Mediaeval women (4)

In this last blog post sharing a little of my research into mediaeval women, I will talk briefly about the daily lives of fourteenth century women.

 

The most striking thing I have learned from reading modern historians’ accounts of the daily life of women in the fourteenth century is how busy most of them must have been!

A wealthy or noble woman might perhaps have led a rather inactive, indeed bored, life, if she was, as Eileen Power described, the romantic lady of chivalric literature (p.31). You can picture her weaving and embroidering, reading perhaps, singing and dancing, playing games such as chess, riding and hawking. Courtly literature often presented noblewomen in this romantic light (Shahar, p.152).

luttrell-gameCropped from a Public Domain image, The Luttrell © The British Library

medieval_women_hunting

However, a real noblewoman, if she were the chatelaine of a manor, and responsible for running a large household, would be anything but romantic and frivolous. Her role was to provide food and clothes for her family and servants, and provide for her many guests. She must provide bread, ale, butter, cheese, bacon, preserved meat – all produced on the manor premises – as well as purchasing other goods such as wine and spices, candles and household stores (Power, p.41). Many such chatelaines, like the real Margaret Paston, who lived in Norfolk in the fifteenth century, had even more to do when they managed the whole estate in their husband’s absence. Margaret wrote to her husband about negotiations with peasants, about sales, purchases and legal matters, and even about how she repelled an armed attack on the manor (Shahar, p.150).

The daily lives of peasant women were similarly busy. They were also managing a, albeit much smaller, household, and looking after the family vegetable and fruit garden, tending animals – chickens, geese, pigs, sheep, perhaps a cow or two – as well as caring for children, cooking, cleaning, drawing water, tending the fire, making bread and ale, spinning and weaving, perhaps going to market with surplus produce (Shahar, p.240).

medwomenatwork7

medwomenatwork11

She might well carry out some paid work to supplement the family income. Some might set up in business, as brewers, for example (Leyser, p.146), but it was not very common for a married woman to run a business independent of her husband.

However, women from poorer families with little land might have to work as wage labourers all year round simply to bring in sufficient income (Hanawalt, p.149), and indeed these women might have to perform almost any task, no matter how physical it was (Leyser, p.145). On top of all this women would, if they were villeins, have to provide their share of the manorial work, certainly at harvest time and perhaps throughout the year (Leyser, p.145).

Twenty-first century women might think their multi-tasking lives are tough, but considering the lack of amenities of our fourteenth century sisters, we should wonder how they managed to cope at all with everything they had to do!

References:

Hanawalt, B.A. (1986). The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Mediaeval England. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Leyser, H. (1996). Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press (Orion Books Ltd).

Power, E. (2001). Mediaeval Women. London: The Folio Society.

Shahar, S. (1983). The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Mediaeval women (3)

In this third blog post sharing a little of my research into mediaeval women, I will discuss some of the practical aspects of the lives of women in the fourteenth century.

What women wore and where they lived

Fortune’s Wheel is set in the middle of the fourteenth century. The Luttrell Psalter, produced around 1330-35, perhaps gives us a contemporary view of how people might have looked and dressed, although some feel that the images of peasants in the Psalter are not necessarily a realistic representation. Have a look at Judith Arnopp’s interesting essay at http://www.juditharnopp.com/theluttrellpsalter.htm, in which she presents the Psalter not as an image of reality but as a view of peasant life idealised in order to “glorify the life…of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell…”.

Judith Arnopp feels that the clothing the peasants are shown wearing is “inappropriate both to their station and lifestyle which would have been one of toil”, and it may be that the clothes do look a bit too upmarket, and almost certainly too clean. However, I do think that the illustrations can give us some idea of the differences between the clothes of the peasant woman and those of a ‘lady’.

For example, the two pictures below, from The Luttrell Psalter (owned by The British Library), show two peasant women…

sheep-pen-cropped Cropped from a Public Domain image © The British Library

and a couple of wealthy ladies…

luttrell_women A Public Domain image © The British Library

All wear a tight-fitting under-dress with a sleeveless or short-sleeved surcoat (over dress) on top. One imagines that, although the style of dress is similar, the fabrics used would have been very different, perhaps coarse wool for the peasants’ dresses and fine wool or silk, perhaps embroidered, for the ladies’. The colours, too, would have been different – usually brown or grey, perhaps, for the peasants, but brighter colours for the ladies (although it is true that one of the peasant women is wearing quite a bright red surcoat, but this may not of course reflect reality). One of the peasants, as a working woman, wears an apron, and on her head she wears an enveloping hood, whereas her friend has a wimple completely covering her hair. The ladies, on the other hand, both have their hair curled and adorned with an elegant headdress. In another picture in the Psalter, a peasant woman is shown carrying a distaff and spindle while she is feeding her hens, an ubiquitous piece of equipment for the busy working woman, who uses every opportunity to multi-task.

