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The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) has recorded several talks from the Canadian Historical Association’s 2009 annual meeting at Carleton University and made them available as podcasts.  My paper was titled “Mennonites and Mixed Paint: Canada’s Flax Commodity Chain, 1850-1900.”  It examined how the image of flax production as a Mennonite folkway and quest for self sufficiency was created in the late nineteenth century, and how participation in markets for luxury goods like linseed oil and paint allowed Mennonites to maintain a distinct culture.

A direct link to the audio file (.mp3) is available here.

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.

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