website book blog tutorials noticeboard thegilbertcollection email

a woman's

at home

upper class &
noble women
at home

merchant &
at home

rural & peasant women at home




death & dying




& hobbies

women & sex


Medieval Merchant & Townswomen at Home

Merchant and townswomen are the closest to the kinds of women we are today. Many women today have a full-time or part-time paid employment or source of income and still have domestic duties to attend to when they get home. We have the convenience of being able to buy goods and services from shops, just as our medieval sisters also did.

The townswoman did most of her own cooking for herself and her family and served the food to the table herself. Even if she had servants, it was most likely that she would serve her husband at the table herself and not leave this to the hired help.

Many daily items were not prepared by the woman herself but bought from vendors as we do today- bread, eggs and milk. Townswomen often did not have land enough for a cow or chickens or a kitchen garden, like those out of town or in the countryside.

Many manuscripts show women in a domestic setting with a large iron post over the fire, a spoon in her hand in the act of cooking. Wills of women often list valuable and broken cooking implements giving us an idea of what kinds of items were used in a kitchen.

Women were often beneficiaries of wills, which added to their own household goods in return for years of loyal service.

The will of William Nunhouse, a fishmonger from York leaves his servant, Margaret, a number of goods:

Also I leave my servant Margaret, a Prussian chest, a brass pot of my wife's choosing, a coverlet, a blanket with a pair of sheets so that the aforesaid Margaret does not leave or depart from my wife Joan's service during the term of her hire and contract made between me and her.

I also leave Cecily my servant 2s.

Also I leave Agnes my servant 12d.

Since she was able to buy goods almost prepared, her cooking options varied more than the woman in the country. She had no need to bake bread though she might, and meat was available already cut from a butchery. Spices and herbs were available to buy and this all improved the variety of dishes that a townswoman was able to prepare.

A townswoman or merchant woman would almost certainly have had domestic help, and passed the smaller jobs of cleaning to another woman. Many of these were single women who had come to the town from the country and were employed on a live-in basis. This also gave a young woman the skills she needed to learn in household management before marrying and setting up house of her own.

Spinning and weaving
While major cloth production was not the job of the woman at home, she might still be tasked with the production of narrow wares- tablet woven bands, fingerloop laces and spinning to make thread to sew with. Spinning and weaving on a domestic scale was considered honest women's work.

Larger cloth amounts for coverlets, clothes and curtains would more than likely be bought from a clothier- a merchant who sold cloth. Generally speaking, most dwellings did not accomodate the kind of space required to have a large loom set up.

Shopping opportunities abounded for the woman who lived in a town or a city. Specialty stores sold everything a woman might need and there was more of a choice of items for sale. While some shops carried a range of goods like an old-style corner store, most shops were more of a specialist concern. Artisans were masters of a particular thing, and their wares reflected their trade.

Shoes, jewellery, foods, spices, books and household items were available. For every want, there was a specialist artisan who made and sold it.

A woman might buy off-the-shelf or have special commission made to order.

Quite frankly, I know very little of the gardening practices of the townswoman. There are indications for the upper and lower classes, but extremely little information.

The Goodman of Paris, who was upper middle class, speaks to his wife about tending the garden and growning roses, but certainly this would be heavily dependant on what land was available, among other things.

Some women on the edges of towns may have been able to keep chickens, but those in the inner or bigger towns would have bought their eggs from the markets or shops.

Child raising
As with the rural and peasant women, a woman living in a town would have reared her own children, breastfed her own babies and worked around her household schedule, often with her servants to assist her.

The illumination at right from Katherine of Cleaves Book of Hours shows how a townswoman might successfully get on with her household tasks like weaving and still supervise a small child; much the same way mothers do today.


Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
All text & photographs within this site are the property of Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
Art & artifact images remain the property of the owner.
Images and text may not be copied and used without permission.