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Flax-growing and linen production in medieval iconography: tools, techniques and gestures

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

In the Middle Ages, textile plants such as flax and hemp provided not only comestibles for humans and animals, most especially in the form of oil, but above all were used in making fabric for clothing, household linen, bags and sacks, and even ties and ropes. Although the importance of the cultivation of these plants in medieval iconography is relatively low, the tasks involved in processing the textile fibres, such as breaking, scutching and spinning, were of interest to medieval artists. However, it is often difficult to know whether images depict working on hemp or flax, since the processing of the two plants involves similar tasks.

What activities are involved in the cultivation of flax?

In fact, the actual cultivation of flax is not represented in medieval iconography: the sowing, which takes place from March to May, or the harvesting, which takes place between July and September, are never depicted. The first step in working the stems, once they have been cut, is to detach (égrénage or égrugeage) the capsules containing the seeds from the stems with a ripple. Although this task is not portrayed in illustrations, it is attested in medieval archaeological remains, as at the site of Charavine (Isère) where a whole ripple (égrugeoir) was found. This is a sort of comb with a short handle attached to a long, narrow blade with short, wide and pointed tines on one edge.

Once the leaves and capsules have been removed from the stems, the next operation consists of extracting the future textile fibers through the process of retting, which usually takes place between August and October: the flax is submerged for eight to fifteen days to allow the plant tissues to ferment and decompose the substances that keep the fibers attached to the hard inner woody part in the center. Various retting methods are attested in the Middle Ages. Retting in standing water is recognized as being the most effective: the standing water develops fermenting agents that activate decomposition. In Viterbo, Italy, for example, 15th-century archive documents mention the piscinae used for retting in which hemp is submerged in water and covered with stones, termed “sub lapidibus conculcatum”. This method is recommended by many rules in order to limit water pollution. Nonetheless, retting in fresh running water was also frequently practised because it leaves the flax whiter. Finally, another type of retting known as dew retting or meadow retting is depicted in medieval iconography. It consists of spreading the dry flax in thin and equal layers on meadows, then watering it evenly, in order to encourage fermentation under the simultaneous action of dew, sun and air. The textile fibers were laid out in wide parallel rows and turned over regularly with long poles to expose all parts to the air and the light. While this type of retting can take from three to seven weeks, its main advantage is that it is not very expensive and can be done outside of the busy summer months.

After retting, the flax is once again dried by setting up bundles of flax shaped into cones, a sort of shock (chapelles or moyettes). Handfuls of fibers are then untied and spread out in the fields in order to dry, but also to bleach the flax.

Pliny, Historia naturalis, illuminated around 1460 in Italy, chapter ‘Flax’

(London, Victoria and Albert Museum., L. 1504-1896, Book 13).

After drying, it is possible to separate the tow from the woody stem through two different operations: breaking, also termed braking (broyage) or beetling (maillage). The flax break / brake (broie, also écouchoir or brisoir) is a kind of small stand (chevalet), a sort of hollowed beam set on two sturdy trestles to which are attached knife blades with a handle used to strike the stems. The flax break, which appears to be a medieval invention, has several advantages: it allows a greater output and does not require too much physical effort. For that matter, it is always used by women.

Book of Hours, illuminated around 1555 in France, the month of November (Amiens, BM, Lescalopier 22, f. 12).

Another method used to separate the fibers from the woody parts is beetling (macquage or maillage) and appears in the image of the month of November in late 15th-century calendars. In this case, the flax is spread out in regular circles and two beetlers stand in the centre with one foot on the end of the stems while they alternate beating the fibers with a sort of beetle or wooden bat (called mail or macque), a tool with a curved handle to which a thick rectangular board with deep scores is attached. Since using this requires much more physical effort, it is a task reserved to men.

Book of Hours for Roman usage, early 16th century, Bruges, Simon Bening circle of artists

Month of November (Rouen, BM, ms. 3028, f. 11v).

Beating with a mallet is an older technique than using a flax break / brake (broie). According to medieval iconography, mallet-beating seems to have been done especially in Flanders, whereas breaking is shown in documents from France, Italy or Germany. In fact, the two techniques can be used successively, although peasants often opt for one or the other, depending on long-held cultural traditions.

The flax break does not entirely eliminate the remaining woody particles that stick to the tow, so the fibers must undergo an additional cleaning process with a wooden paddle (espade) called scutching or swingling (also teillage, écouchage, écangage or espadage in French). This is always carried out by women and consists of beating a handful of tow with a wooden sword (sabre or espade) against a thick vertical plank (poisset) with a large notch in the upper third. The handful of fibers is put into the notch and the part of the flax lying on the plank is beaten with the paddle by a peasant woman. This paddle (also called écouche) is a hard, heavy wooden blade, thin at the edges with a polished surface and handle. Its edge is dulled so that it does not cut into the tow. In addition to examples in illustrations, we also have several archaeological examples of these implements. Several paddles made of a single piece of wood (oak, ash or beech) were found in the 11th-century Novgorod site.

While the use of the vertical plank (poisset) in combination with the paddle (espade) seems to be the common rule, several illuminated manuscripts reveal a more rudimentary method: the fibers are beaten on a simple wooden box or simply struck in the air while women hold them up, which appears somewhat improbable. Lastly, and rarely in the Middle Ages, cleaning could be carried out using a kind of scraper (racloir), as we can see for the early 13th century in the north porch of Chartres cathedral. This technique, which lends great suppleness and brightness to the fibers, continued to be used until the beginning of the 20th century in some regions, most especially for fibers intended for lace-making.

Once the preparation of the flax fibers has been completed, combing and spinning are the next steps in the manufacturing process. The aim of combing is to parallelise the fibers and prepare the "long strands" for the distaff, but also to eliminate the fibers that are too short or broken which will form the combing waste. Finally, it allows the removal of the last woody remnants and weeds.

On a sculpture from the cycle of the Active Life (La Vie Active) at Notre-Dame cathedral in Chartres, a special type of comb is depicted, a footed comb or combing board (séran à pied or planche à peigner). It is made up of a long board with two semi-circular openings: one in the lower part, through which the combing woman puts her right foot, is used to keep the tool on the ground; the other, in the upper part, serves as a handle. In the center of the board, there are tines about a dozen cm long set in a circle, with the tines slightly inclined towards the center, between which the woman pulls long strands of fiber.

In the recessed order of the arch of The Active Life, Notre-Dame de Chartres (left doorway of the north porch), carved in the first quarter of the 13th century.

Other types of combs utilized exclusively for vegetal fibers are attested in medieval iconography, such as combs on a base with vertical tines. But the tines may also be embedded into a board held on the lap or fixed on a table. Finally, a slightly different type of comb is also illustrated for the flax-combing process: a wooden block with metal tines set into it.

While the cultivation of flax (or hemp) does not require much more labour than that of cereal grains, the work for the production of yarn is much more overwhelming than the one for the production of flour. At this point, medieval iconography enables us not only to understand gestures and implements used in the processes of the transformation of textile fibers, but also shows us how new techniques were emerging during the Middle Ages, alongside ancestral processes that endured. In fact, these gestures and tools can still be found until quite recent times, as we see in numerous of the implements known from ethnographic research.

Prepared by:

Perrine Mane, Directrice de recherche (emerita), Centre de recherches historiques, CNRS-EHESS, Paris, France

English translation:

Cozette Griffin-Kremer


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