Spiralling out of control

The medievalist Jacques Le Goff is fascinated by the obsession of folk in the Middle Ages with the wheel. It turns up everywhere as a motif, from crop rotation to rose windows, from architecture to the ubiquitous iconography of the Wheel of Fortune, rooted in the Fates of Greek mythology. Le Goff is both an acutely brilliant intellectual and a convinced Marxist, and it is likely that his interest in the wheel as a medieval emblem is informed by this. Notwithstanding this, he is clearly on to something. There is a profoundly subversive undercurrent in the wheel of fortune image (“Non timeo rota fortunae!”; I am not afraid of the wheel of fortune!), picturing, as it does, a king at the top of the wheel with his crown balancing precariously on his head – or even toppling off – as the blindfolded Lady Fortune spins the disk.


Le Goff links the wheel to the craftsmen who produced the rose windows. With technological advances meaning that tall buildings could stand (thanks to flying buttresses, among others) without collapsing, a whole new industry sprang up of artisans to carve statues, make stained glass, and decorate these hitherto impossibly high reaches. Almost for the first time in history, a peasant could move up the social strata and journey from rags to riches because of the possibilities of acquiring a trade. These were the men who created the rose windows, the symbol of revolution, the wheel turning, and established order changing. Le Goff notes that, at the same time, chess rules evolved to allow a pawn to become a powerful piece, “queened”, if it reached the end of the board, reflecting these social changes.

The social hierarchy’s calcification is enshrined in a ghastly stanza of the insipid nineteenth-century hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The only job from which I was ever fired was lost because of this stanza. I worked during a long, sultry summer at a greetings-card company in Yorkshire, and while dealing with the programme for a wedding with a stationer over the telephone, suggested that this stanza be omitted, as it commonly is. When he asked why, I gently explained that some people were rightly startled by its “know thy place” sentiments. He said nothing to me but phoned my manager later and was absolutely livid, claiming that I had accused him of being politically incorrect. It turned out to be a serendipitous dismissal as I had saved enough money from that job to begin my MA in history a few weeks later.

We use the word revolution a little casually and often in a promiscuous fashion, but we should reflect on what a delicious word it is. The wheel turns and is as inevitable as it is unstoppable. Things come full circle. They spiral out of control. The ultimate lesson seems to be that life and society are often unpredictable. At the same time, we seem destined to make the same mistakes unless we are empowered to remove the blindfold and learn from the past.


This brings me to today’s pair of cufflinks. They are a sterling-silver pair designed by the Danish silvermith L. Cordt-Andersen and have his maker’s mark of L.C.A. Little is known about him as he did not make a huge range of jewellery; he worked in Charlottenlund from 1962 to 1973. This town is located in one of the richest areas of Denmark. The links are undated (only Finnish and some Swedish silver has coded date-stamps). While there is no indication of the date, I would like to guess that they were made in 1968 or 1969. The spiral, repeated almost for emphasis, and the circular sense consolidated by the central balls, possibly reflects the cultural revolution occurring in the West during that time, from the student riots in Paris to civil unrest in the USA. The difference between a disk and a spiral is that there is more anarchy with a spiral, more of a sense of uncertainty as to the final destination. While we know little about Cordt-Andersen, I would like to infer that his work echoes his personal interest in societal changes viewed from his vantage point of a provincial, wealthy Danish town, as well as his deep-seated anxiety as to where these would lead.


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