What was a sheet in the 18th C?
August 30, 2018 9:24 AM   Subscribe

If an 18th C text says a character was caught by a "sheet" that flew towards her, and knocked her out of her senses, what would be the meaning of sheet? Is it a rainstorm? A ghost? A literal sheet of fabric?
posted by nantucket to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Context? A sheet is the rope that connects to the corners of a sail, so it would make sense if they were on a boat & were caught by a rope flying about as an uncontrolled sail flapped in the wind.
posted by pharm at 9:28 AM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

She was walking in a field. This is from the captivity narrative of Mary Jemison, before she was captured, interpreted by her as a sign of things to come.
posted by nantucket at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2018

The text is available online so I assume you mean this:

On a pleasant day in the spring of 1755, when my father was sowing flax-seed, and my brothers driving the teams, I was sent to a neighbor's house, a distance of perhaps a mile, to procure a horse and return with it the next morning. I went as I was directed. I was out of the house in the beginning of the evening, and saw a sheet wide spread approaching towards me, in which I was caught (as I have ever since believed) and deprived of my senses! The family soon found me on the ground, almost lifeless, (as they said,) took me in, and made use of every remedy in their power for my recovery, but without effect till day-break, when my senses returned, and I soon found myself in good health, so that I went home with the horse very early in the morning.

The appearance of that sheet, I have ever considered as a forerunner of the melancholy catastrophe that so soon afterwards happened to our family: and my being caught in it I believe, was ominous of my preservation from death at the time we were captured.

I don't know myself but the context might help others. Could it be a transcription error too? Perhaps also a sheet is a sheet, mysterious as that may be.
posted by vacapinta at 9:38 AM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

"a sheet wide spread" suggests an actual sheet of fabric to me. The OED doesn't give any other meanings for sheet than "flat sheet of something" or "rope connected to corner of a sail".
posted by pharm at 9:41 AM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

So, this link seems to discuss the sheet without ever defining what it actually was; it does sound a bit like an actual bedsheet.
posted by sagc at 9:44 AM on August 30, 2018

I think its just a sheet. In another telling of her story by E.F. Abbott:

"Does the sheet mean something Mama?" Mary asked.

"It means you shouldn't have left me to bring in all the laundry." Betsey said.

posted by vacapinta at 9:47 AM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah it's clearly the accurate verbiage from the book, the images of the pages are also online.
posted by jessamyn at 9:54 AM on August 30, 2018

Reading just that section I would assume a rainstorm. Given the laundry quote above, who knows.
posted by so fucking future at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

This article suggests that it may refer to a "winding sheet," also known as a shroud. Given the sense of the narrative, the author may be describing an apparition or hallucination rather than a corporeal sheet.
posted by slkinsey at 10:08 AM on August 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

It is a bit unclear, but if she were on a/the horse and the sheet seeming to approach was her riding into it and falling as she was entangled, then being knocked senseless would, um, make sense.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:09 AM on August 30, 2018

A similar (although much more ghost-y) thing happens in MR James' 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad':
Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.

But he was not at leisure to watch it for long. With formidable quickness it moved into the middle of the room, and, as it groped and waved, one corner of its draperies swept across Parkins’s face. He could not, though he knew how perilous a sound was — he could not keep back a cry of disgust, and this gave the searcher an instant clue. It leapt towards him upon the instant, and the next moment he was half-way through the window backwards, uttering cry upon cry at the utmost pitch of his voice, and the linen face was thrust close into his own. At this, almost the last possible second, deliverance came, as you will have guessed: the Colonel burst the door open, and was just in time to see the dreadful group at the window. When he reached the figures only one was left. Parkins sank forward into the room in a faint, and before him on the floor lay a tumbled heap of bed-clothes.
posted by griphus at 10:10 AM on August 30, 2018

Yeah, I'm leaning towards the story that she's riding the horse back late at night & is knocked off the horse by something that she can't fully process because of the dark, maybe a sheet on a line or blowing in the wind.
posted by Dmenet at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2018

I think the sheet is a metaphysical object, as slkinsey suggests.

In the EF Abbot retelling quoted by vacapinta, Mary is the daughter who was subsequently captured and survived, and Betsey could be her mother who chooses to dismiss any question of greater significance for the experience of the sheet by turning it into a lesson about helping with chores -- after Mary gets back home with the horse.

The family who found her insensible must be the people she was sent, presumably on foot, to get the horse from.
posted by jamjam at 11:13 AM on August 30, 2018

What a weird story. This person is on an errand, gets momentarily caught up in _something_, which knocks her out, and her family spend a day doing weird shit to help and she eventually wakes up, but takes the whole accident as a strange omen? Was she like, knocked down and hit her head or is this an allegory or something.

Now I'm reading further and maybe I'm just unfamiliar with the style of writing being used.

