There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez nos, or the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always by night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the frefusers into the stream and drown them.
— A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, Principally in the Southern Departments, from the Year 1802 to 1805: Including Some Authentic Particulars Respecting the Early Life of the French Emperor, and a General Inquiry Into His Character, Volume 3,, 1 January 1810
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
- A washerwoman night or washerwoman’s death is a legendary character dating back to the 8th Century.
- She is some sort of creature or ghost originating in Gaelic culture. In Scottish Gaelic she is called a nighe bean.
- Always met at night, cleaning cloth in a stream or a public wash-house.
- The washerwoman is always linked to the death realm.
- Like the Grim Reaper, if you met her it was a sign of death.
- This washerwoman is often connected to/confused with banshees, white ladies and night spinners. (Night spinners appear in earlier versions of Rumpelstiltskin and various other fairytales.)
- Also known in French as Lavandière de nuit, ‘washerwomen of night’.
- The function of these legends was to reinforce certain social or religious prohibitions: mainly to punish women who kept washing clothes after sunset, while night was traditionally devoted to rest and the day to work. The risk of encountering the night washer would also be an incentive for the villagers not to go out at night and stay in their house; a principle that was recommended by the Church and sometimes reinforced by Britain in the 19th century by the evening bells ringing a kind of curfew.
- Sometimes night washerwomen were thought to be mothers who were cursed for killing their children.
- Another story told people that night washerwomen were laundresses responsible for washing the laundry of the poor. By avarice, they replaced the soap by pebbles and rubbed the linen with the pebbles. The linen was terribly damaged and of course remained dirty. In a Sisyphean twist, to punish the washerwomen for this crime they were condemned to wash dirty clothes forever.