Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flirting with a Handkerchief

In a poem of 1620, Richard Johnson attributes the Honi soit qui mal y pense motto to the queen of France, in his “Gallant Song of the Garter of England.” When her garter falls during a feast, the snickering courtiers seem to accuse her of dropping it deliberately to attract the king’s attention, so it is actually the queen who coins the motto in their reproof:



But when she heard these ill conceits
And speeches that they made,
Hony soyt qui mal y pens,
                        the noble Princes said.
Ill hap to them that evill thinke,
In English it is thus
Which words so wise (quoth Englands King)
                                   shall surely goe with us …

This reminds me of those stupid scenes in Mickey Mouse-vintage cartoons, where a simpering female character would drop her lace handkerchief in front of a male she wanted to attract. He is supposed, gallantly, to return it, and thus start a conversation. 

My question is this: what's the oldest known reference to this kind of behaviour? I did a quick google search and found an allusion, but it was a website selling a C19 French lace handkerchief. http://www.rubylane.com/shops/nicole-la-bay/item/1208LAC: 

At a time when women were not allowed to talk to a stranger, handkerchiefs were literally a means of communication, as ladies would drop these precious pieces of lace on the sidewalk, whenever they wanted to attract the attention of a gentleman.
Gentlemen were of course extremely flattered to pick them up and give them back to their owners.
I've no idea if this is just made up or refers to a "real" C19 practice. So, dear readers, from your wide reading in history, fiction, poetry, textile history, etc., can you think of any examples? I guess Johnson's poem suggests an early suspicion of feminine wiles, but it's the handkerchief that has become the iconic object here. But since when?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Stephanie
When the world of academia seems dry and difficult a dip into your blog restores my passion for learning and life - thank you for sharing your world.
G

Stephanie Trigg said...

Dear G,

I am extremely honoured and grateful. Cheers, S.

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Anonymous said...

If you are looking for a nineteenth century reference to flirting with a handkerchief, Dumas makes a reference in The Three Musketeers when D'Artagnon bumps into Porthos and he drops the handkerchief given to him by one of his mistresses. Even though the story takes place in the 1600s and he was known for changing history for the sake of plot, it still reveals something about Dumas' time in the 1800s.