Domestic Shebas:
A Response to Ann Rosalind Jones, "Needle, Scepter, Sovereignty"

Jennifer Summit

 

     1. In "Needle, Scepter, Sovereignty: the Queen of Sheba in Englishwomen's Amateur Needlework," Ann Rosalind Jones surveys Englishwomen's representations of the Queen of Sheba in needlework to argue that through them, women celebrated female power, even equating it with the supreme male power embodied in King Solomon. Against modern and early modern understandings of needlework as a medium of female passivity, Jones' reading of these Shebas in needlework offers a compelling example of the broader phenomenon that Stallybrass and Jones trace in Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, when they find that "even as a woman bent over her sewing appeared to be fulfilling the requirement of obedient domesticity, she could be materializing a counter-memory for herself, registering her links to other women and to the larger world of culture and politics."1 By depicting the Queen of Sheba, needlewomen did exactly both: by forging links with an iconic woman, they stitched themselves into a "counter-memory" of female power.

     2. The first question I want to pose of this fascinating and provocative study is to ask why and how seventeenth century women identified with the Queen of Sheba. Especially given the fact that Sheba was a relatively uncommon figure in contemporary gender polemic, as Jones points out, what made her an attractive subject for needlewomen in particular? Jones hints at one possibility, which I'd like to develop further: Sheba has great stuff. In all versions of the Sheba story, she is identified with opulent goods: magnificent clothing, splendid appurtenances and lavish gifts. These give needlewomen a chance to employ the finest material available to represent them: sumptuously dyed silk (as in Figure 22), gold and silver thread (Figure 1), and even actual seed pearls (Figure 21). It is hard to imagine a biblical figure whose representation so authorizes the use of luxury materials. Moreover, the Sheba story redeems such material goods as signifiers of immaterial virtues: in The First Book of Kings (cited and discussed by Jones on page 2), "the Queene of Sheba sawe all Salomons wisdome, and the house that he had built, and the meat of his table." While "wisdom" is hard to "see," Solomon's display of material wealth is presented as the visible manifestation of wisdom, moving Sheba to equate wisdom and riches when she exclaims, "thou hast more wisedome & prosperitie, then I have heard by report." At a time when needlework was sometimes targeted for its excessive luxury--as when Thomas Milles dismisses it as "idle samplery or silken folly"--the Queen of Sheba allows needlewomen to have their cake and eat it too, employing their most luxurious materials while presenting luxury as the material embodiment of unseen virtues. In short, Sheba offers a defense of the material good that is also a defense of needlework itself.

     3. Indeed, the goods that Sheba bears--depicted in needlework as urns, jewels, and other portable ornaments--share a cultural realm with the mirrors, caskets, and moveable objects that early modern women decorated and valorized with needlework. In Amy Erickson's influential historical survey of early modern women and property, these moveable goods belong to the general category of "paraphernalia," the goods and chattels that women bring into marriage that, despite coverture, appear to have been recognized as their own belongings; they include (in the words of one lawyer) "those goods, which may seem to belong to the wife rather than to the husband, as her apparel, her bed, her jewels, or ornaments for her person" and even extending to "a coffer with divers things therein necessary for their own persons."2 Decorated caskets, which appear in two of Jones's examples (Figures 23 and 25) and hold their owners' "needles and thread, pens and ink, pearls and gold" (Jones 24), are comparable to the "coffer" that legally defines a female proprietary space. By embellishing that space with an image of Sheba, the needlewoman thematizes and celebrates female ownership.

