The-Medieval-Housewife-Toni-Mount

Following on from Everyday Life in Medieval London Toni Mount delves into the lives of medieval women from all walks of life; from the peasant women labouring in the fields to women who worked in trade, from the busy day of a housewife to the equally exhausting day of a noble woman, to the women we think about the least, women of the church. The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Age introduces you to the everyday life of ordinary women who are far more remarkable than you might think.

Toni joins us today for another fascinating discussion on women of the middle ages.

You said that in the past historians have tended to focus on what women could not do, do you think we have diminished the medieval woman as a result?

It depends on your attitude. I have nothing but admiration for women who cooked, brewed, cleaned, washed, sewed, weaved, gardened, did dairying and looked after the pigs, poultry, cows and sheep, alongside childcare and child-bearing, helping her husband in the workshop or on the land… just the list is daunting. And no washing machine, hoover, dishwasher, tumble dryer, iron, microwave, eye-level oven… These women were real heroines

It was expected that a woman would learn about household management, just how much was involved in running a household?

The ‘Goodman of Paris’ wrote a whole book on the subject c.1395 to instruct his new bride, aged 15 or 16, exactly how he wanted her to run his household – he was a widower in his sixties. The book isn’t quite the size of the famous Victorian tome ‘Mrs Beeton’s Household Management’, but the Goodman, Guy de Montigny, gives his wife full instructions for hiring, firing and keeping the servants in order, a list of the best butchers, bakers, poulterers and fishmongers in Paris, as well as pastimes he thinks appropriate for a young woman, such as hawking and indoor games. He tells her how she should dress in order to be a credit to him – ‘with neither too much nor too little frippery*’ – and, most important: how she should give him lots of personal attention, including washing his feet for him when he comes home from work.
*frippery is second-hand clothing, considered perfectly respectable – to wear all new clothing was just showing off.

Women in the kitchen. (Tacuinum Sanitatis, Vienna

Women in the kitchen -Tacuinum Sanitatis

And what sort of education could women receive in the middle ages?

A practical education mostly, but being wife to a merchant or a lord involved ‘construing the accounts’ which, at the very least needed arithmetic. Unlike today, it wasn’t decimalised either, so money accounts were a nightmare: 12 pennies in a shilling; 20 shillings in £1; 1 mark = 13s 4d or two-thirds of £1, along with nobles 6s 8d (3 = £1); groats 4d; half-groats 2d; half-pennies and fourthings (farthings) at a quarter of a penny. Weights and measures were even more involved e.g. coal was bought by the cauldron-load in London if it came by water, but by the ‘seam’ if it came by road; hay was bought by ‘the amount a man can lift’ which must be the most variable measure.

We sometimes imagine noble women sat around sewing most of the day but they also had rather large households to run. How busy was the day of a noble woman?

Running a noble household would be like running a modern logistics company with financial, political, diplomatic and even military requirements as well. Nicola de la Hay was castellan of Lincoln Castle and held out against a siege, leading her men on the battlements, during the civil war of King Stephen’s reign in the twelfth century. The Countess of Leicester conducted diplomatic talks and entertained the powerful bishops and the citizens of the Cinque Ports on her husband’s behalf in 1263.

A woman married to a merchant could also become involved in the family business couldn’t she?

Yes, she could, or she might run an associated business. Butchers’ wives often made and sold tallow candles made from animal fat. Vintners’ wives might run a tavern, having ready access to wine through their husbands’ trade. Mercers’ wives were frequently silk-women, relying on their husbands importing the raw silk cocoons along with the bolts of cloth for sale.

The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Matsys 1456

The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Matsys 1456

And how did a housewife contribute to the family income?

As well as the kind of business ventures I’ve just mentioned, the housewife might prepare and spin wool, then weave it into ‘burrell’ a rough woollen cloth which was not only used to clothe the family but any left over could be sold at market. Likewise, flax could be grown, ‘swingled’ and woven into cloth. Ale was brewed by the housewife for family consumption but, because ale quickly went sour, the excess could be sold to the public, turning her house into a temporary tavern and supplying her neighbours until it was their turn to brew.