You can find out more about the Luttrell Psalter on the British Library’s website, at https://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/peasants-and-their-role-in-rural-life.

And there are of course lots of books which help the researcher find out about medieval clothing. One of the many that I have found helpful is Paul B. Newman’s  Daily Life the Middle Ages.

The daily life of a peasant woman was largely focussed on her home and ‘croft’ (the land adjacent to the house). For the lady, too, her life would be centred on her home. So an appreciation of mediaeval houses, how they were arranged and furnished, is important to understanding women’s lives.

A peasant’s croft, perhaps enclosed by a ditch or fence, contained the house, a barn and maybe other outbuildings, and the garden where food would be grown and domestic animals, such as hens or a pig, might be kept. Croft sizes differed greatly. Some were only big enough for a small cottage and the most basic of gardens; others were substantial, with space for a large potager, an orchard and several outbuildings, as well as a decent-sized house.

The houses themselves, of course, varied in size. The smallest cottage of a cottar – the village labouring folk – might be just one room, perhaps fifteen feet (4.5 metres) square. A wealthier peasant might have a ‘long house’, with two or three rooms. Peasant houses were typically built with a timber frame, filled in with wattle and daub, and nearly all roofs were thatched. Floors were usually beaten earth, strewn with straw to catch the various droppings of daily life. The housewife would occasionally sweep out the dirty straw and replace it with fresh. But, as Hanawalt says, “even a fastidious housewife would not clean frequently enough for our sensitive noses, and floors would have seemed rank by our standards” (Hanawalt, p.37).

The fire was situated in the centre of the floor, the smoke escaping through a hole in the roof. The smoke perhaps helped to keep creepy-crawlies in the thatch at bay, but the atmosphere inside the room must have been quite unpleasant, for the fire burned more or less all day long. Presumably you simply got used to it. At night the fire could be capped with a round lid with holes, to keep it under control (Gies, p.91).

Which was just as well, as the family probably slept on the floor around the fire, on straw pallets. Although I believe that some houses had a sort of platform or loft built underneath the roof, accessible by a ladder, which could be used for sleeping (or perhaps storage) (Gies, p.93), and, in larger houses, a separate room might be used as a bedchamber.

Manor houses were of course much larger than the average peasant house, yet might still have a relatively simple layout, with a main hall with the fire in the middle of the floor (though chimneys were beginning to appear), and a few additional service rooms. They might also have a ‘solar’, a second floor accessed by a staircase where the family had their private quarters and sleeping chambers (Gies, p.90), while the servants and retainers still slept on pallets in the main hall.

Many fourteenth century manor houses are still with us, because they were built of stone, and can be seen everywhere in England, if much altered over the ensuing centuries. Most fourteenth century cottages, on the other hand, have not survived, because they were built of wood, wattle and daub, and thatch. However, vernacular buildings of many centuries have been reconstructed at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, near Chichester, and are indispensable for the opportunity they provide for getting the feel of where fourteenth (and later) century people lived and worked. The museum is very well worth a visit.

These two illustrations of the reconstruction of a fourteenth century hall house, which can be seen at the museum, are taken from the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum Guidebook (1987 version).

boarhunt-hall-1

boarhunt-hall-2

All this is a small part of the research I have undertaken into the practical aspects of the lives of fourteenth century people. There is so much to know! And yet it is all simply background to the story of The Meonbridge Chronicles. I need to know it, so that I can visualise my characters, both as individuals and within their environment. And I do hope that you will be able to visualise them too.

References:

 

Gies, F. & G. (1991). Life in a Mediaeval Village. New York: HarperPerennial.

Hanawalt, B.A. (1986). The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Mediaeval England. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Newman, P.B. (2001). Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson, N.C.: Mcfarland Pubishing Inc.

Mediaeval women (2)

In this second blog post sharing a little of my research into mediaeval women, I am looking at the rather negative view of women that can be found in some mediaeval literature.

Mediaeval misogyny

An interesting aspect of the view of women we find in some of the contemporary literature is the contrast between the chivalric idealisation of the noble ‘lady’, based on the cult of the Virgin Mary, and a misogynistic contempt for women as the inheritors of Eve.

In her excellent history of mediaeval women, Henrietta Leyser quotes a clerical polemic Holy Maidenhood, which, in advocating the ideal of virginity, depicts the wretchedness of the overworked peasant wife (p.146). It sounds grim: her baby is screaming, the cat is gnawing at the bacon, the baking bread is burning and the contents of the pot hanging over the fire are boiling over. And her husband is having a go at her, perhaps for all her failings! Why on earth, the poem asks, would a woman want to be a wife?

