Oddly enough, I was thinking about caterpillars before the big Tudor revelation of last week: the confirmation that a lavishly embroidered cloth-of-silver altar cloth in a small church in Herefordshire was fashioned from a dress which might have belonged to Elizabeth I. The cloth was discovered by Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman, who has included it in her newly-released book, The Private Lives of the Tudors. Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty. Apparently Elizabeth had a reputation for casting-off her clothing to favorites, and her faithful servant Blanche Parry hailed from Bracton, the small village where this luxurious cloth has been hanging for over 400 years. The photographs of the cloth, particularly close-ups, show familiar Elizabethan flora and fauna (in a pattern that does indeed look very familiar to that of the dress which Elizabeth wears in the famous “Rainbow” portrait), including a rather conspicuous caterpillar hovering over a bear.
The Herefordshire altar cloth (@Historic Royal Palaces) and a fitted jacked from a bit later (c. 1616) featuring a caterpillar among a world of flora and fauna, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
So why was I thinking about caterpillars in general and Elizabethan caterpillars in particular? For the usual mix of scholarly/materialistic reasons. I am prepping for my summer graduate course on Elizabethan England, while at the same time spring cleaning the house and indulging in a bit of seasonal decoration, which for me means swapping out Spring rabbits for Summer bugs and snails: I had just replaced a John Derian glass tray featuring a card-dealing rabbit with one bearing a colorful caterpillar when I read the news about the Herefordshire discovery. And I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution which captures perfectly the dynamic world of fledgling naturalists and “scientists” in later-sixteenth century London. Harkness is probably better known for her fictional bestsellers of the past few years but for me, this is her jewel. I really had a hard time conveying to my students just how focused Elizabethans were on the natural world before it was published; certainly you can see–they can see– this preoccupation in Tudor decorative arts, and most particularly textiles, but I’m hoping that Harkness will really bring it home to them.
John Derian’s caterpillar tray & Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House.
So back to the caterpillar, which is such a distinctive creature in terms of both appearance and activity: it transforms and consumes, dramatically. Which quality determined their metaphorical characterization in Elizabethan England? Definitely the latter: when Shakespeare writes of a commonwealth of caterpillars in Richard II, he is referring to devouring parasites whom Bolingbroke has sworn “to weed and pluck away”. Another Shakespearian reference is to false caterpillars in Henry IV, Part 2: a rebellious group of “scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentleman” who (once again) are preying on the people: prey, “pill”, pillage: the caterpillar is hardly the wondrous creature of the first British entomologists Thomas Penny and Thomas Moffett, who maintained a more empirical perspective. The latter’s great work (which is largely based on the former!), Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrum (posthumously published in 1634), is more focused on metamorphosis than munching.
Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrium (1634–but largely based on Thomas Penny’s 500-page manuscript from the 1590s).