Why was the knitting needle or the distaff a symbol to show contempt in the Middle Ages?

Why was the knitting needle or the distaff a symbol to show contempt in the Middle Ages?

From Charles MacKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions, the chapter on the Crusades has the following section:

In most cases, the laugh was turned against them, for when it became known that a man was a hesitating (to join the Crusades), his more zealous neighbours sent him a present of a knitting needle or a distaff, to show their contempt of him.

Why a knitting needle/distaff? What were they supposed to represent?


Basically, they were perceived as representing women's work. This reason is clearly stated clear the main surviving Third Crusade narrative in Latin, Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi.

The enthusiasm for the new pilgrimage was such that already it was not a question of who had received the cross but of who had not yet done so. A great many men sent each other wool and distaff, implying that if they exempted themselves from this expedition they would only be fit for women's work.

Quoted in Helen Nicholson, 'Women on the Third Crusade'. In Journal of Medieval History, Volume 23, 1997 - Issue 4

This view of women is also well illustrated in the British Library article Women in medieval society

Women often participated in vital cottage industries, such as brewing, baking and manufacturing textiles. The most common symbol of the peasant woman was the distaff - a tool used for spinning flax and wool. Eve is often shown with a distaff, illustrating her duty to perform manual labour after the fall from Paradise. An image often seen in medieval art is a woman waving her distaff at a fox with a goose in its jaws; sometimes, in satirical images, women are even shown attacking their husbands with a distaff or some other domestic implement.

Also, there's this from Working Women in the Middle Ages:

Women were heavily involved in the textile industry. For example, "spinning remained almost wholly in the hands of women, together with many of the finishing processes" (Gies & Gies, 1978, p.168).


Knitting needles and distaves are tools stereotypically associated with women, specifically being tools used for kitting and making yarn. The term "distaff" as well has a secondary meaning of relating to women. For example,

1.1 as modifier Of or concerning women. 'And considering that the Guthrie's new complex on the river will present more opportunities to do new work, we can, without undue optimism, expect to see an increase in distaff dramatists in the Guthrie's future.'

Source Distaff, Lexico

So, sending a man a knitting needle or a distaff would be a way of implying that the man is effeminate. Today, the equivalent might happen if someone sent a man a case of makeup or a prom dress - it would be implying lack of masculinity.