Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Old Rope?

The Corderie Royale, Rochefort.
Photo courtesy of Charente-Maritime Tourisme
I’ve just got back from two weeks in western France, in the Cognac region, with its fields full of vines and gardens full of hollyhocks. It’s an area packed with 11th-century Romanesque churches, medieval keeps and, along the coast, Napoleonic fortifications. The most historically stimulating site of the trip for me, however, was the Corderie Royale in the 17th-century planned military town of Rochefort.

When an outing was proposed to the Corderie, a museum dedicated to 17th-century rope-making, some members of our party were less than convinced that this would make for an entertaining day out. The Corderie, rebuilt after World War II, is a stark, slim building constructed in the 1660s on former marshland on the banks of the Charente river– over  300 metres long, with an endless façade of windows. An early attempt to produce military supplies on an industrial scale, it supplied Louis XIV’s navy with its entire supply of rope, over three tonnes of it for every man of war, in dozens of different lengths, thicknesses and finishes.

The Corderie museum today displays different types of naval rope, the wooden machines & accessories used to manufacture it, 17C etchings of the process, and samples of the hemp and other dried vegetable matter which provided the basic raw materials. A historian gave a demonstration of how production worked in the Corderie, using original tools (and a volunteer from the audience). The emphasis was very much on the technical, technological history of rope-making, and – judging by the faces of the French and foreign visitors – it was strangely riveting.

In British museums and English Heritage sites, there is an attempt to make visitors feel connected to the history they are learning about, and to encourage imaginative empathy, by presenting the past through the eyes of the ‘ordinary’ people who lived in it – the humble sailors on the Mary Rose, or locals caught up in the Battle of Bosworth. The visitor audio guide at Whitby Abbey consists of an early medieval nun telling you about her life on that headland. Even though 20C French historians were so important in reinventing social and cultural history, there was nothing at the Corderie about the everyday life of the rope makers, or their experiences. They existed only as little male figures, in breeches and big hats, toiling away on 17C prints. But the museum was, nonetheless, no less exciting, or stimulating to the imagination, for that. It was good to see an institution telling its own slice of industrial, naval and French history with such passion, clarity, and confidence that the public would respond to a good story, clearly told, however recondite it might appear at first glance. I liked the fact that the Corderie made no apologies for being a museum dedicated to 17C rope making in western France, and pulled it off with such panache. 

Photo by akial