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Laundry Ladies in Medieval Poland
By Leslie Carr-Riegel
Same Bodies, Different Women: ‘Other’ Women in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, eds. Christopher Mielke and Andrea-Bianka Znorovszky (Trivent, 2019)
Abstract: Usually considered to be “women’s work”, this paper takes a close look at how laundry was done in medieval Poland, calling into question common historical stereotypes. Washerwomen have all too often been portrayed as helpless victims in modern scholarship, forced by circumstances into an impoverishing, dirty profession eventually flowing into a downward spiral towards prostitution.
However, evidence from medieval Poland argues that this paradigm ought perhaps to be re-examined. Employed by a wide section of society (for instance, students, clergy, and even the royal court) these women who scrubbed, rubbed, and bleached for a living were a constant fixture in any urban community. This paper explores who did laundry in medieval Poland and how, the status of the women who did it, and contemporary views of these “other” women.
Introduction: Laundry has long been considered “women’s work.” As a household chore, the creation and cleaning of garments has been the purview of female hands from time immemorial, it would seem. The image of a group of women with large bundles by the riverbank chatting whilst scrubbing away has become iconic. The laundry site has emerged as a female space par excellence, where news, gossip, and advice could be swapped away from the prying male gaze. On the other hand, laundresses have often been portrayed as victims and poor menial labourers whose lowly task exposed them to harassment, scandal, and a sudsy slide into prostitution. But are these stereotypical tropes really accurate?
Top Image: Woman washing laundry in the 14th century – Cod. Pal. germ. 794 fol 30v