Woodcut of a woman stoking a furnace or baking bread, 1497. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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 GoodPointes 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.