I’ve seen weavers tackle all kinds of interesting materials. Beyond the traditional linen, wool, silk, or cotton, you can find weavers creating fabrics from paper, wood, metal, and more. But what in the world does it mean when someone claims to “weave truth”?
The injunction to “weave truth with trust,” however, stands as the motto of one of the most ancient weaving guilds in Europe — the City of London’s Worshipful Company of Weavers. Having received their formal charter in the 1150s, they existed as a formal craft guild at least as early as 1130, and perhaps even earlier. For centuries, they were one of the most influential guilds in London, with significant privileges and economic power.¹
Their ambition to “weave truth” might seem to be more appropriate to a guild of philosophers or scientists than cloth-makers. This is because we live in an age when we assume that “truth” is something abstract: whether we see truth as subjective (as with those who blithely speak about their truth) or objective (defining truth as a propositional articulation of facts), we tend to think of it as something that exists in the realm of ideas or feelings. “Truth” might describe something material or embodied, but truth itself tends to remain either a feeling or a proposition.
The cheerful confidence of the medieval weavers reveals the limitations of both these modern conceptions of truth. For speakers of Middle English (including our 12th-century weavers), “truth” was a far more complex and robust word than our 21st-century definitions, which usually settle on something like “a fact, belief, or idea held to be real or correct.”
The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary provides a thorough survey of this word’s broad but deeply integrated definitions², including
Fidelity to one’s country, kin, friends, etc., loyalty; allegiance; also, genuine friendship;
A promise; an undertaking; a commitment; a pledge of loyalty;
Honesty in the conduct of one’s business, work, etc.; the practice of honesty in one’s occupation, etc.; […] integrity in the performance of an office or a task; conscientiousness, diligence;
Divine righteousness, esp. as reified as that which governs creation;
A set of beliefs or doctrines; a faith, religion, creed; […] also, an action prescribed by God’s law in a particular circumstance, the right thing to do;
Things as they are, reality, actuality; ultimate or fundamental reality; also, absolute truth, usu. identified with spiritual reality; also, the fundamental nature of something;
A fact; a factual statement;
The practice of speaking truly and without deceit;
As a stock allegorical figure: a character identified ultimately with God or God’s indwelling presence, […] one of the daughters of God in morality plays, generally representing divine justice or fidelity to principle
Some of these definitions seem to apply easily to a weaver engaged in business with his fellow citizens and neighbors. Fair dealing, fulfillment of contracts, and honesty, for example, are all traits of upright businessmen and women.
More importantly, the weavers’ motto reminds us that dedicated practice of a craft requires our fidelity to truth. We must attend to the truth of our materials: the strength of this or that thread, the stretch of a certain kind of fabric, how a certain line of stitches can create this or that shape. We must keep faith with the tradition of our craft, carrying forward ancient skills for the sake of a changing world.
Doing all these things, our crafts may bring us to the most profound truth of them all. In shaping, fashioning, refining, repairing, and preserving, we recognize, with wonder and humility, that truth–the righteousness of God, shaping and redeeming the material world–often works through our own hands.
What do you hear in the medieval weavers’ motto that speaks to your own experiences with sewing, weaving, or some other craft? Which Middle English definition of “truth” resonates most with you?