate the evolution and change in a woman’s wardrobe over time (more waistcoats and jackets as the years went on, no farthingales bought but the three she had retained for 20 years, night gowns referred to as loose gowns in some inventories, and other interesting linguistic wardrobe hints, but the garments themselves reveal much about a woman’s wardrobe of the early 17th century. Striped canvas bodies, for one.

The second were the household inventories of the Townshend Family. Almost all of the inventories focused on household furnishings, but there was an inventory of my “Lord’s Apparel” and my “Ladies Apparel” which will be interesting to transcribe.

Other than that, it was merely the odd mention of a shirt, or ‘His wearing apparell, 4 pounds.’

Except for one curious entry in the Inventory of the goods of George Cope taken at the time of his death (1572). It was a long inventory, with only a few lines devoted to his clothing. But take a look at the last line:

Item in the same chest, ii gownes of cloth thone garded with velvet thother with black silke buttons     vis viiid
Item ii Clookes vis viiid
Item a rede taffitye dublet xs
Item a doublet of rewed canvas iiis iiiid
Item iiii letherne Jerkins xiiis iiiid
Item iiii payre of hose xxs
Item ix shertes wherof iiii whyte sherts ii blacke a blewe one edged with golde & one with silver xis

If I’m reading that right, George had two black shirts and a blue one as well. Something I’d never see before in inventory entries.

After finishing with the various inventories, I went downstairs to try my luck in the microfilm room. I had two references to Harleian manuscripts from the British Library that I hoped to get a look at: One was the Probate Inventory of Leicester, and one was a wardrobe account. Unfortunately, all I had were the manuscript numbers and folios, and the 126 rolls of microfilmed Harleian manuscripts were organized by manuscript volume. I didn’t have the means to find out what manuscripts were in which volume just then, so instead I picked a roll of Lansdowne manuscripts at random, sat down and started scrolling through.

Talk about luck! I happened upon the 1559 household inventory of Thomas Cawarden, King Henry VIII’s Master of Revels. It was fairly disorganized, hats and crossbows and furniture and kitchen supplies following eachother higgledy-piggledy, but a couple of entries caught my eye while I was photographing: A reference to a farthingale of satin de bruges, for one. I look forward to transcribing this one, definitely.

I’m going  back tomorrow to try my luck in their card catalog and see what I can find amongst the catalog that hasn’t yet made it into their online catalog, Hamnet. I’m told there’s a considerable number of interesting items from the continent hiding in there.

And here, to make you all terribly jealous, is a Short panorama of the glory which is the Folger Library Reading room.