""My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted forever. Your life, my child, I think will be spared; but we shall probably be tomahawked here in this lonesome place by the Indians. O! how can I part with you my darling? What will become of my sweet little Mary? Oh! how can I think of your being continued in captivity without a hope of your being rescued? O that death had snatched you from my embraces in your infancy; the pain of parting then would have been pleasing to what it now is; and I should have seen the end of your troubles!—Alas, my dear! my heart bleeds at the thoughts of what awaits you; but, if you leave us, remember my child your own name, and the name of your father and mother. Be careful and not forget your English tongue. If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians, don't try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you. Don't forget, my little daughter, the prayers that I have learned you—say them often; be a good child, and God will bless you. May God bless you my child, and make you comfortable and happy.""

I find it hard to believe her mother spoke like that, made such a speech, and even less that a child remembered it clearly enough to recite later.

"In the course of the night they made me to understand that they should not have killed the family if the whites had not pursued them."

This requires some explanation. She can't speak their language, how was this communicated to her? Not long after she seems to grok an even longer and more complex emotional speech given. Where or when did she have time and a tutor to learn the language up to this point, I see she starts being taught later, but these instances seem to come before she begins to learn the language.

By now I think I'm just committed to reading this bizarrely relayed story. I think I shall need to look up some context.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:29 AM on August 30, 2018

These are great! Wonderful thanks so much everyone. The EF Abbot retelling is for children and I don't really find it convincing.
posted by nantucket at 11:29 AM on August 30, 2018

I find it hard to believe her mother spoke like that, made such a speech, and even less that a child remembered it clearly enough to recite later.

(Right. She's supposed to be retelling it as an old woman to an interviewer, who clearly made whatever she said into literature. Like any memoir it's quite fictive. She was of great interest at the time because she chose to stay with the Seneca rather than return to white society.)
posted by nantucket at 11:31 AM on August 30, 2018

Thank you for clarifying, that makes a lot of the oddness in this account make way more sense. Very fascinating story even with those difficulties. The resilience of people and their ability to adapt and assimilate in incredible.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:47 AM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the book, but why don't you think it was just a bedsheet? Walking near a neighbor's house on a pleasant spring day, it seems likely to me that they had their laundry hanging up and a sheet blew off and she got wrapped up in it.
posted by exceptinsects at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't think it can be written off simply as a bedsheet given that the narrator immediately adds "(as I have ever since believed)", as though she had to make sense of something so crazy she fixed on that explanation as a way of talking about it to others. The kind of wind it would take for a bedsheet to hit you so hard it knocks you silly for an entire night is the kind of wind this kid was not going out in. I know pioneer kids had to grow up early but no one was borrowing horses in a tornado.

If I had to speculate (and this is reeeeaal speculative, so like - disregard at will) I would say that this was describing one of two phenomena, as articulated by someone without the right vocabulary and with no science background to fall back on. One, ball lightning or some other lightning phenomena - a strike nearby would knock you stupid and might fill your vision with a white flash you later interpret as a 'sheet' of white. Unlikely, though, since I have already ruled out bad weather! Two, what I think is more likely: a seizure. Visual phenomena often precede a seizure, and her recovery time of 'lying senseless overnight and recovering by early morning' matches up to some forms of seizures.
posted by DSime at 1:07 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Plus, having the whole experience be so ominous and memorable that you regard it as an omen for the entire rest of your life - I mean, I think just getting caught in some laundry is simply not enough of an explanation.
posted by DSime at 1:10 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sounds like a bedsheet - either hung out to dry, or laid on the grass in the sunlight as a simple form of bleaching - got caught up by the wind, she got wrapped in it and collapsed in shock and surprise. There was a bit more of a thing for omen, portents and seemingly outrageous responses to unusual phenomena back then. For example, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) described her experience of a magic-lantern show as “… such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides, that, to speak the plain truth, the first apparition always brought on bowel-complaint
posted by scruss at 1:38 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a bedsheet.
posted by Polychrome at 1:40 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hmm, it's true that I did not account for the whole 'overstating your emotions as literary trend' thing and parsed it more as I would read a modern work.
posted by DSime at 1:47 PM on August 30, 2018

ball lightning or some other lightning phenomena - a strike nearby would knock you stupid and might fill your vision with a white flash you later interpret as a 'sheet' of white. Unlikely, though, since I have already ruled out bad weather!

DSime, I think that sounds plausible! It seems like you are discounting it because you have ruled out bad weather, but lightning does sometimes strike when there isn't any rain or storm.

I don't think there's any way she could have fallen off the horse after getting wrapped in a sheet, as she was still walking to the neighbor's house and therefore did not yet have the horse.
posted by yohko at 6:16 PM on August 30, 2018

posted by Miko at 7:20 PM on August 30, 2018

What she indeed seems to be describing is like a wide-spread out bedsheet or similar coming towards her and then sort of enwrapping or enshrouding her so that she felt completely isolated or cut off from the rest of reality for an extended period. Get a giant bed sheet of some kind and wrap yourself up good in it for a while--your whole body, from tip to tail--and you'll see what she was talking about. It's an experience where you're sort of separated from the rest of reality by a very tangible barrier.

