Second Skin: Linen as a Proxy for the Body in Early Modern England
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Worn next to the skin, undergarments held significant meaning as an intimate extension of the body in early modern England. This clothing – commonly called “linen” – absorbed the continuous effluences from the often-unwashed body, transmuting the fabric into a second skin unique to each individual. Stains on linen were thus more than mere blemishes to be scrubbed away – they told intimate stories about the body and revealed shameful secrets and histories. In this thesis, I show how bodily stains on underclothing and other linen textiles – bed sheets, cloths, and rags – were a language interpreted by both lay people and medical practitioners to discover and diagnose venereal disease, prove sexual violence inflicted upon young girls, and expose hidden illicit pregnancy and childbirth. Using London rape and infanticide trials from the Old Bailey Proceedings between 1700 and 1799, I show how stained linen often served as a proxy for the body in legal proceedings, the informal court of community judgement, and lay and practitioner medical diagnoses. Examining the usage of linen in these cases offers insights into how venereal disease and injuries from rape were suspected, diagnosed, treated, and negotiated within the community and with practitioners. I also show how stained linen was interpreted to verify suspicions of illegitimate pregnancy and childbirth. By examining the role that stained linen played in these trials, we gain additional insights into the complexities of how early modern female bodies were understood, suspected, and judged.
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