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Welcome to Episode 205 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

In the 16th century plague impacted Shakespeare’s daily life through regular closings of the theater due to the fear of disease spreading in enclosed spaces. In addition to large crowds gathering together in the theater, contemporary science warned against one particular threat of contagion: the laundry. It was believed that certain materials could spread disease by their relationship to the body. For example, linen was thought to be protective against disease by wicking the sweat and body odor away from the wearer. While linen was protective, other fabrics were deemed more dangerous while washing techniques, including using soaps like lye- a highly caustic cleanser made from wood ash, could help prevent disease. Our guest this week, Steph Bennett, is the author of “Cloth, Contact, and Contagion: Touching Disease of the Past and Present” for the Social History Society. Steph joins us today to talk about the 16th century understanding of disease and how proximity, material, and the interactions between the skin and clothing were thought to prevent or transmit disease.

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Steph Bennett graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 with a First in History and English and graduated in 2021 with a Distinction in the History of Medicine, Health and Society. She is a full-time Archive Assistant at the West Yorkshire archive service, working regularly with household collections and medical records. Her academic research revolves primarily around the skin and its’ contact with disease and the material culture of textiles and soaps in early modern England. Steph is currently applying for PhD funding with the University of Sheffield.

This week, I’ll be asking Steph Bennett about:

  • For Shakespeare’s lifetime, how and why was linen thought to have protective benefits against disease?
  • Were the clothes of a sick person considered contagious? 
  • What were the methods recommended during Shakespeare’s lifetime for cleaning diseased clothing or linens?

Books and Resources Steph Bennet Recommends:

Susan North, Sweet and Clean? Bodies and Clothes in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

Renaissance Skin, King’s College London:

Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

What’s Inside This Week’s Detailed Show Notes:

  • Quotes from Merry Wives of Windsor on Laundry
  • Illustrations from Splendor Solis (16th century alchemical manuscript demonstrating washing)
  • Image of the Great Plague in London showing fire being used to prevent contagion
  • Image of Mary I curing scrofula by touching a sick person
  • 15th century woman washing with a buck pot and lye soap
  • 17th century Bleaching Fields
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