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Medieval Noble & Upper Class Women at Home

Although images of noble women usually show scenes of sewing or reading, the reality of a noble woman's responsibilities was nothing short of amazing. Very few were what we would call "the idle rich."

As well as managing a household, she was required to have many of the skills that a regular woman had in order to instruct her staff. Her home duties included hiring and firing staff, overseeing orders for the pantry and butlery, checking quality of foodstuffs, fabrics and the prices of them, and a variety of tasks on behalf of her husband. If her husband was away on crusade, this may extend for several years.

A noble woman neither did the cooking for her household herself nor did she wait on tables. Even female servants did not bring food to the tables in noble households; it was a job with a high status attached to it and was therefore not to be trusted to the lowly female kitchen staff.

Manuscripts where nobility are feasting almost always show men cooking in the kitchens, preparing the food and serving it at the table.

A noble woman had no place in the kitchen.

Household cleaning
It goes without saying that the cleaning in a noble woman's house was also not done by a noble woman herself. Many household accounts have listings for their laundry expenses with prices and to whom they are paid.

Laundry was carried out by female servants who were usually under the charge of a senior laundress who was herself under the charge of the noblewoman. Noble women were expected to oversee these things but not take part in them herself.

Spinning & weaving
Christine de Pisan in Le Livre des Trois Vertus writes of the duties of an aristocratic wife and says that while such a wife may not actually do any of the weaving in her household herself, she must be knowledgeable about every facet of the process so that she may oversee each and every stage of the process- from the selection of the fleeces to the final construction of finished garments. In this way, she might ensure that the best standard of materials are being used, and how much of what should be produced and what quality o f work should be expected.

Only fine embroidery or the making of fine pieces was seen as a suitable at-home sewing activity for a noble woman.

The noble woman did very little household shopping herself, but rather employed others to do it for her. It was expected that she would know what good should cost and the quality of them at what prices. She would be in charge of letting her staff know what household items to buy, and quite likely, where to buy them from.

The exception, of course, was the kitchen, where it was not necessary for her to judge the quantity of food required to feed a certain number of people on a daily basis.

When it came to luxury items, the noble and upper class ladies shopped at the finest establishments for jewellery and other fine items. She might buy books already produced or alternately, commission special books for her, with express instructions about the number of pages, illuminations and bindings.

Travelling merchants might offer a range of dress accessories or luxury items and come door to door.

The upper class medieval woman did very little actual gardening herself, but rather employed others- both male and female- to tend her flower and vegetable gardens. Noble women are often painted enjoying flower gardens and picking flowers such as the 1410 scene The Garden Of Eden shown at right.

The Goodman of Paris speaks to his young wife about her girlish passtimes which he feels are entirely suitable for her position in society. He says:

Know that I take delight rather than displeasure in your cultivating rose bushes, caring for violets and making chaplets, and also in your dancing and singing; I wish you to continue to do so among our friends and peers, for it is only right and just that you should thus pass the days of your maidenly youth.

I feel that there is a certain emphasis on among our friends and peers, and is not to be confused with gardening with the servants.

Livestock & Poultry
Aagain, this was not the domain of the wealthy woman who hired the staff neccessary to look after any animals. Even a Lady's favourite horse for riding or bird for hawking was not cared for by herself, but rather a groom and a stable boy and a bird specialist hired for the specific task.

A woman might have her favourite palfrey or riding horse, but it was absolutely the job of someone else to feed, train and groom it.

Many medieval women were avid pet-keepers, dogs and cats and squirrels, but a Lady would not even have fed her own little lap dog or cat, leaving that to the cook or a servant.

Child raising
Wet nurses were not uncommon in the world of the noble lady.

We constantly see the Virgin Mary held up as the finest example of motherhhod that a woman might aim to emulate, and a large portion of those images show her breastfeeding and taking care of her own child, although the reality was quite different.

The clergy felt rather strenuously that mothers should breast-feed their own babies, and upper class ladies should be no exception. If it was good enough for the Virgin Mary, then it was good enough for everyone.

In reality, it was different.

Just as a busy upper class woman bottle-feeds her babies today and has one or more nannies to take care of them, a busy and socially-important medieval woman also had her children cared for by others. Wet nurses and servants were the usual thing for a woman of means.

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