Distaff Side of the Family?

Roman woman spinning yarn with a distaff and drop spindle

It can be hard to grasp the fundamental importance of the act of spinning for our ancestors. Nobody currently alive in virtually any family in a developed nation has a memory of mother or grandmother spinning yarn for cloth to be used in their own household. Since people tend to gather in communities and develop trade, the practice of spinning your own yarn for cloth may have become a very distant memory. Even the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth (1620) depended on the next ship to bring them cloth as they did not have room for spinning wheels (though wheels did arrive on subsequent ships).

Yet, daily spinning in homes was so important to the family for thousands upon thousands of years that the practice affected our very language. “Distaff” is an Old English word, originating at least as early as the 5th century in what is now England and southern Scotland. People, we are talking the 400’s here. We got Visigoths invading Italy, we got gladiators killing war prisoners and Christians, Augustine is writing The City of God, and women in homes are spinning, spinning, spinning the yarn for their household’s clothing.

Distaff & Fibers

Spinning was a daily task, unless you were very rich and bought your cloth or hired your spinners, or very poor, and couldn’t afford the wool or flax.

Oh, by the way, all that spinning was done on a hand-held drop spindle, as the spinning wheel wasn’t invented for another thousand years.

The word “distaff” is of course a replacement for whatever word represented the task in the previous language, because though the words may differ, the woman in the household spinning yarn remained a constant.  She was just represented by different words as the cultures and their languages moved around her.

Twisting Spindle

All of that is to say that women and spinning were so synonymous, that between the 5th and 14th centuries (400 AD to 1300’s) distaff was used to represent female-ness, as we use maternal today. The distaff side of the family is the maternal side (the spear side of the family is the male side).

This representation of maternal stayed with our modern English language well into the 1700-1800’s.

Image taken from:  William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875., p. 565.

8 thoughts on “Distaff Side of the Family?

  1. Voila! *** Staff (shepherd) and Distaff (shepherd’s wife) !!!!
    The two shall come together and be one.
    Sheep + wool sheared + spinning of fleece = yarn and clothing and money and EVERYTHING 🙂

  2. Hey T. Fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to learn all this stuff and condense it into such lovely prose for us.

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