     4. The Sheba story is centrally about objects and ownership, a point driven home by the event that the needlewomen choose to depict-Sheba bearing gifts to Solomon. The meeting of Solomon and Sheba reveals gift-giving to be an exercise of power. In the Biblical narratives, Solomon responds to Sheba's gifts with even greater magnificence; in I Kings X "King Salomon gave unto the queen of Sheba, whatsoeuer she wolde aske, besides that, which Salomon gaue her of his kinglie liberalitie," while in II Chronicles 9:12 "King Salomon gaue to the Queene of Sheba euerie pleasant thing that she asked, besides for that which she had broght unto the king," which the Geneva Bible glosses to mean: "That is, w[hich] the king gaue her for recompense of that treasure which she broght." This gesture of "recompense" indicates, as Jones points out, that "Solomon emerge[s] triumphant from the gift-giving contest" (5), since he is able to match and top the magnificence that Sheba expresses in her own gift-giving. But Sheba could also be seen to use the ritual of gift-giving in order to advance and protect her own self-interest. In this way, the scene bears comparison to early modern women's practices of gift-exchange, which Lisa M. Klein sees as "essays in self-promotion," wielded in order to advance and protect the gift-giver's social and material status.3 Needlework, as Klein establishes, was an especially valued gift, and perhaps some of Jones' examples were circulated in this capacity. If so, they indicate a shrewd self-consciousness about the meaning of the gift for the giver; just as Sheba walks away with "whatsoeuer she wolde aske," early modern women gave gifts in full awareness of the fact that "the one who initiates a gift exchange places the recipient under an obligation to reciprocate."4 In the gift-exchange modeled by Sheba--and perhaps enacted with the very pieces of needlework that depict Sheba's act--a gesture of giving can reap returns of untold material and immaterial value.

     5. While Sheba was less popular in early modern needlework than the figure of Esther, the "modest wife" (20), Sheba represented an alternative model of femininity--and, I would argue, of domesticity. The assertion of equal sovereignty that Jones detects in her subjects came at a significant moment in the history of domesticity itself, when, as Natasha Korda points out, one unintended consequence of early modern sexual divisions of labor (in full ideological force by the seventeenth century) was the wife's "increasing autonomy over the domestic sphere."5 If texts like John Taylor's "The Praise of the Needle" encouraged needlewomen to identify with queens (Stallybrass and Jones 136), the early modern woman, removed from her husband's surveillance, could be queen over her own house--in one sense, a domestic Sheba. Moreover, needlework represents a kind of female practice that is not necessarily confined to the domestic interior. Although Jones doesn't speculate about what her subjects did with their needlework, other studies have shown that needlework attained a more public importance, either in the gift exchanges that Klein studies or as a commodity that women made to sell.6 Needlework's very status as a moveable good--along with the objects it attached to--enabled it to traverse boundaries between public and private and to extend women's power in the domestic realm into the more political or public spaces outside the household. It allowed women, like Sheba, to take the symbols of their sovereignty on the road.

     6. Sheba is thus a fitting symbol of the power and autonomy that seventeenth-century women could experience in domesticity, a term that has been usefully revisited by studies like Wendy Wall's recent Staging Domesticity, which joins Korda's Shakespeare's Domestic Economies in showing that for early modern women, "domesticated" was not necessarily synonymous with "powerless."7 Where Jones argues that needlewomen identified with Sheba's "power as a public figure" (4), they equally may have been celebrating contemporary forms of female power in domesticity, ownership, or gift-giving that they experienced themselves closer to home.

     7. A further question about Sheba remains for me. As Jones points out, one significant change that Englishwomen made to their subject was Sheba's race: while representations like Jones's Figure 2 clearly depict Sheba as a black woman, the needlewomen consistently represent her with European markers of racial whiteness (pale cheeks and hands, European hairstyle, and what appear to be contemporary English fashions). While they are not the first to whiten Sheba, in doing so they depart from the sources that would have been most familiar to them, all of which stress Sheba's exotic origins. In the Geneva Bible Sheba is glossed as Queen of Ethiopia (a reference that Sir Walter Ralegh disputed, insisting instead that she was "Queen of Arabia8); in Luke 11:31 Sheba is "the queen of the south," who "came from the utmost partes of the earth." If, as Jones observes of her needlewomen, "their Queen of Sheba is never African or erotic" (4), their work transfers Sheba's exoticism--and perhaps even her eroticism, her status as desiring subject and desired object--from her body to her goods. In the needlework, those accessories reflect foreign origins: Sheba's ever-present parasol, which locates Sheba in "the hot south" (¶21, Figure 10), the balsam tree she bears in figure 10, and her gems and pearls [Figure 21]. The exoticism of Sheba's accessories is a reminder of the explosion in luxury goods that seventeenth-century England experienced as a result of a trade boom, which brought with it an influx not only of household luxury items like parasols but also of the raw materials on which embroiderers depended: the very silk, dyes, and seed pearls in which they worked came literally "from the utmost partes of the earth."9 (The blue dye used for Sheba's dress in Figure 22, for example, probably came from western India.10) The iconography of needlework reflected the growing cultural influence of colonialism and trade; as Roszika Parker points out, while early needlework is modeled on European art, in the seventeenth century needlework increasingly took its patterns from the Indian and Chinese fabrics that were imported to a hungry English market.11 We can possibly see this influence in some of the wild floral patterns that surround Sheba in Figure 9 or 12, where the flower that Sheba bears to Solomon as a gift might be seen to symbolize the broader influx of decorative influences entering England through international trade.

