What is a flaxwife?

Yesterday I received an interesting question from someone in New York City. She came across a reference to a “flaxwife” in The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh (2008), and asked if I knew what it meant.

The word is pretty rare, and I hadn’t come across it before now.  It’s not in the OED, but I notice that Words, Names, and History by Cecily Clark (1995, 66) includes it in a list of medieval English surnames based on female trades. Perhaps Linebaugh’s reference is to a rather fun Elizabethan story of community vigilantism, where a “flaxwife” and sixteen of her female friends cudgel a cozening collier (see Alexander Smith, Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727, 2002, pp. 146-148).

Presumably a flaxwife was any woman who was skilled in linen making, i.e. scutching, hackling, and spinning flax, and who did it for a living. The word likely took other meanings, and may even have been connected to the word “flaxen” which meant blond or white. Thanks for the question, and I would be happy to get any suggestions for additional meanings or references.  Feel free to add a comment to this post or send me an email.

3 thoughts on “What is a flaxwife?

  1. Have you asked Eona Karakacili about that one? That sounds like something she might actually have come across. If you haven’t met her, maybe Rob can make an introduction. Great question! Seems like fodder for a wonderful title – even if that quote has already been snagged.

  2. My New York contact, wrote again to say:

    “After I emailed you yesterday, I found a few references online to “flax-wife” with a hyphen and then, this morning, I found the variations “flaxe wife” and “flaxewife,” with the additional “e.”

    There were a number of definitions connected to the hyphenated spelling, all close to what you suggested, i.e., that a flax-wife was a flax dresser (or one who both rets and dresses flax) and/or a spinner. I also discovered a related term “flax wench,” which also meant a spinner, but in Shakespeare apparently also had the second meaning of prostitute.

    My other interesting discovery, which I’m sure you already know, is that there is a flax-dresser’s disease … which is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by inhalation of particles of unprocessed flax. ”

    Thanks so much for this extra information and for the permission to post it.

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