A marginal occupation? The medieval laundress and her work

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Abstract

Drawing upon a wide range of primary sources, this article argues that a study of the medieval laundress can illuminate wider social attitudes to hygiene as well as to low status women. Having considered the many types of laundry workers active in England and northern France between c.1300 and 1550, it examines the techniques they used, as well as the hazards encountered through exposure to difficult conditions. Such factors, along with the freedom of movement enjoyed by many laundresses, often harmed their collective reputation. That responses to those who dealt with the community's dirty clothing were highly ambivalent is reflected in contemporary writing about laundresses, and in the measures taken to regulate them. Finally, we turn to remuneration. The sporadic survival of financial evidence means that our knowledge of wage rates remains impressionistic. But some laundry workers were surprisingly well rewarded. This confirms the value placed, in elite households at least, upon the cleanliness of personal linen.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-169
Number of pages23
JournalGender and History
Volume21
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2009

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