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“… hee would think hee met a monster or a devil …”

A woman’s visard mark – recently unearthed during the excavation of a Tudor building in England.

The quote is from The Anatomie of Abuses by Phillip Stubbes, published in 1583, in a passage criticising female fashion (p.80):

When they use to ride abrod they have invisories, or visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, hee would think hee met a monster or a devil, for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them. Thus they prophane the name of God, and live in all kinde of voluptuousnes and pleasure, wursse then ever did the hethen.

Stubbes is describing one of these masks. He admits the purpose of the mask is to protect a woman from, “the stelliferous beames of the glittering sun” (ie. sunburn!), but insists that purpose is harmful to the beauty of the soul. The author was a proto-Puritan, a sumptuary vigilante – did he have a point?

The term visard mask was first used in England about 1560 and was common up to 1700. A description from 1688 describes one, “which covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the Nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time, being held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastned on the in-side over against the mouth”. How to speak while biting on a bead? Was the purpose to protect the face from sunlight, or to project an image of mysterious silence? And what did Stubbes mean by his description of, “two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them”? Or rather, why were the eye-holes filled with glass? Good question.

Shakespeare cleverly referred to the “vizard” many time in Love’s Labour’s Lost (V ii), and throughout the plays – including a jest to the women in the audience who were breaking the law.

The law? The sumptuary laws, designed to regulate consumption of food and textiles but more honoured in the breach than the observance (another Shakespeare subtlety). Before Shakespeare the mighty Montaigne had written an essay on the policy, where he promotes a perverse influence for fashion (try the link for all his essays – a true pioneer).

The literary references are interesting, but I’ve strayed into areas beyond my understanding. Why did Shakespeare and Montaigne see delight where Stubbes found only misery? I’ll leave it at that.

But if you ever see this monster …

———

p.s. Another purpose for the visard may have been to cover facial scarring from smallpox – see Poxy Tudors.

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