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Medieval Rural & Peasant Women at Home

Medieval 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, the food was not always the best. In times of hardship, bread and cheese may have been old.

Many dishes used milk and eggs, and since a rural family was likely to have a cow or goat or sheep for milk and chickens for eggs, this was able to be a staple in their diets. 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 modern picture of lamb shanks as a staple medieval food does not take this into consideration for the poorer family with limited livestock and a need for milk, wool, butter.

A woman made her own butter and cheese, bread and ale, 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, and in many cases, housewives were obliged to not only grind the grain at the manor mill instead of grinding her own at home, but to pay for the use of it as well.

At home, it was the woman's duty to tend the fire and be responsible for keeping it alive.

Cleaning and housework
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. Laundry seems to be an exclusively female activity.

Spinning and weaving
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.

Livestock & Poultry
A rural woman would have had the opportunity to keep chickens, ducks, geese as well as perhaps a goat or cows for cheese and milk. The milking and care of these fell soeley on the shoulders of the woman of the household. She taught her daughters, who would, in turn, teach theirs.

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

Horses, if they were owned by the family, would be looked after by the menfolk.

Raising Children
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. A young girl would help her mother in the house and in the garden learning all the domestic things she would need to know when she became a wife and mother herself.

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