Sleeping Beauty and the Lesbians


Once more, with feeling: A woman ‘jousts’ against a man armed only with her distaff

This is just a quick follow-up to my earlier post, on ‘Spinsters and the Right to be Offensive‘. In that post, I explored why the word ‘spinster’ developed offensive connotations, and had a little ponder about whether or not it’s ever really possible to ‘reclaim’ a term, or to declare that you don’t find it offensive because you feel able to ignore (or misrepresent, rant, rant …) its history. 

That post got a lot of responses, on twitter and facebook and in person. Obviously, a fair few focussed on the undeniable cuteness of baby Jesus in his walker, and I’m sure someone at Mothercare is scratching their head at some of the search terms coming up now for medieval baby toys. But people also had lots of thoughts about the connotations of these images of women spinning and weaving, and I wanted (with their permission) to share some of these.

First off, of course, is the post over at Glossologics, which is a follow up to her entry on text, which I linked to in the previous post. It’s an intricate untangling of the etymology of the verb ‘to weave,’ and a fun reminder of how ancient the terminology behind ‘the web’ itself is.

Another set of words that relate to spinning come from the term ‘distaff,’ the spindle you use to wind your wool on prior to spinning it. It gives rise to the cliche ‘on the distaff side,’ meaning ‘in the maternal line’. When I went to look up the etymology for that, I came across this mega-patronizing article, which made me think about the overspill of these terms into the arena of politics. You’ll notice that while the article credits Laura Bush with ‘diplomacy on the distaff side’ (aw, bless her, what a truly feminine skill she has, not like that nasty aggressive Mrs Clinton), the word ‘spin’ has been repurposed by predominantly male politicos, effectively replacing the positive connotations of clothing families and propping up the medieval economy with the currency of twisting the truth. Nice.

More allusively, the brilliant Þóra Greylock pointed out that the distaff in the image above evokes the spindle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger, and also, rather more earthily, observed that the word ‘distaff’ itself brings together a punning term for ‘penis’ with the prefix ‘dis-‘, suggesting the distaff as a kind of negative image of the masculine phallus. The role of the witch who visits Sleeping Beauty – a corrupting influence, if you will – is as a spinner of thread but also a weaver of spells, for spells, like texts and clothes, are woven. The fairytale conflates this female-dominated activity of malignant spell-casting with spinning and weaving, bringing all three together in a pattern deeply influenced by misognyistic fears of the power men did not want women to exert.

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

I haven’t checked my copy of Marina Warner, but I’m fairly sure pricking fingers is none-too-subtle analogy for loss of virginity, but the fact she’s spinning at the time made me wonder whether the warning is against sexual activity with men, or against women usurping or erasing men’s roles in sex. After all, the ending of that fairytale – the princess who only needs the kiss of a good man to ‘cure’ her mysterious affliction – has a familiar homophobic undertone to it. It disturbs me (and therefore, dear readers, shall now disturb you) to remember from my undergraduate reading on Freudian symbolism that woods and thickets are supposed to represent female pubic hair in the unconscious, so I shall leave you to make what you will of the thicket of rose-briars that grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s tower, or the role of the prince who hacks his way through it.

Note: I won’t put an image up here because of copyright, but please check out Jan Pienkowski’s amazing illustrations of this story if you get the chance. I love his work and this is precisely how I always imagine it.

PS – I apologise for the font changes in this post. If anyone knows how to control font size on WordPress, please get in touch, because it is driving me out of my tiny little mind. 


Spinsters and the ‘Right to be Offensive’

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this 'an amorous encounter'. I think she's pissed off at being groped, frankly.

London, British Library, Royal MS 10. E.IV, f. 139r. The BL captions this ‘an amorous encounter’. I think she’s pissed off at being groped, frankly.

This blog post started out when I came across yet another version of a conversation I’ve heard far too often: the conversation where someone insists upon their right to say whatever they like and declares that anyone who objects is curtailing their ‘Free Speech!’

The argument usually goes something like this:

“You can’t claim such-and-such is offensive! My [fictional] elderly granddaddy has always called people retards/feminazis/darkies and he always addresses women as gels/darling/sweetheart in a professional context! It’s nothing personal. You’re just professionally offended!”

Now, I’ve never been convinced that suggesting certain terms might be best avoided is really akin to handing down a lifetime sentence to the Gulag. But what’s been bothering me more is the way that ‘history’ is brought into this discussion as an authority. This happens in two ways:

Type 1 arguments claim that, all oppression in question is in the past, a quaint historical relic if you will, such that ‘feminazi’ no longer has any meaninful connection to the regime that murdered millions and was notoriously extra-horrific towards women. Type 2 arguments take the opposite line. History allows us to use offensive words, don’t you know, ‘retard’ just used to mean ‘slow,’ and back in the day ‘cretin’ was a medical term for someone with congenital learning disabilities and it was perfectly acceptable to point and laugh …

Obviously, facepalm is a perfectly acceptable response to all of this, but since I am wordy, I didn’t stop there. I’m not about to take on users of the English language en masse, so I want to consider one specific – and hopefully, not too emotive – example of perjorative language and history. The word ‘spinster’ in a modern context has pretty negative connotations. We associate it with an idea we accept is outdated and with images of poor Mrs Bennett, hell-bent on getting her daughters down the aisle with the nearest available member of the landed gentry. The word itself refers to the idea that women who were unmarried stayed home and spun wool – ‘spinster’ is just the feminine form of the word ‘spinner’.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

London, British Library MS Add. 42130, f. 60. A woman attacks her husband with her distaff. Spinsters: no wonder men hate them.

