What was life like for a medieval housewife?
Today we enjoy a multitude of modern conveniences. Spare a thought, then, for the medieval housewife. How did she cook? Where did she shop? Where did her clothes come from? Toni Mount, author of The Medieval Housewife and Other Women of the Middle Ages, reveals what life was like for a typical housewife in the Middle Ages
“A woman’s work is never done!” as my mother used to say in the 1960s, when she cared for our family of five and assorted pets, while working as a school dinner lady. Yet this claim was expressed centuries earlier when the Tudor writer and poet Thomas Tusser wrote in his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie in 1557:
Some respite to husbands the weather may send,
But housewives’ affairs have never an end.
We can only imagine the drudgery of struggling to do the washing, cooking and cleaning when every task had to be done from scratch – before the linen could be washed, the housewife had to make the lye (the medieval equivalent of detergent) to soak it in, and before dinner could be cooked, the fire had to be lit. The medieval housewife also had to churn butter, brew ale and tend livestock, as well as spin and weave cloth to make clothes for the family.
These tasks had been carried out by housewives for centuries, but how do we know this, and what evidence do we have? Archaeologists have unearthed quern stones for milling grain at home, and found household utensils to give us a few clues. But many medieval women couldn’t read or write, so they never kept diaries or journals telling us about their everyday lives – they would probably have been too busy to find the time for writing, even if they were able.
Life as a medieval housewife
In the late 14th century, a grey-haired Frenchman, Guy de Montigny, known as ‘the Goodman of Paris’, wrote a detailed instruction book for his young bride [believed to have been around the age of 15] describing her future duties as a housewife. The couple was of the merchant class and, obviously, the girl must have been literate, as she could read his book.
An elderly man marrying a teenager was thought to be beneficial to both parties
We may shudder at the idea, but an elderly man marrying a teenager was thought to be beneficial to both parties: he got a new lease of life, and she enjoyed the fruits of his successful career and wisdom. Also, a young woman’s first marriage was normally arranged for her – her husband chosen by the family. However, in certain circumstances a widow might be able to choose her second husband. Guy de Montigny admits this, declaring that, if his wife is well trained in her duties, when she marries again after his death she will be a credit to his teaching. This is how he expects her to care for him:
More like this
Wherefore love your husband’s person carefully, and I pray you keep him in clean linen, for ‘tis your business... he is upheld by the hope that he hath of the care which his wife will take of him on his return [home]... to be unshod before a good fire, to have his feet washed and fresh shoes and hose, to be given good food and drink, to be well served and well looked after, well bedded in white sheets and nightcaps, well covered with good furs, and assuaged with other joys and desports, privities, loves and secrets whereof I am silent. And the next day fresh shirts and garments. Certes, such services make a man love and desire to return home and to see his goodwife, and to be distant with others.
According to William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman in the 14th century, there are three things that can drive a medieval man from his home, possibly into another woman’s arms – a leaking roof, a smoking fire and, worst of all, “a shrewish wife who will not be chastised; her mate flees for fear of her tongue...”
On the subject of how a housewife ought to behave, an anonymous verse, known as How the Good Wif taughte hir Doughtir, has down-to-earth instructions for young women, to help them to capture better husbands by behaving suitably:
When you sit in the church, your prayers you shall offer.
Make you no chattering to friend or relation.
Laugh you to scorn neither old folk nor young,
But be of fair bearing and of good tongue...
Go you not into town as if you were a flighty person
From one house to another in search of vain amusement;
And go not to market your burrel [cheap, home-spun cloth] to sell,
And then to the tavern to destroy your reputation...
Go not to wrestlings, nor to shooting at cock,
As if you were a strumpet or a wanton woman.
Stay at home daughter, and love your work much,
And so you shall, my dear child, soon grow rich.
For a rough guide to what life was like for a housewife of the lower class, we can refer to an intriguing 15th-century poem, based on a much earlier text, called the Ballad of a Tyrannical Husband, which gives us some idea of how a poor woman’s work was certainly never done:
The goodman [husband] and his lad to the plough are gone,
The goodwife had much to do, and servant had she none,
Many small children to look after beside herself alone,
She did more than she could inside her own house.
Home came the goodman early in the day
To see that everything was according to his wishes.
“Dame,” he said, “is our dinner ready?” “Sir,” she said, “nay.
How would you have me do more than I can?”
Then he began to chide and said, “Damn thee!
I wish you would go all day to plough with me,
To walk in the clods that are wet and boggy,
Then you would know what a ploughman be.”
Then the goodwife swore, and thus she say,
“I have more to do than ever I may.
If you were to follow me for a day,
You would be weary of your part, I bet my head on it.”
“Weary! In the devil’s name!” said the goodman,
“What have you to do, but sit here at home?
You go to your neighbour’s house, one after the other,
And sit there chattering with Jack and with John.”
The goodwife then tells him how she had hardly any sleep last night because of the baby, yet she was first up in the morning to milk the cows and take them out to pasture while he was still asleep. Then she spends the day making butter and cheese and tending the children. She has to feed the chickens, ducks and geese, and take them onto the green. She bakes and brews and prepares flax for weaving. She teases, cards and spins wool.
Her husband then complains that she brews and bakes more often than necessary – once a fortnight would be enough. She laughs. She goes on to explain how she makes the linen and woollen cloth for the family’s clothes so they don’t have the huge expense of buying cloth from the market. She prepares food for the animals:
“…And food for ourselves before it is noon,
Yet I don’t get a fair word when I have done
So I look to our welfare both outdoors and inside
So that nothing great or small is lacking…”
However, this ballad was written to entertain the audience. It has even been suggested that it may have been composed by a woman for a female audience, but this isn’t certain. Then we come to the fun part: the goodman insists that, if his wife believes she labours long and hard, the next day they will swap places and she can try her hand at ploughing, to see what real work entails:
“Therefore, dame, make you ready, I warn you now,
Tomorrow with my lad, you shall go to the plough
And I shall be the housewife and keep our house and home
And take my ease, as you do, by God and Saint John!”
The wife agrees to the challenge, listing all the jobs he will have to do. Just to be sure the family won’t go hungry the next day, the wife gets up extra early to milk the cow and churn the butter, putting the meat to marinade for dinner. All the husband will have to do is care for the children “and let them not weep”, see the geese don’t wander off, and make sure the malt (for making ale), being heated in the oven, doesn’t burn. Can he manage that? “Teach me no more housewifery, I know enough,” he tells her.
At this point, the balladeer takes a breather, calling for a well-earned drink: “Then you shall hear the best bit,” he (or maybe she) says. We can imagine what this will be. Will the husband make a mess of everything in his wife’s absence? Will she have proved her point about how hard women have to work in the home?
Sadly, our imagination is all we have, because the rest of the ballad is missing: we never get to hear the “best bit”, as promised. Perhaps there never was any more to the ballad, the singer having achieved his/her aim of showing a housewife’s worth.
It seems, then, that Thomas Tusser got it right: “Housewives’ affairs have never an end.” My mother would have agreed with him.
Toni Mount’s The Medieval Housewife and Other Women of the Middle Ages (2014) is available from Amberley Publishing
This article was originally published by HistoryExtra in June 2015
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99