Shulasmith Shahar shows how contemporary treatises advocated keeping women out of public office, saying they had to “devote themselves to their domestic functions” (p.3). The restriction of women’s rights was justified on the basis of their limited intelligence and “wiliness and avarice” (p.12). Indeed all sorts of weaknesses were often ascribed to women as a class, including vanity and greed, wantonness and volatility.

Women were also largely denied any education (Shahar, p.4), which further limited any possibility of them rising out of their lowly status. Women were apparently ‘second-class citizens’ in the fourteenth century, but nonetheless there is considerable evidence that many women were not down-trodden chattels. Many, like competent manor chatelaines, wealthy peasant housewives and business women, were strong and capable and very far from either the feeble-minded or the saintly creatures portrayed in much of the contemporary literature.

Interestingly, Rigby (p.16) says that “the century after the Black Death [was] one when women enjoyed a growing economic independence…” The social and economic changes brought about by the huge loss of life must have had an impact on everyone, but my research has led me to understand that many women both benefited from the changes, and could to some extent throw off their shackles.

And it is these benefits that I have reflected in my portrayal of at least some of the women in Fortune’s Wheel, and which I will reflect on further in a future Meonbridge Chronicle.

References:

Leyser, H. (1996). Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press (Orion books Ltd.).

Rigby, S.H. (2006). Introduction: Social structure and economic change in late mediaeval England. In R. Horrox, W.M. Ormrod, (Eds.) A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 (pp.1-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shahar, S. (1983). The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Medieval women (1)

The principal characters of Fortune’s Wheel are women: Alice, the middle-aged widow of a moderately affluent peasant; Eleanor, a young free woman, orphaned by the plague and now thrown onto her own resources; and Margaret, the wife of the lord of the manor of Meonbridge.

I wanted to tell the story of Fortune’s Wheel through the voices of women. Although we certainly hear the words of men in the story, it was the women’s viewpoints that interested me, for women in history often do not get much opportunity to speak.

For the next four blogs, I am going to share a very little of the research that I have undertaken (and am still undertaking) into the lives of women of the fourteenth century to help me portray their lives with as much authenticity as I can.

Today, I will discuss women’s status in society, and next time I will say something about the rather negative view of women that can be found in some mediaeval literature. Thirdly, I will discuss the practical aspects of what mediaeval women wore and where they lived. And, lastly, I will talk about the daily lives of fourteenth century women.

 

The status of mediaeval women

Generally, peasant women had little status in fourteenth century society. If they were married, they had no say in village life, for their husbands spoke for them. But if they were landowners and widowed or unmarried, they had more control over their own affairs and might play some part in village affairs, such as attendance at the manorial courts (Shahar, p.220). All unfree peasants (villeins or serfs) were tied to the manor, owing not only rent, fees and taxes, but also regular week-work, and a woman fully shared in this burden, “a partner to her husband” (Gies, 1980, p.146-147).

Ordinary women had to work, as today, because married women needed to contribute to the household budget and single women had to earn a livelihood. In the Middle Ages, as today, marriage by no means meant that a woman had to devote herself to her home, and many women supported themselves or ran businesses independently from their husbands (Power, p.56). Rates of pay for women were generally lower than for men. However, the general shortage of labour after the Black Death gave women more power to claim higher wages (Leyser, p.148), just as it did for men.

Young, single, peasant women would probably initially get work as wage labourers or live-in servants (Leyser, p.144). Other options for single women were few: peasants did not become nuns, and it was never easy to set up in business. Some might move to a town to find work. If she did not marry, the single woman might end up as a servant in her married brother’s house (Hanawalt, p.142).

In some ways the status of the wealthy woman was little better than that of a peasant: she was still the chattel of her father, and then her husband, and often had little control over her life, even if it was relatively comfortable. She might be married as a child to someone she did not know, in order to seal an economic deal, and might be sent away from home at an early age. However, many of these women were more active and competent than the ‘chattel’ status might imply. Fourteenth century chivalric literature might suggest that she was “the romantic, lovely and capricious lady of chivalry”, but she was “in practice, more often an extremely hard-worked woman” (Power, p.37). The real fifteenth century Margaret Paston, who lived in Norfolk, was a ‘lady of the manor’ who was often left in charge of the manor while her husband was away. Power says that she “was exceedingly competent and managed [his] property for him with the utmost success; collecting rents, keeping accounts and outwitting enemies” (Power, p.39).

In Fortune’s Wheel, I have woven into the story a picture of women from different positions in society, rich and poor, young and old, free and unfree, and their stories will continue in future Meonbridge Chronicles.

References:

Gies, F. & G. (1991). Life in a Mediaeval Village. New York: HarperPerennial.

Gies, F. & G. (1980). Women in the Middle Ages. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Hanawalt, B.A. (1986). The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Mediaeval England. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Leyser, H. (1996). Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Phoenix Press (Orion Books Ltd.).

Power, E. (2001). Mediaeval Women. London: The Folio Society.

Shahar, S. (1983). The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.