chapter  18
16 Pages

In praise of clean linen: Laundering humours on the early modern English stage

WithNATASHA KORDA, ELEANOR LOWE

The significance of clean linen in early modern England can perhaps best be understood in light of the period’s changing norms of hygiene and their influence on modes of embodiment and dress, social interaction and space, and cultural institutions and forms.2 Social historians document a dramatic shift in the sixteenth century away from immersing the body in water to laundering its linens as the preferred mode of achieving cleanliness.3 Much attention is paid in this context to the disappearance of public bathhouses (popular across Europe during the Middle Ages), whose demise is attributed to fears of contamination following repeated outbreaks of plague and other epidemics, such as syphilis.4 Henry VIII’s closure of London’s licensed ‘stews’ (bathhouses notorious as brothels) following an outbreak of syphilis in 1546 is adduced as an example of this trend.5 Yet the impact of fears of bodily permeability and contagion and the ideals of cleanliness and civility to which they gave rise on the professional stage have remained largely unexplored. Although it is well known that the public playhouses were routinely closed in times of plague,6 scholars have failed to draw any connection between contemporary concerns over hygiene and that quintessential icon of the Shakespearean stage, the pristinely laundered, bleached, and starched linen ruff. The staging of clean linens, we hasten to add, was by no means limited to ruffs: cuffs, handkerchiefs, shirts, smocks, bedlinens, napkins, tablecloths, and many other forms of linen feature prominently in plays of the period.