Renaissance thirst traps
This week’s rabbit hole was inspired by the recent New York Times article, “Decoding the Defiance of Henry VIII’s First Wife.” The article explores the history of communication and the power of female voices throughout history — aka my favorite topic! The TLDR: An English Ph.D. candidate named Vanessa Braganza, decoded a cipher pendant by Hans Holbein (a German painter) that entangled the names Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Braganza argues that while the cipher’s disguised message is mostly unremarkable (it reads “HENRICVS REX and KATHERINE”), what is interesting is that it was commissioned by Catherine during the period when Henry VIII was trying to divorce her in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Braganza says that perhaps this pendant is a “gateway into her thinking” at the time, and an “assertion of her lifelong claim to be his one true wife and queen.”
“It’s just sitting there, daring you to see it.” — Vanessa Braganza
Zooming out a little — ciphers and codes are infamous for shaping culture throughout the Renaissance era. But we’ve only recently started paying attention to the way women harnessed the medium, using visual codes and disguised messages to communicate and pass information in order to exert power in a relatively futile environment. For example, last year scholars uncovered hidden messages in the prayer book that Anne Boleyn was said to have carried to her beheading, and it’s since been passed down by generations of women. A historical underground network of rebellious women embroiled in a scandal to keep the messages and voice of one of their family members alive — how cool!
The historian Susan Frye has explored this concept in-depth in her book, Pens & Needles. The book cites how traditional “women’s work” (like needlework) was a way for women to communicate with one another throughout the English Renaissance, shaping their identity via ciphers, stitched alphabets, and initials. While we might be inclined to think that women have sought out information via secret communication networks only recently, there seem to be markers of rebellious communication outlets for centuries. It’s cool to think about all the generations of women before us, testing the mediums that were available to them to ensure that their lives and voices weren’t drowned out.
With that in mind — could a modern day example of ciphers be found in our penchant for “sub-tweeting” or “thirst traps”? We pass encrypted messages to knowing audiences on social media all the time. Subtweets on Twitter are usually decipherable by discerning audiences. And thirst traps on Instagram often hide messages in plain sight; most often, people post these photos to capture the attention of a singular crush, either to elicit a response in real-time or remind certain individuals of their presence. While I can’t quite picture Catherine of Aragon sharing a thirst trap (but maybe!), perhaps she commissioned the cipher pendant to assert her dominance by subtly reminding the world of her role as the king’s first wife.
What do you think?
This article was originally published in Diem’s weekly newsletter on July 26th 2022, subscribe here.