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Spinning Yarns

Clean Linen and Domestic Values in Late Medieval French Culture
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Abstract

Linen is a very complex material, hard won from nature, and once made up into bleached cloth, it has always been greatly prized for its purity. As a household furnishing it had special qualities in the Middle Ages, both practical and symbolic, to convey a sense of order and luxury. For this paper I shall examine the extent to which aspects of the production, care, and use of linens impacted in various ways on the material culture of marriage and the social positioning of the family. I came to the subject in the course of examining evidence for womens’ role in “dressing the house” for ceremonial occasions. However, it is actually extremely difficult to attribute to women more than a curatorial responsibility within a framework of cultural precedents that were largely established for the maintenance of family prestige.1 Respect for the commissioning of linens for the home as part of the proper role of a wife seems to have been commonplace, illustrated, for example, in one of Bernardino of Siena’s sermons about the institution of marriage: “the man knows it that has her—the good housewife, that rules the household well…. she sees to the spinning and then to the making of linen cloth from the yarn….”2 As this passage indicates, while the care of linens seems to have been an area of domestic material culture that pertained especially to the wife, its values were male-defined and very much oriented toward ensuring the comfort and satisfaction of her husband and her household.3

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Notes

  1. 2.
    G. G. Coulton, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967 ), vol. 1, 225.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    This discussion relates to the conclusions made by Rudiger Schnell (1998) that there were many discourses on marriage in the Middle Ages that highlighted the complex interdependence between men and women and that the fact that women routinely colluded in the culture of subjugation of their power did not necessarily imply that attitudes were rigidly mysogynistic. Rudiger Schnell, “The Discourse on Marriage in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 73 (1998): 771–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    Nesta Evans, The East Anglican Linen Industry: Rural Industry and the Local Economy 1500-1800 (London: Pasold Studies in Textile History, London University, 1985), 40,Google Scholar
  4. quoting N. B. Harte, “The Rise of Protection and the English Linen Trade, 1690-1790,” in Textile History and Economic History, ed. N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting ( Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973 ), 96.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Alex J. Warden, The Linen Trade (London 1967 ), 289–319, 359.Google Scholar
  6. Dominique Cardon, La Draperie au Moyen Age, Essor d’une grande Industrie européene ( Paris: CNRS Editions, 1999 ), 495–577.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Agnes Geijer, A History of Textile Art ( London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1979 ), 171–79.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    E. Senemaud, “Inventaire de … Marguerite de Rohan, comptesse d’Angoulême,” Bulletin de la Société archéologique et historique de la Charente, 2ieme trim. (1860): 48–83.Google Scholar

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© Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación 2002

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