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
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.