Browsing idly through my well-thumbed reprint of Chambers’ Book of Days for 1878, I chanced upon a poem by the seventeenth century English poet Robert Herrick.
The Book of Days describes itself as, “A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in connection with the Calendar”; and, under the entries for 7 January, some lines from a poem included in Herrick’s collection Hesperides are quoted, of which these are a few. “Partly work and partly play / Ye must, on St. 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 maiden-hair.”
Now the reason for the inclusion of these lines under 7 January is that this was formerly known as St. Distaff’s Day, the day when, in many European countries, women traditionally resumed their normal household duties and chores after the twelve days of Christmas. There is no such saint as St. Distaff, the designation of the distaff as a ‘saint’ being a reference to the importance of the distaff in the work of all women of whatever social standing. The Oxford Dictionary defines a distaff as ‘a stick or spindle on to which wool or flax is wound for spinning’ and adds that the female side of a family is known as ‘the distaff side’, revealing just how central a position spinning occupied in women’s work. And Herrick seems to be advocating longer holidays when he calls for the men to quit work early and to ‘burn the flax’ on their return home if they find their womenfolk working, although it seems unlikely in the extreme that any working folk enjoyed twelve days of leisure over the Christmas and New Year period the better part of 400 years ago, let alone harboured any expectation of a yet longer break!
Be that as it may, flax was the most important source of cloth in the late Middle Ages, the cotton of days before the fibres from which that material is made were known in the United Kingdom. Flax is the fibres won from the stems of the plant Linum, which are spun and woven to make linen cloth; and the several species of Linum include one that is of particular significance to mankind. Linum usitatissimum … the name means ‘the most useful member of the flax family’ … is the source of the fibres that are used to make linen and is grown as a source of linseed oil and to provide winter fodder for farm animals. And, as if that were not enough, Linum usitatissimum is also a source of cyanogenic glycosides, or prussic acid … and, before you ask, yes, I had to look that up! In small amounts, I learn from the Royal Horticultural Society’sEncyclopaedia of Herbs, cyanogenic glycosides stimulate respiration and improve digestion, although they can be fatal if taken to excess. (The usual warnings apply – don’t think for one moment that, if a little does you good, a lot’ll be much better; and don’t be tempted to experiment with this plant at home.)
Flax has been used by the human race since the beginning of recorded time. It is thought that it has been grown since around 5 000 BC, originally in countries around the eastern Mediterranean, and it is, of course, still grown in vast amounts throughout the world. And, while horticulturists are unlikely to wish to grow Linum usitatissimum in a typical, small garden, there are several varieties of flax that look well in the summer precincts. These usually have attractive blue flowers and are annuals which are grown from seed and which flower, produce their seed and die in a single year. Since the individual plants are spindly and the big flowers are always short-lived, the plants are best grown in large clumps. And unfortunately for us in central Scotland, they do need well-drained soil and warm sunshine!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society