Monday, January 2, 2012

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Before the days of the washing machine, women used to take their laundry to the lavoir. There they would scrub and soap and rinse and gossip, to their heart’s content. Over the soiled linens, the conversation would be rude and robust and frequently ribald; so it was unfortunate that all too often these lavoirs were situated near churches. 

In our last village the lavoir, a large one, with a good solid roof, was built right between the church and the presbytery, and neither had a good or lasting effect upon the ladies of the scrubbing brush club.

Before there were proper lavoirs, washing was done in the stream. There it would be dunked and then beaten with paddles. Forcing the grey (and anything else) out, and forcing the – well, the beige, in was a matter of a strong right arm, and the chance to whack the daylights out of something other than your husband.

Go back a bit in time, and the paddles were just branches of hedgerow plants, but the method was the same.

Now, in those days there were a lot of people wandering around who were destined, in one way or another, to become saints. The process seems to have been much simpler than it is now: a chap performed a miracle, and there he was, with a chapel named after him.   

It has to be said that some of these proto-saints were not necessarily realists.  

Take, for example, St Quay, who at the time was presumably just known as Quay. This was a man from Ireland (an awful lot of Breton saints came from there: take Ivy, founder of Pontivy, who possibly felt all the indignity of the boy name Sue and so left home) who sailed, for want of a better word, all the way round the coast of Wales and Cornwall, turned sharp left up the Channel, and then hung a right to come in to land in a boat made entirely of stone. No oars, no sails. He was probably thinking that Someone Up There was on his side to have made landfall at all, rather than sinking in his ill-chosen vessel within seconds of setting out.  

He came to land on wash-day, and suddenly wasn't so sure.

The washerwomen were at the spring, beating their laundry with broom sticks. Sticks, that is, of broom: the plant, genet, which, by the by, gave the Plantagenets their name, after the habit of Richard I who liked wearing a sprig of it in his hat, to give him a jaunty air and so fool people into thinking he wasn’t after the throne at all, but was in fact far more interested in horticulture.

Quay staggered ashore looking, no doubt, rather grubby and the worse for wear. What were the washerwomen to do? True to their calling, they pushed him into the spring and began to beat the stains out of him. The legend says they tried to kill him, but I am standing up in their defence: they just wanted him to have a bath and a nice clean set of clothes, and if he didn’t have a spare suit with him, they might as well kill two birds with one stone.

Unfortunately they nearly did just that, and left him for dead face down in the spring. But Quay was a proto-saint, and the waters had mysterious healing properties; and instead of drowning, he was revived.

One: he couldn’t have proved his saintliness if it weren’t for the washerwomen. Two: he couldn’t have proved the healing quality of the waters if he hadn’t had a lie-down in them. So it was a little mean-spirited of him to banish all broom from growing in the surrounding heathland, where it continues not to grow to this day. 

The washerwomen had to find something else to beat their linens with, and turned to their dearest ones and said, “Look, Husband: that nit Quay has lost us our broom sticks, so can you make us some paddles to beat our washing (and any passing would-be saints) with?” 

And so progress took its course, and the paddle was invented; and the women continued to gather and to bemoan their lot at the hands of saintly men, right up until the day when someone said, “Can nobody rid us of this turbulent priest-baiting lot?” and the washing machine was invented.

I can’t help thinking that something has gone out of our lives as a result. All that healthy exercise, for a start: and how is the next man, sailing in on a stone boat, going to win his saint-hood? 

Maybe the answer lies in the pile of ironing. It’s got to be good for something.
©lms 2011

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