At a very early period the culture of flax became of such importance in the internal economy of Ireland, that the "Brehon laws" - that "rule of right," unwritten but delivered by tradition from one to another," as Spenser terms it, declared that every brughaidh or farmer, should be legally obliged to acquire a full acquaintance with the best mode of dressing and working it.
Intimately as the progress of the manufacture of linen and cotton is connected with civilization in every part of the world, it is not a little curious to find writers, even after the close of the middle ages, inveighing, and lawgivers legislating, against the over-luxurious use of linen amongst the "barbarous Irish," as they were pleased to designate them. The gentle Edward Campion, the Jesuit, who was executed on charge of high treason in the year 1581, declares of the "meere Irish" that linen shirts the rich do weare for wantoness and bravery, with wide hanging sleeves, playted;" and adds, "thirtie yards are little enough for one of them." Spenser, the poet, too, declaring the inefficiency of the laws against the "wearing of Irish apparel," enumerates, amongst other enormities, "the greate linen roll which the women weare to keep their heads warm after cutting their haire which they use in sicknesse; besides their thicke folded linnen shirts, theire long-sleived coates," etc, and inveighs (with that conscience-obscuring bitterness which seems to take possession of all who are determined to regard the ordinary and unimportant actions and habits of an adversary as so many aggravations, or intentional causes, of offence) against the whole nation on account of their considering "this preciseness in reformation of apparall not bo be materiall, or greatlie pertinent." When we remember the quantity which Campion asserts to be required for one shirt we may reasonably conclude that, though not mentioned by name, these folded linen shirts were included in the poet's further invective against loose "mantles' of the people, in the uttering of which he is carried away by his hatred in a manner which may furnish us, not un-reasonably, with considerable amusement.*
* See a paper on the composition and economy of the flax-plant by Professor Hodges, M.D., in the "Report of the British Association," 1852.
While nations which considered themselves, and which, in reality were, farther advanced in civilization, were thus suffering their minds to be agitated by the extravagance of the "barbarous" Irish in the article of linen, it is, at least, consolatory to know that they were consistent in their practice, as we may conclude them to have been, when we learn that the queen of Charles VII, of France, the contemporary of our Henry VI., rejoiced in the possession of no more than two linen shifts, a scantiness of supply which might have satisfied the most prejudiced politicians of the day, or the greatest economists, even if these last were the descendants of that family of old Rome who would not permit their wives and daughters to wear linen.*
* See his "View of the State of Ireland".
It would be unnecessary to make any further allusion to the early importance of the culture of flax in Ireland, but the following passage, from the works of Sir William Temple, bearing the date 1750, is not a little singular from the manner in which it treats the subject, as if it were one which had but lately attracted the attention of the English public. "No women," he says, "are apter to spin flax well than the Irish, who, labouring little in any kind with their hands, have their fingers more supple and softer than other women, of the poorer condition, with us; and this may certainly be advanced and improved into a great manufacture of linen, so as to beat down the trade both of France and Holland, and draw much of the money which goes from England to those parts upon this occasion, into the hands of his Majesty's subjects of Ireland".
That flax, the Arabic kettan, and the Coptic mahi, was cultivated in Egypt, is shewn by the mention of this crop in the Scriptural account of the plagues which preceded the departure of the Israelites from that land.† Pliny ("Nat. Hist.," vii. 55), says the Egyptians were the first to make textile fabrics; and that they manufactured linen at a very early period has been proved by microscopic examinations of the threads composing clothes in which their mummies are enshrouded; and here, as in many other cases, the light of science has proved the reliableness of the records of remote history; which, in the present instance had assured us, that the Egyptian laws compelled all to bury their dead in linen. Herodotus and Plutarch tell us, that it was not permitted to any Egyptian priest to enter a temple unless he wore a linen garment; and the same custom was adopted by the priests of Isis among the Greeks and Romans, as well as by those who were initiated into the Egyptian mysteries.
* "Varron, rapporte part Pline, dit que c'etait une cou-tume de pere en fils dans la famille des Serrans, que les femmes n'y portoient point de robe de lin." - Montfaucon. We must, however, mark his continuation: "Cela etant remarque comme une chose extraordinaire, il paroit certain que 1'usage du lin etait ancien a Rome pour les femmes," etc.
† Exodus, ix. 31.