In medieval England spinning was represented as a quintessentially feminine activity. So much so that, during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the rebels’ slogan ran:

“When Adam delved [dug] and Eve span, Who then was the gentleman?”

Even the rebels, keen to reorder the social hierarchy, were entirely unable to conceive of the hierarchy of gender as anything but natural and predetermined, a state of affairs going back to Adam and Eve.


A medieval man and woman joust, the woman armed with her spindle.

Images of women fighting, or beating their husbands with their spindles, used this stereotype to put women in their place. How could a woman with her spindle be anything but absurd when she tried to be less than subserviant? Yet this stereotype of the ‘spinster’ – an unlovable unmarried woman reduced to the dull household tasks that define her – has another side to it in medieval England. 

In medieval England the wool trade was huge, the most important industry by far. The enormous, cathedral-like parish churches of medieval Norfolk and the Cotswolds, are known as ‘wool churches,’ because the wool industry paid for their building. Brasses to the memory of these great merchants show off their dependence on the riches that came from the wool.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

Detail from the brass of John Fortey in Northleach Church: his feet rest on a lamb and a wool-sack, his sources of wealth.

There’s even a rhyming couplet wool merchant John Barton had engraved on his house:

‘I thank God and ever shall: it is the sheep hath payed for all.’

Even today, the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords is a woolsack, reminding us that England’s wealth came from wool. By about the fifteenth century, though, England’s wool trade had changed in nature, turning from a trade in raw wool to a trade in cloth: and that meant wool must be spun and woven before it was sold. The word ‘texere’ (to weave) is the same word from which we get the modern word ‘text’: a book is literally something woven together out of words, just as the medieval economy was woven from women’s spinning. My lovely mate helped me untangle the meanings behind this word, which go right back to the fourteenth century – just the time when these changes were starting to happen.

 These ideas even informed the iconography of the Virgin Mary. I have posted previously about the popular image of the Virgin, reading a book as she hears the angel Gabriel tell her she is to be the mother of Jesus. But before Mary was pictured reading, she was pictured spinning. These two ideas were in fact conflated for medieval people. Spinning defined a woman’s role in life, but so too did the teaching of reading – it was a truism to observe ‘it is a woman who teaches children their letters’. 
Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v. The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 80v.
The Virgin Mary weaves while her son Jesus learns to read.

The idea of the woman as a spinner of words, a weaver of text, had a more than etymological rightness to it.

We could try to reclaim  the term ‘spinster,’ to use it to remember the vital contribution medieval women made to England’s most important economy, a contribution misogyny systematically denies. But we know medieval women did not get widespread recognition for the economic value of their spinning. It’s the sheep, you notice, that get a devout prayerful thank-you, not the women! And the fact the term survives as a derogatory one is evidence that, in this battle of the sexes, the spindle lost. We need to respect the historical connotations of terminology, and to acknowledge that the structures of oppression in which most offensive words are rooted are seldom as ‘historical’ as we might wish: for many people, they’re still a lingering part of life.

To get back to ‘free speech’ and the derogatory connotations of words: I don’t wish to ban or censor people who want to use terms like those above. I don’t even want to censor people who wish to use their personal right to free speech to witter on about, for example, the fictitious Islamo-Judaic conspiracy to kill us all using only cocktail sticks and gefilte fish. But I do want to make the point that the right to free speech does not entitle you to a particularly positive response. If you speak your mind, others are perfectly entitled to claim that what you say is offensive, disgusting, and should never cross any decent person’s lips. That’s their right to free speech. And that is what we have: the right to speak, the right to object loudly, eloquently and passionately when we disagree, and the right to take refuge in silence when we want to ignore someone else exercising their right to free speech.

Citing ‘history’ as your precedent doesn’t get you any more rights in this debate.


If you’ve read the brilliant YA novels of Cynthia Harnett, you will recognise the above quotation as being the one Nicholas wishes his father would use on their house in Burford. The level of research she put into her novels is just stunning – I can say completely seriously that aspects of them prepared me very nicely for my postgraduate work! I mention this partly because I love Cynthia Harnett and her work should be better known, and partly because a friend of mine is currently working on her second novel and it’s so exciting seeing (and occasionally getting to help with) bits of her research into Tudor England. It’s like preparing a thesis, but you get to let your imagination go to work on all the fun bits.

I also want to share this blog, which I’ve just come across, and which is such a cool idea. It’s experimental archaeology: learning about fifteenth-century spinning techniques by reconstructing what was done.

I’ll end with this, just because it’s so darn cute. It’s the Holy Family at work, with Mary of course busy with her weaving. Check out Jesus’s little wheeled walker!

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 19, f. 131r.