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.