Similar terms that you might consider--and that were often used in this time period to describe the separation between everyday life and the great beyond or heaven or whatever--are "veil" and "curtain". Reading the passage with those terms replacing "sheet" is instructive. "Sheet" is much like those terms but more a common, everyday item.

Whether this was literally a bedsheet (or veil, curtain, whatever) encounter, or just her way of describing a sort of unusual thing that happened to her is a different question.

I'd be inclined to think it was some kind of seizure or--even more likely--a sort of spiritual manifestation or emotional experience, particularly given the way she parses the significance of it for her future life. The wide-spread sheet and the long-lasting envelopment & separation from normal reality as though being wrapped in the sheet and unable to escape is simply how she is explaining a somewhat complex emotional and physical reaction.

An analogy, if you will.

What it made me think of instantly is the type of emotional response many people had during, for example, Camp Meetings during the First & Second Great Awakenings in the U.S. in the 1700 and 1800s. In those situations it was quite common for someone to fall insensate and immobile for quite extended periods of time--even overnight or until the next day, requiring your friends and family to carry you off home like some great petrified log. Apparently people gradually recovered from this and were none the worse for the wear. In fact, they considered it an important type of spiritual manifestation.

I would imagine some people who went through that type of experience might explain it as similar to being rolled up in a sheet in the sense that they were still aware of everyday reality going on around them but they also felt somehow separated and apart from it in a way they couldn't easily penetrate to return.

In my entire life I have literally never, not once seen such a thing happen to anyone (though about the most similar might be the way people act on stage during e.g. mass hypnosis demonstrations). If I did see it, I would assume it was some very serious medical issue and rush the person off to seek immediate medical treatment. But apparently in some times and places it was extremely common, even normal. It might be down partly to some unexplained or unknown medical issues in some cases, but I think it is far more down to emotional state and social expectations far different from our own.

My idea is she is explaining something of this sort and the mention of the sheet is a way to try to explain her felt experience a little more vividly.
posted by flug at 1:34 AM on August 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

For the more allegorical readings of the event I guess I'd ask what the rest of the book suggests for style of speaking. Does the character frequently make use of exaggeration or metaphor in speech or does she rely more on down to earth direct communication? Does this incident lead to or connect with some greater concept or experience for the person in a way that would make a more symbolic vision make sense? I guess I'd lean on that bigger context to determine what she meant in this specific event given the lack of clarity about it taken alone.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:02 AM on August 31, 2018

The word sheet in a nautical context has several meanings. The primary meaning is a rope that is used to control a sail, but it has other meanings as well. The root word of sheet is a Norse word that meant handkerchief. There are several words for canvas cover. It would not be called a sail unless it was being used for that specific purpose, but it might well have been called a sheet, or a paulin

I am going to suggest that the sheet in this question was probably something like a canvas sail that had perhaps been in use on a farm to protect loose material from the wind and the rain, such as a rick (a loose covered stack of straw or hay) or even firewood. After she reached the farm and was trudging the last few yards out of the woods, the stack cover came loose, caught the wind and went flying into her. It would have been quite heavy if it was made of water proof canvas but also very capable of filling with the wind. It knocked her over backwards and perhaps she hit her head. But it is not implausible that it was heavy enough to knock her out on its own.

Materials used in that era were frequently much heavier and more durable than the things we have nowadays. Something like canvas was usually extremely durable as it was more likely to be a once in a lifetime purchase that something that could wear out and be replaced in five years, especially in the colonies where the cost of manufactured goods was high. It was also not unlikely to be a second-hand sail, bought off one of the vessels that had crossed the Atlantic. If the canvas had torn in a storm it might be mended, but ships carried spare canvas as it was often carried away and it might simply have been more practical to sell the canvas for use on a smaller boat or on the farm.

She was almost certainly close to her destination if they quickly found her, perhaps running out of the house to chase the runaway paulin.

If her family did not come searching for her, one possible suggestion is that the weather was bad, and since it was night it was pitch black outside. Doing much more than standing outside of their home shouting would be impractical. If she wasn't in earshot they wouldn't be able to find her unless they had a dog that could track her. Instead they likely relied on her good sense to stay with the family who had borrowed the horse. Impromptu sleep overs like that were very common, if it got dark unexpectedly early, or if the horse was not ready to travel, and the only way to let the family know that she was there would be for someone to go back in the rain and the wind and the dark. Also, her family members might not have spare clothes - one set for working and one set for Sunday was common. If they stayed out in the rain searching for her in their work clothes, the next day they would have to wear their Sunday clothes to work, because the garments would not dry overnight on a rain night, indoors.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:21 PM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

That requires a lot of hypotheticals. I spent a large part of my career in living history museums about rural New England, and in neither research nor interpretation did I ever hear of or see canvas sails used on farms. Hayricks are covered with a thinly arranged covering of hay. Sheets, in the maritime sense, are not something I've ever seen or heard of on farms, even on windmills which were rigged like sails.

Flug has it, above. That's a comment very informed by knowledge of the period context.
posted by Miko at 4:48 AM on September 5, 2018

« Older How do you find the time to do everything?   |   A swing and a miss by the corporation Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.