Looking at the poorest classes how gruelling was the day of a peasant woman?

There is a fifteenth-century ballad called ‘The Tyrannical Husband’ in which a ploughman challenges his wife to swap jobs for a day, daring her to go ploughing with a boy, oxen and horses to help. The wife accepts the challenge but lists everything he will have to do. The number of tasks is tremendous and comes after being up half the night with the baby and getting started on the housework while her husband is still in bed. ‘Teach me no more housewifery!’ he says. Sadly, the end of the ballad has been lost, so we don’t know who won the challenge, but we can guess.

What were medieval attitudes towards prostitution?

Prostitution was a ‘necessary evil’ seems to have been the attitude of both church and state, but it was also a case of NIMBY – not in my back yard. London banned prostitutes to Southwark, south of the Thames, or to the Smithfield area, north-west of the city, outside the walls. Otherwise the ‘advertising’ was blatant, naming the red-light districts ‘Cock Lane’, ‘Grope-C*** Lane’ and ‘Whore-monger Lane’. The Bishop of Winchester owned much of the land and buildings used by the Southwark brothel-keepers (always male, by law) and introduced regulations to provide for weekly inspections of the prostitutes’ chambers and health checks, as well as limiting the opening hours during church festivals and whenever Parliament was sitting – which suggests that priests and MPs might have been some of the best customers.

We don’t often hear about domestic violence, but you note that it was legal for a man to beat his wife. Was it socially acceptable however?

Yes, I think it was socially acceptable – within reason. There are incidents were men are mentioned as ‘excessive wife-beater’ which suggests there were social limits as well as legal. What wasn’t acceptable was for a wife to retaliate and beat her husband, but it undoubtedly happened. Husband-beating was popular as a subject for carvings on misericords and other hidden-away places in medieval art – as a bit of fun.

What do you admire about medieval women?

Their incredible capacity for hard work, their resilience; yet they loved their husbands and children, nursed them when they were sick, prayed for them at a time when religion was at its most powerful and meaningful. Their courage and humanity makes me feel very humble.

Toni as a medieval housewife at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire (© Glenn Mount)

Toni as a medieval housewife at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire (© Glenn Mount)

 

Win a copy of The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages!

We have one copy of The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages to give away courtesy of Amberley Publishing. Just tell us what you admire about medieval women by midnight Friday the 29th of November.

The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages by Toni Mount, published by Amberley Publishing 2014.

The-Medieval-Housewife-Toni-MountAvailable now from Amberley Publishing.

Click here to buy The Medieval Housewife: & Other Women of the Middle Ages with free shipping worldwide

Have you ever wondered what life was like for the ordinary housewife in the Middle Ages? Or how much power a medieval lady really had? Find out all about medieval housewives, peasant women, grand ladies, women in trade and women in the church in this fascinating book. More has been written about medieval women in the last twenty years than in the two whole centuries before that. Female authors of the medieval period have been rediscovered and translated; queens are no longer thought of as merely decorative brood mares for their royal husbands and have merited their own biographies. In the past, historians have tended to look at what women could not do. In this book we will look at the lives of medieval women in a more positive light, finding out what rights and opportunities women did enjoy, attempting to uncover the real women beneath the layers of dust accumulated over the centuries.

 

Toni-Mount-cropToni Mount

I’m an author, a history teacher, an experienced speaker – and an enthusiastic life-long-learner. I’m a member of the Research Committee of the Richard III Society and a library volunteer where I lead a Creative Writing group. I attend history events as a costumed interpreter.
I earned my research MA from the University of Kent in 2009 through study of a medieval medical manuscript held at the Wellcome Library in London. My BA (with First-class Honours) and my Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. My Cert. Ed (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich. Recently I completed a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. I’m currently studying a range of modules on contemporary science and technology also with the OU.
I have written and published books including The Medieval Housewife and Women of the Middle-ages, and Richard III King of Controversy plus books on Mrs Beeton and Victorian women doctors.
My latest book for Amberley Publishing covers the history of London from 500 – 1500 AD Everyday Life in Medieval London was published in March 2014, and now I’m working on another two medieval books for Amberley for later this year.
I’ve been happily married for nearly 40 years and have two grown-up sons.

