Monday 29 October 2012

Susan North - The necessity of clean linen

Susan started by saying that there is a profound insistence that the past was dirty, and that one needs to throw out modern judgmental comments. She says she traced some of this back to the Cunningtons. She gave a quote from the Cunningtons, which I didn’t write down, but may well have been this one “Bodily cleanliness was scarcely thought important until less that 200 years ago.” (History of Underclothes, 1951, p15). Susan talked about the visible qualities of linen, you knew your linen was clean because it was white, and it smelt sweet, and anything that smelt clean (as opposed to perfumed) therefore was clean.

Susan talked a lot about references to the necessity of clean linen in conduct literature, and had quotes from John Russell’s Boke of nuture (1460), Erasmus on the Education of Children (1530), The mirror of good manners of Dominicus Mancinus (fl. 1478-1491), French schoole maister by Claudius Hollyband (1573), George Whetstone’s Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582), and Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo (1558). Finally she had some wonderful quotes from Thomas Reynalde’s The birth of mankind (1560), I particularly liked the idea of the “rank savour of the armhole.”

She talked about ideas on clothing and the transmission of the plague, commenting on the 14th century Moorish doctor Ibn Khatimah who was convinced that linens could transmit the plague. Advice on the plague also appeared in England, and in 1578 (reissued 1592) it was set down in Advise set down upon Her Majesties express commandment.

There was a discussion at the end about soap making. That three types of soap were imported and provided to laundries at the time of the Black Book of Edward IV. That there was soap making in London in the early 16th century. And that bucking using lye was common.

These are my notes on the talk given at:  Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body. The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.

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