In his compendious Book Of Days (1869) – from which title this blog gets its name – Robert Chambers asserts that 7th January, the day following Epiphany, was called St Distaff’s Day from time immemorial and was a day of merriment for women much as Plough Monday was for men. We have to take all of Chamber’s pronouncements with a large pinch of salt because his writings are not particularly scrupulous or scholarly. He gathered his material from hither and yon, and it’s a grave mistake (repeated endlessly by half wits) to assume that what he reports concerning one particular time and place was in any sense universal. Such a bad habit is the bane of English social history. Nonetheless, he quotes Herrick’s poem on St Distaff’s Day, and this poem leads me to believe that the day’s activities had some currency for a time. This comes from the anthology, Hesperides, published in 1647:
Saint Distaffs day, or the morrow after
Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.
Given that the poem is set in imperatives it’s difficult to assess whether Herrick is recommending these activities, or describing a known state of affairs. The general suggestion seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul. I’d say that ploughmen burning women’s flax and their clothes, and women drenching men with water for revenge – all as a jolly jape, or as a routine sport – is unlikely. But the command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia http://www.bookofdaystales.com/plough-monday/ .
Chambers has nothing to add of substance about observing the day but does note:
This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women who had not anything else to do, or during the intervals of other and more serious work—a cheering resource to the solitary female in all ranks of life, an enlivenment to every fireside scene. To spin—how essentially was the idea at one time associated with the female sex! even to that extent, that in England spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman—the spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children—and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself: thus, the French proverb was:
‘The crown of France never falls to the distaff.’
Now, through the change wrought by the organised industries of Manchester and Glasgow, the princess of the fairy tale who was destined to die by a spindle piercing her hand, might wander from the Land’s End to John O’ Groat’s House, and never encounter an article of the kind, unless in an archaeological museum.
A distaff is a rod that holds the material to be spun, either by spinning wheel or spindle, and was in use from ancient Egyptian times until the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The word “distaff” is still sometimes used for the maternal line or side of a family, given that using a distaff was largely (but not exclusively) women’s work. Thus playfulness on St Distaff’s Day would seem to signify disrupting women’s work, whereas Plough Monday disrupted men’s activities. I find zero evidence for the belief that this was a Medieval custom or even that it was a particularly widespread one. Herrick’s poem seems to be the sole source and it is 17th century, and of dubious reliability. Nonetheless, you’ll read endless nonsense from spinners and weavers guilds about how the day was commonly observed throughout Medieval Europe, usually in promotional literature advertising their events in early January.
For a recipe I’ve chosen fried apple pies from the 1653 cookbook A True Gentlewomans Delight
To fry Applepies.
Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.
It’s fairly straightforward. They are really a version of empanaditas. You have to be careful to fry them slowly so that the apples cook fully in the process and so that the butter does not burn. Here is my version in pictures.