Visit Toni’s website tonimount.co.uk, Everyday Life in Medieval London Facebook page and the Medieval Housewives Facebook page for updates.


About The Author

Olga Hughes is currently pre-occupied with fairy tales, fantasy, misanthropy, medieval history and the long eighteenth century. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently majoring in Literature and History at Deakin. She has contributed to websites such as History behind Game of Thrones, The Anne Boleyn Files and The Tudor Society.

24 Responses

  1. Amelia R. Flurer

    I really admire medieval housewives because they had to be as intelligent as the men, and yet have very little recognition for it. We think of medieval wives as being uneducated brood mares, when in fact the management of a household was as intricate as a military campaign, to stock the household and keep ahead of seasonal items and events that would deplete stores, to provide hospitality and comfort to husband and guests, to provide a good example for staff and a good reputation for your husband and his rank and business, and to do all of this while probably enduring all the struggles of pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a family. I hope to win a copy of this book but if not, I will buy it to get a deeper understanding into what more went into the life of a medieval wife other than sewing and prayers. I think there is a lot of strength and wisdom to be gained for modern women as well.

    Reply
  2. Libby

    The life of a medieval woman was a hard one,when you think of all the jobs they had to do, puts the multitasking that we do to shame. no “mod cons” no popping down to the shops if we run out of anything, When you think of thing we can store safely due to canning, bottling, freezing, even making jams and chutney like I do we can sterilize the jars in the oven, so its makes it safer. Medieval woman had none of these, and yet had to have food “put by”she still had to do all the other things like caring for the family having children, helping husbands etc Not an easy life at all, Yet they did it all to the best of their abilities.

    Reply
  3. Eliza

    I admire medieval women, as they had to overcome many obstacles just to survive. Especially childbirth was so dangerous that I feel admiration for every woman who had to cope with pregnancies and labour every year, taking care of their homes and children at the same time.

    Reply
  4. TAMMY CUEVAS

    This book has already gone onto my Amazon wish list. Medieval women were, out of necessity, possibly stronger and more resourceful than we are today. Running a household at that time would have, IMHO, been more stressful than having a career outside the home and maintaining the home in our time. It must have been frustrating for intelligent women to be denied the education afforded their husband.

    Reply
  5. Adrienne B.

    I have to agree with the previous poster regarding childbirth. As someone who nearly bled out during my last delivery at a hospital, I can’t imagine having to rely on medieval medicine to survive giving birth.

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  6. Carol Perin

    I admire medieval women because life at that time was not easy. Everything was done by hand and there were no modern conveniences. You really had to be strong to live back then.

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  7. Hilary

    Admiring medieval women is easy to do. They had much harder lives then women today. They had almost no rights but still managed to get what they wanted in life. Women in this period had to endure many hardships such as childbirth, hard labor, beatings, and were most of the time sold off to the highest bidder. I look forward to learning more about medieval women in your book, women in this time fascinate me.

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  8. Pim

    I admire medieval women, because of their role as childbearers. There was a great chance of death during childbirth in the Middle Ages.

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  9. Angela

    I admire all the work they had to do – I’m so glad modern technology has simplified so many of those tasks

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  10. Marsha

    One of the many things I admire about medieval housewives is their capacity to do various tasks to keep their household running sometimes in straightened circumstances. They often times had little work with but made the most of what they had.

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  11. Paola

    Well, they were soooo corageous and determined.The same qualities of our beloved grandamas

    Reply
  12. Rosalie

    Medieval women were amazing, especially those who were not nobles. They did so much more than is reckoned by today’s standards- balanced running a household, tending chickens and small children, negotiated markets and market price valuations for goods, completed domestic chores without appliances, hand made clothing or made it for others, provided medical care with herbs and all without the aid of chain stores, public transport and any kind of electronic device. Medieval women are admirable in their ability to do all of it efficiently and to the best of her considerable ability and with the means available to her, however modest. Noble women were a whole other kind of admirable. Tailor made clothes and access to shopping made purchases easier, but running a household, a manor, hiring and firing domestic staff, dealing with conflict management, keeping accounts and often running the estates while the husband is absent as well as overseeing standards of production of spinning and weaving and other salable goods produced on the estate is no mean feat. Admirable women all.

