Spinning Yarns

Clean Linen and Domestic Values in Late Medieval French Culture


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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    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
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© Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación 2002

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