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Spinning Tales

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Merry Met Virtual Traveller

The winter solstice, Yule, Christmas, call it what you will it has long been a time to stand still, take stock, feast and be merry, but like all good things, it must come to an end at some point and this point is Distaff Day.

For centuries there was what was percieved to be women’s work and men’s work. I like to think we are gradually evolving past the necessity to cordon off certain professions and skills with gender, and many of us embrace the concept that there is no such thing as men’s work and women’s work, however bear with me a moment as we tarry a while on the concept for the purposes of Distaff Day.

Plough Monday is considered to be the start of the farming year and is celebrated on the first Monday after the 6th January. So this year that would make it the 9th January. This celebration was tradiitonaly male dominated as it was most often the men who would plough the fields and scatter. It was also when most men went back to work after the Chirstmas break.

Distaff Day is the women’s equivelant of Plough Monday and always takes place on 7th January. The distaff is an item used in spinning and is a stick on which the wool is held whislt it is spun onto the spindle.

The Spinner by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1873)

Distaff Day is celebrated with pranks and jokes a little like April Fool’s day is today. Distaff Day was famously referred to in Robert Herrick’s poem of the same name:

Saint Distaff's Day, Or The Morrow After Twelfth Day by Robert Herrick Partly work and partly play Ye must on S. Distaff's day: From the plough soon free your team, Then come home and fodder them. If the maids a-spinning go, Burn the flax and fire the tow; Scorch their plackets, but beware That ye singe no maidenhair. Bring in pails of water, then, Let the maids bewash the men. Give S. Distaff all the right, Then bid Christmas sport good-night; And next morrow everyone To his own vocation.

If you Google Distaff and marginalia you will find a plethora of comical pictures comprised of persons jousting with distaffs or attempting to injure others with them. Was the distaff then a lesser know medieval lance? Sadly not. It was in fact a symbol of women’s work and therefore used as a weapon to ridicule the hen pecked husband. These images were and artists interpretaiton of this taunt.

But let us hope we have left these sterotypes behind in the margins of those books.

There are many tales of spinners and spinning, some of them incredibly famous. Sleeping Beauty is of course one of the most famous due to Disney's fairytale treatment in its 1959 animation. But the original tale of the princess who pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls into a one hundred year sleep was first collected by the 17th century fairytale collecter Charles Perrault. You can read his verison here, along with his amusing poetic conclusion on such tales.

Illustration by Warwick Goble

Other spinning tales appear in the Grimm Brother’s collections as Rumplestiltskin, (also collected at Tom Tit Tot by Joseph Jacobs), and The Three Spinners. Tales number 55 & 14 respectively.You can read Rumplestiltskin here and my personal favourite, the Three Spinners here.

In both cases a woman who cannot spin is to marry a king as her mother has told the king she can spin gold. This is, of course, not the case; she is not an alchemist. In the second version of the story ‘The Three Spinners’ she is saved by three women, older, wiser and with far more experience in the art of spinning. It is this that I particular like about this version as well as the witty ending.

Illustration by Charles Folkard

Further back than any of these stories are the spining fates of the Greek myths and the Norns of the Norse pantheon. The famous spinning goddess Arachne was turned into a spider by Athena and whilst many of us may no longer spin out of necessity, the spider still spins everyday to create her home.

As humans we do spin tales and yarns a plenty though and I often say that stories are best listened to whilst working. This is often how they would have been told in past. Around the kitchen table as we spun, knitted and sewed our homes into being.

Whatever work you take up on the 7th, I wish you the very best with your endeavours this Distaff Day.

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