Rural & Peasant Women at Home
COOKING - CLEANING - SHOPPING - GARDENING
- LIVESTOCK & POULTRY
rural and peasant women almost always worked a few days a week
for their lord- often in the fields beside their men. Here we
will look at what they did in their own homes. Even today, the
working mother still has domestic duties waiting for her when
she gets home from work!
Generally, the rural medieval woman made and cooked her own food
for herself and her family, whether
that be her husband and children or as part of her own family
while growing up. Food choices may have been simpler than women
living in towns, but by no means was it bad. Fresh herbs and home-grown
produce today are preferred to the stored, processed food of major
supermarket chains where food has been transported long distances.
Young girls learned cooking from their mothers and women served
meals at their own family tables.
Kitchen implements may have been quite basic- an iron pot, wooden
spoons, a trivet, knives, but all quite functional and there is
no reason to believe that these things were in poor condition.
A woman who has less to spend on replacing her kitchen things
was more likely to take good care of the belongings.
Often we hear that a family may have had nothing but bread and
cheese for their supper but consider homemade herb cheese with
fresh baked bread and the picture is perhaps not so dim as it
sounds. Of course, in times
of little where a stew has been "extended" a few days,
food was not always the best.
Many dishes used milk and eggs, since a rural family was likely
to have a cow or goat or sheep for milk and chickens for eggs.
Bees provided honey for sweetening. Vegetables were seasonable
and fresh fish may have been available from streams. Meat itself
did not play a huge part in the rural family's diet. Consider
if you kill the chicken or the sheep, you are killing your source
of eggs, wool and milk- all precious resources for a family with
little. The picture of lamb shanks as a staple medieval food does
not take this into consideration. A woman may make her own butter
and cheese, but could possibly buy ale and bread. Making ale took
a great deal of time which the busy woman did not have time for
herself. Bread might aslo be baked in a communal oven.
At home, it was the woman's duty to tend the fire and be responsible
for keeping it alive.
Rural woman did their own cleaning, although many peasant women
had domestic help. It isn't true that all peasants were extremely
poor, and a young, unmarried woman could earn extra money working
in another home. In her own house, she had dishes from cooking
and eating to tend to, laundry of clothes and bedsheets, bedbugs
and household pests to deal with and floors to sweep.
Washing clothes may have been done either inside over a fire or
at a nearby stream and was often a social occasion as well as
a necessary chore. Washing seems to be an exclusively female activity.
Most rural women engaged in spinning and weaving. This provided
fabric for their own use for clothes and bedding and also spun
wool could be sold on to merchants in towns providing extra income
for the household.
Even a young girl could be taught how to use a spindle and how
to prepare wool for spinning. By the time a young woman was in
her late teens, she was already an accomplished spinner. Her threads
would have been even and of a reasonably high quality. By the
time she was married and making clothes for her own family, the
cloth she produced would have been of quite a good standard. The
clothes made from them were unlikely to be coarsely woven and
chunky as we see in medieval movies. Years of practice means even
a poor woman was able to produce a good result. She required no
special tools that her counterparts in the cities had- it came
down to her individual ability and experience. We often see manuscript
pictures showing a woman going about her farm duties with a spindle
to spin in her spare moments.
Shopping took two forms- going to market to sell and buy wares
and that of the traveling peddler. Most nearby towns had a regular
weekly market where rural people would come for the day and sell
their home produce and buy from butchers and bakers.
Traveling peddlers provided brought items which were harder to
get locally or specialty items.
Generally, it was accepted that men did the heavy work and women
tended the vegetable gardens, weeding and looking after the small
crops and herbs for the family use. Many women used herbal remedies
in their personal toilette and made scented washes for their face
and hair. Herbs were also grown for cooking. Manuscripts like
the 14th century English Luttrell Psalter also show women
engaged in garden work alongside men.
A rural woman would have had the opportunity to keep chickens,
ducks, geese as well as perhaps a goat for cheese and milk. Living
in the country provided grazing and space to keep poultry which
a townswoman would not have had. She would also have been responsible
for shearing sheep and milking cows.
A peasant or rural woman was responsible for raising her own children.
This took place the same way that it does today with stay-at-home
mothers who work from home while they bring up their children,
teaching them skills they need later in life- cooking, cleaning
etc. Babies are usually shown in their cradles swaddled and at
that stage would have been little hindrance to their mother's
daily duties. Once they became toddlers, they shadowed their mothers
exactly the same way they do today.
A young boy, once reaching a certain age, would accompany his
father to work in the fields or learn the basics of a trade before
becoming old enough to start work alongside his father or become
apprenticed to a trade.