In an essay published in a volume edited by Alec Ryrie and Jessica Martin, Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain (2012), I considered an account of a remarkable object known as ‘Old Robert’s Girdle’. It is described in William Hinde’s biography of the puritan householder John Bruen (1560–1625).* Hinde tells us that, despite being illiterate, a servant called ‘Old Robert’ was mighty in his knowledge of scripture. The key to this knowledge was a ‘strange Girdle’, which Robert apparently fashioned ‘for the help of his memory’. The girdle is described in some detail; made from leather it was long and large so that ‘for compass it would go twice about him’. The belt was then divided into partitions, like a carpenter’s rule, to represent every book of the Bible in order. Every chapter of each book was distinguished by a long ‘point’ (similar to a shoelace), with knots by fives or tens to identify the number of the chapter. Additional points served to divide the chapters into their particular parts, or verses. This device enabled Robert to recall any saying or sentence from the Bible and so he became ‘a godly Instructor’ to the household.
Hinde’s account of Robert’s girdle is an unusually detailed description of the appearance and function of an early modern crafted object and how it was used in particular circumstances and locations. Having been created to serve as a mnemonic device to aid Robert and the household in their command of scripture and sermons, the object’s biography also continued after Robert’s death: his Master, Bruen, thought the girdle worthy to be set up in his study as ‘a monument of Gods mercy’ and to represent ‘old Roberts both piety and industry’. Unfortunately, there is no indication what happened to the girdle after Bruen died – it is presumed lost, and so we are left with this fascinating, yet tantalizing, description.
Since writing about Robert’s Girdle, I came across another group of artefacts which bear a striking resemblance to the description provided by Hinde and which allow us to visualise what this extraordinary object might have looked like. I happened to watch a TV programme dedicated to Incan Khipu…
A khipu – or quipu – is a series of knotted or coloured cotton cords. It consists of a main cord from which pendant cords hang, as well as pendants of pendants (called subsidiaries). The different kinds of knots tied in these pendants, together with other signifiers such as the numbers, positions and colours of the cords all had meaning, representing an immense amount of information. It is known that these knotted-string devices were used for bookkeeping and recording statistical information, most notably by the Inca but also by other peoples of the central Andes from ancient times.
There is considerable debate about the extent to which quipu were used to record narrative information (stories) as well as for administrative (numerical/statistical) purposes; it is possible these devices offered a way of storing and retrieving communal memory. After the Spanish conquest the quipu faded from use, replaced by European writing systems. But in many villages quipu were preserved and continued to function as important items for their local communities, but as revered items used in rituals relating to authority and office-holding rather than for recording information.
The presence of an object that might well have resembled these Incan artefacts as the focal point for communal practices in a noted puritan household takes us some way from the conventional understanding of post-Reformation religious practice as text-based and interiorized. Old Robert’s Girdle operated through physical, haptic interactions with tactile materials and facilitated social exchanges on religious matters. The Incan connection – the similarities with quipu – might help us to reconsider the nature of household religion in Protestant England and acknowledge its continued dependence on material props, that functioned not only as repositories of information and memory, but as special, ritual objects to bind communities together.
*William Hinde, A faithful Remonstrance: or the Holy Life and Happy Death of John Bruen of Bruen-Stapleford, in the County of Chester, Esq., (London, 1641), pp.56-7.