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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.