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Protestant Court Culture and the Language of Feathers

Ulinka Rublack

Most research on early modern objects has concentrated on gathering information about items which can be located in museums or private collections as well as contemporary galleries specialising in global decorative arts. Such objects typically are relatively easy to conserve as well as legally to trade and display: metals, ivory, stones, corals, coconuts, mother-of-pearl or marquetrie. This project, by contrast, focuses on a fragile animal material which is thereby easily forgotten: feathers in dress. While European interest in collecting Mexican feather-work and a translation of its aesthetics into decorative objects as well as feather fans have attracted attention, the spectatuclar sixteenth-century rise of feathers as dress accessories complementes this fascination with the unique properties of an animal material. It stood out for its sensuous appeal through lightness, softness and either stunning natural colour or its ability to easily absorb dye. In 1500, few men and women except mercenary soldiers would ever have worn feathers. One hundred years later, feathers had become indispensable to achieve the “gallant” look.

This observation not only urges historians to rethink fashion and consumption in the sixteenth century. Examining the history of feathers and featherwork also enables historians to approach early modern cultural encounters and identity formations in the light of the history of emotions, the body and the senses. We therefore need to understand the significance of feathers in the period’s symbolic universe. In particular, the project examines the extent to which the production and circulation of early modern featherwork coincided with the transmission of artisanal skills and the shaping of emotional styles that mirrored debates on religion, natural philosophy, and gender. Feathers in European dress are still underresearched types of matter, as they have often been categorised as mundane as well as non- or semi-durable. Yet the way in which feathers were sources, traded, produced and marketed underwent extraordinary transformations in the period. Different ways of crafting feathers responded to or re-shaped their properties. They took on meaning in different confessional as well as social milieus and settings, which recasts our sense of emotional cultures of awe, galant delicacy, masculinity and femininity attached to them.

Research on the uses of feathers in European dress during the early modern period hardly exists. Research has concentrated on European interest in the collecting and display of South American featherwork, notably in splendid displays at the Württemberg court in 1599, when duke Frederick himself appeard as ‘Lady America’ and restaged several scenes from de Bry’s recent publications. Feathers also feature as a topic in new scholarship on the status of collections for the Holy Roman Emperors and debates about sumptuousness. Often, historians have problematically assumed that European and Amerindian attitudes to birds and feathers radically diverged: subject and object were one for Amerindians but experienced as separate for Europeans. Yet this relationship first needs to be further explored in the contexts of the history of dress and the body, which has documented the extent to which Europeans could see themselves as being worn and constituted by their apparel. Recent catalogues on featherwork in Western dress, however, characteristicall start in the eighteenth century or focus exclusively on Catholic milieus. The project re-addresses this curious oversight especially in the contexts of the artisanship of featherwork that was stimulated through cultural contacts in the sixteenth century to which the new trade in guilded feather-making dates as well. In addition, the project broadens the focus of previous research on feathers by taking Protestant milieus into account.


By focusing on various court and agents that connected the world of court performances with the artisans working in cities, the project explores how people were able to communicate with each other in appropriately spiritualised, but un-contentious ways through the usage of feathers in an age of Christian and political divides. Since more and more Central European craftsmen specialised in the production of featherwork, feathers were capable of shaping emotional communities through an evocation of awe, masculinity, heroism and animal might that was powerfully felt four-hundred years ago, but is now a ‘lost emotion’ which we no longer understand.

This project as a whole aims to reconstruct the trade and development of European craft expertise in relation to feathers. It thereby also focuses on the Netherlands where feather-makers achieved particular skills in the dying and arrangement of feathers. It thus interrelates with the project on gold in a Netherlandish context, but focuses on the meanings attached to a newly utilised material in an age of accelerated transcultural exchange.


The project looks at Augsburg and Nuremberg as further cities in which the production of luxury crafts became crucial for their identity, and thus relates to the project on Venice (glass). It explores how courts and urban agents forged particular emotional styles, but crucially with reference to religious debates, natural philosophy and gendered ideals of the time. These aspects strongly relate to the other projects’ interests in veils (gender) as well as gold (natural philosophy). Taken together these projects thus attempt a new look at European identities during this formative period, shaped by a dialogue between matter and mind.

Stefan Hanß — PostDoc

The Making of Featherwork across Early Modern Cultures


The project builds on the observation that feathers were capable of shaping emotional communities in early modern Europe, which is seen as the result of a considerable increase of European craftsmen that specialised in the production of featherwork throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I aim to reconstruct the trade and development of European craft expertise in relation to feathers in the contexts of an increasinlgy connected world.

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