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  13. juan carlos

    They didn’t have much in those times yet a woman could run a house, feed a family and give birth, through illnesses etc. A full dedication

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  14. Rebecca

    I admire that these women–any of them, of all classes–found the fortitude and self-respect to manage the endless tasks, physical-mental-emotional–doled out to them all while receiving little if any respect, possibly being regularly beaten, and being marketed by the Church as the source of many Evils. With most of the deck stacked against them they forged on, making a household–and possibly a business–run and nurturing children under horrifically challenging conditions. Girls were married off as teenagers so Dad could reduce the number of mouths he must feed, frequently to men at least as old as Dad who already had children only to essentially be considered chattel. They have my admiration just for working around a menstrual period in such circumstances, let alone meeting all expectations while pregnant, taking a break to give birth and hopping right back to it. Wish we could go back in time and give them all at least a day at the spa!

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  15. Denise Duvall

    I admire medieval women since they were so tough and resilient.They did it all, all the household chores,helping to farm or looking after the family business, they followed their men into battle, while having their children (and so many at that) and looking after them in conditions, which we would find horrific.

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  16. Anna Barton

    i am sure that the expression ‘behind every good man is a good woman’ must date from the medievil era. Medievil women were intelligent, strong and wise, running everything in the background and seldom recognised for their stamina and expertise. They took care of the whole household so the men could work to provide money for food and necessities. They also worked alongside the men when necessary. They rose very early, worked hard all day and then quite often mending and sewing by candle light, as there was no time during the day. They were the backbone of the family and deserving of an accolade.

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  17. Michele L

    I admire medieval housewives just for surviving! The living conditions and the amount of work they endured is unimaginable to us. I am really looking forward to reading this book!

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  18. colin burt

    subjudicated, treated as chattels, possessed, medieval housewifes the backbone of middle age civilisation, its true what they say behind every good man is a better woman, true in medieval days as it still is today, the true power behind society, hard working, resourceful, innovative

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  19. Joan

    I’m very interested in the lives of women from all social strata in medieval times. I hope this book comes in a digital edition. That’s the one I’ll buy.

    Reply
  20. jane

    I think what’s most interesting about medieval women is that they had to know a little about everything.Medicine,child birth,how to make and cook food,sewing,gardening,building,candle making.I’m sure the list is endless.By the time they reached the end of their lives I would imagine that they would have a wealth of knowledge to pass on to the next generation.It must have been fascinating to be the recipient of all that learning.

    Reply
  21. Underdogge

    I remember from my long ago studies of (a small part of) the works of Geoffrey Chaucer that the ending of words -ster used to denote the feminine in the English of his time. The word which still survived in my youth was “spinster” for a single woman (before bachelorette came into vogue). Apparently (or so the book I read said) it tended to be single women who had the time to do a labour-intensive task like spinning (the married ones, as cited in the article above, being busy looking after children in those days when there was no birth control – at least not as it is known today, – and being Jills-of-all-trades running the home).

    It doesn’t sound (to me at least) as though being married to the ‘Goodman of Paris’ can have been a bundle of laughs. I found my 21st century hackles rising when I read the bit about him expecting his wife to wash his feet….but I sometimes get annoyed with historical fiction writers who apply “presentism” to their medieval – or even older – characters so I must remember that the times described in the book featured in the article were very different to modern ones.

    I’m interested that the author gained part of her education from the OU. I had a school friend who didn’t do very well at all in maths while sitting at the old school bench [admittedly we had a maths teacher who couldn’t control the class so for some it was more fun to “play up”]. After she became a Mum she gained two degrees from the OU including a good maths degree. Although I’ve not used it myself, the Open University is a great institution for helping to make education widely available.

    Reply

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