     8. If, as Kim Hall observes, "Sheba becomes a talismanic figure with the advent of Atlantic colonial trade," the white, anglicized Shebas in Jones' survey reflect colonial trade's effacement of cultural and racial difference.12 By whitening Sheba, Jones' needlewomen (perhaps unwittingly) recall Sheba's contemporary associations with the black but comely bride in the Song of Songs, who is whitened through Solomon's favor.13 Like that bride, Sheba in these needleworks is also whitened through contact with Solomon; here, though, her whitening could be seen to result less from religious conversion (as is the case with the bride) than from the cultural conversion effected by international commerce. As Hall points out, in the seventeenth century Solomon was widely regarded as a figure for James I and his imperial ambitions, especially since Solomon's wealth was imagined to have sprung from trade with the east.14 Sheba, who bears exotic objects to Solomon's court and presents them as a tribute to the King, embodies seventeenth-century English culture's paradox-laden relationship with the foreign cultures on which it depended for exotic, luxury goods. While the exoticism of Sheba's objects is a source of their value, so is their ability to be absorbed into English culture, an absorption that is symbolized by Sheba's own whitening, evident in her anglicized costume and pale skin.

     9. If, as I'm suggesting, needlework representations of Sheba are representations of needlework in their celebration of moveable goods, ornamentality, and female ownership, these English Shebas are also figures of colonial trade as a growing source of needlework's patterns and supplies. As well as offering valuable glimpses of early modern women's self-representation, they can help us to understand how cultural markers of female beauty both called on and denied their origins in "the utmost partes of the earth" from which their raw materials derived.

 

 

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Notes

1 Ann RosalindJones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), 134.

2 Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1993), 184; see also Stallybrass and Jones, 234-5.

3 Lisa M. Klein, "Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework," Renaissance Quarterly 50 (1997): 484.

4 Klein, 466.

5 Natasha Korda, Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 49.

6 On needlework as a trade, see Erickson, 57.

7 Wendy Wall, Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), 9.

8 Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995), 109.

9 On the seventeenth-century trade boom and its effect of needlework, see Susan Frye, "Sewing Connections: Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth Talbot, and the Seventeenth-Century Anonymous Needleworkers," in Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, eds. Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), 175. See also Linda Levy Peck, "Creating a Silk Industry in Seventeenth-Century England," Shakespeare Studies 28 (2000): 225-28.

10 Christopher Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), 2:130.

11 Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: The Women's Press, 1986), 106.

12 Kim F. Hall, "Object into Object? Some Thoughts on the Presence of Black Women in Early Modern Culture" in Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race and Empire, ed. Peter Erickson and Clark Hulse (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 360; Hall calls Sheba "a black woman with a brain" 359.

13 On the black but comely bride and her association with Sheba, see Hall, Things of Darkness, 110, and Sujata Iyengar, Mythologies of Color in the English Renaissance (PhD. Diss., Stanford University, 1998), Chapter 3, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bride."

14 Hall, Things of Darkness, 108.

 

 

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Content copyright © 2003 Jennifer Summit.