Laundry and Touching Disease with Steph Bennett (Ep 205)


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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, Stephanie Bennett, is the author of “Cloth, Contact, and Contagion: Touching Disease of the Past and Present” for the Social History Society. Stephanie 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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