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The Influence of Underwear on Jewish History

I know that the title is a bit out of the ordinary, but as we begin the nine days and all of the questions which have been raised about washing certain articles of clothing, consider the following news report from News for Medievalists,

Delegates at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, northern England, were told this week that social migration from rural to urban areas in the 13th century brought with it changes in attire.

Whereas rough and ready peasants thought little of wearing nothing under their smocks, the practice became frowned upon in the burgeoning towns and cities, leading to a run on undergarments. And when the underwear was worn out, it provided a steady supply of material used by papermakers to make books.

“The development of literacy was certainly helped by the introduction of paper, which was made from rags,” said Marco Mostert of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who was one of the conference organizers.

“These rags came from discarded clothes, which cost much less than the very expensive parchment which was previously used for books. In the 13th century, so it is thought, as more people moved into urban centres, the use of underwear increased – which caused an increase in the number of rags available for paper-making.”

The invention of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century is generally credited with spreading learning. Before that, books were hand-written.

But Dr. Mostert said that although literacy did not become widespread until the 19th century, it was more common in the Middle Ages than many believe because of cheap paper made from rags.

“Although the aim of producing a 100-per-cent literate population didn’t occur before the 19th century, after about 1100 the need for literacy grew steadily, and from about 1200 … the number of literates increased dramatically along with the number of schools in urban areas,” he said.

Maybe the Genizah has preserved more than we previously thought.

One Response to “The Influence of Underwear on Jewish History”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין
    S. | Homepage | 07.16.07 – 2:58 pm | #

    It’s interesting that underwear was once converted to books. I can think of many books today that would have been put to better use had they been converted to underwear.
    ploiderer | 07.17.07 – 10:01 pm | #




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