|Medieval Cooking Pot|
© York Museums Trust used with permission.
Childbirth was a terribly risky endeavour for medieval women, no matter what their status in society. It is estimated that for every pregnancy, a woman had a one in fifty chance of dying in childbirth. Women from the lower classes were often employed as wet-nurses for the wealthy.
The wives of peasants and villeins shared much of the agricultural labour with their husbands. They could earn money as labourers but were paid about half than men for the same work. Seasonal work paid better than service. Women’s tasks included sheep shearing, milking cows and looking after livestock and chickens, planting, winnowing and weeding. This was on top of all the domestic tasks: keeping a fire, cooking, washing.
With the expansion of towns and cities in the medieval period, women found other opportunities to earn an income. Many unmarried young women opted for service as it gave a yearly wage and moved from the countryside to secure a place. Women also worked as huxters. They would buy produce such as bread, eggs, vegetables or other foods and sell from baskets, either door-to-door or on foot in the increasingly busy marketplaces. The female ale sellers went by some rather wonderful names: gannockers, tapsters or tranters. The money earned in these ways was pitifully small.
Laundry was an all-female preserve. Women did their own washing at home, often using unpleasant substances such as lye and urine as cleaning agents. They also worked as laundresses, travelling to the houses of the rich to carry out their duties. Naturally, the work in the laundry is dismissed by some chroniclers as a hot-bed of gossiping. It must in reality have been back-breaking.
I like chain-mailed heroes as much as the next medieval history fan. But for me, these forgotten women were pretty darned heroic too. Speaking as an everyday woman, I'm so privileged I have my life and not theirs.
Included in the post above with Amazon links: there is so much more to discover in them about ordinary life in medieval times.
Note: I originally posted this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on April 17th 2015.
Medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers in the US, the UK and Australia. I'm working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland.
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