283 Little Commonwealth

The patriarchy, love and marriage, gender roles and huswifery, the daily grind and a bit about food and clothing. It’s a smorgasbord.

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We have a few times talked about the early modern concept of the Commonwealth; the idea that England was a structured and hierarchical society, but one bound by mutual obligations, where all were entitled to the benefits of commonwealth, but in order to deserve those benefit, must faithfully fulfil their allotted role. Last time, we talked about the community of the English Parish, which might be viewed as a Little Commonwealth, run very much according to the same hierarchies but and obligations – like the kingdom, the parish had its governors and its religious, and its workers. The same might then be said household was another such Little Commonwealth. It had its governor, and since society was both patriarchal and a gerontocracy, that governor was the male head of the household; the father was the representative almost of the monarch, and wife, servants children all owed obedience, and obedience was required for the correct operation of the household.

Now I have to say that this is a topic that tends to confuse me, since it is hard not to see a household through modern eyes; namely that if you have a family there is going to be a bit of argy bargy, and bit of give and take. That within the context of a household all those hard and fast rules and gender roles will get seriously blurred. Now, I am clearly wrong, and like everything, context is king. Nonetheless, the historiography of family relationships does seem to have moved on a little. It used to be thought that parents probably did not love their children very much, because they had such a terrible habit of dying so frequently; it used to be thought that financial concerns predominated in the choice of marriage partner, that love was a minor consideration and might arrive by luck but pretty little else; historiography tended to emphasise patriarchal control over women’s agency. It appears that everything is a little less binary now, a little more nuanced, and maybe that means I was a little bit right all along. Only a little bit obviously.

I think I have despatched the one about not loving children to the boundary a few times, so let’s simply note that the idea appears to be tripe and move on…to marriage. Where it also appears that marrying for love was a clearly established and agreed requirement, or at least it was below the top ranks of society, and let us make that distinction shall we for all of what follows. We are talking about the bulk of the population here. So love was important, which is you know, nice. Although was it really that nice; one more jaundiced view I have read is that the insistence on the primacy of a loving relationship, and for period that really does mean loving heterosexual relationship, the practical impact of making love the most important objective in such a society was to separate women from their existing, female or family support network, and made women more subject to the whim of their husband benevolence. I can feel myself drowning, so you know, you can take it from there. Whether a good or bad thing, love was however, not the be all and end all; just as I mentioned when we were talking about population, economic considerations played a role – but more about when you got married, more than if.

However, there were of course rules about what was expected of each party once they got into a marriage; church, popular conduct books all emphasised that loving, fearing and obeying were a woman’s role; loving, providing and protecting the male role. Playing video games until 3 am in the morning and making rude noises in bed appear to be, then, as now, largely ungendered roles. The husband was ‘the highest in the family and hath authority over all, and the charge of all is committed to his charge’.[1] This view appears to have been backed up pretty solidly by the law; once a woman was married her legal rights were seriously curtailed through the practice of Coverture ; she retained her title to any freehold lands of her own, such as might come with her marriage portion; but her husband held a life interest in her lands while they were married and all her moveable goods and chattels became his. She couldn’t make contracts on her own behalf, and her debt was due to her husband. Women were identified as the daughters, spouses or widows of particular men. Social and legal rules such as these would seem to suggest a pretty draconian regime with women at the receiving end.

But in the words of one historian, Margaret Hunt, early modern marriages reveal ‘the creative enactment of cultural ideals in daily life’. [2]This is exactly the kind of statement scholars make which causes me instant brain meltdown, but I think I understand what Professor Hunt means; things were essentially a lot messier in practice is I think what’s she’s saying. It’s not that the cultural rules were ignored or were just for show – but in the context of real people, personalities and context, how they played out varied a lot. So, it wasn’t always clear where the boundaries were – one couple argued constantly about who’s job it was to boss the domestic servants. And the idea that the woman was completely dependent on the good will of their husbands does not give take into account the real nature of the relationship; the practical reality was of mutual interdependence as wife and husband brought up a family, and for the poor that was hard, gruelling and constant work. Society expected that most families would not succeed unless both parties pulled their weight – in the end it might not be an equal partnership, but it was a partnership, and each were expected to fulfil their role again, and interestingly, keep out of the way of the others. I am going to hit you with a quote from Richard Gough, the yeoman farmer of Myddle in Shropshire who occupied himself by writing a history of his neighbours. Richard was the voice of middle in more ways than one, and the shires. It’s quite long quote, sorry about that. There are a few things we might take from this, but go on let me get on with it

Rowland Muckleston…had for his first wife the daughter of one Andrew Boulder, of Meriton; who gave with his daughter a lease of a tenement in Meriton…shee was a quiet low-spirited woman, and suffered her husband to concerne himself with all things both within doors and without, soe that their housekeeping was not commendable.

So I might note three things, as though we were in fact studying a gobbet for an O Level exam. I am feeling 16 again. The name of Rowland’s wife is not mentioned once; she is a daughter and a wife. Actually Mr Gough would normally use women’s names, so maybe he just couldn’t recall it here, but tough, it makes the point nicely for me. Secondly, with pretty much every marriage Gough talks about the woman’s portion she brought is mentioned. Marriage might be for love, but show me the money. Thirdly – Gough is contemptuous of the tomfoolery of a man involving himself in a woman’s domain. It’s no less ridiculous to his mind. To continue the story, Rowland’s sadly nameless wife dies.

Afterwards hee marryed (a second wife) the daughter of Mr Cuthbert Hesketh of Kenwicke, commonly called Darter Hesketh; it was a hasty match and a small portion, but she was a very handsome gentlewoman and of a masculine spirit, and would not suffer him to intermeddle with her concerns within doors, and shee endeavoured to keep a good house, but this caused them to keep an unquiet house, and many contests happened between them which ended not without blows. I think shee never boasted of the victory for shee had lost an eye in the battle

Darter Hesketh was made of sterner stuff then, and Gough’s approval for her stand comes across. The consequences of deviance from proper behaviour were dire, and violent. What we have here is a man who has allowed the social rules to get out of balance; he’s guilty of remembering only his duty to command, and not his duty to keep to his own sphere. Because interestingly, just as it was a woman’s role to obey, so it was a man’s role to command. Men were expected to exercise authority over themselves, and others, demonstrating self discipline and restraint. Women were effectively trained to defer to their husbands from birth. Such training of course carries with it the unsurprising implication that such deference wasn’t a natural state of affairs, and needed to be constantly re-inforced. But publicly at least, it was accepted; so much so that it sometimes gave rise to the rather extraordinary situation where women actively supporting their husbands in meeting the required standards; we see Lady Joan Barrington, just for example, writing letters on her husband’s behalf since he clearly couldn’t cope, and she didn’t want him to look like a plonker.

There are of course plenty of examples of women behaving as though all the laws did not exist, and most women would not only carry out the duties of huswifery, which we’ll describe below, but would take some sort of paid labour as well. One Elizabeth Harvey for example, worked as a cloth dealer, travelled on business, leaving her hubby at home to look after domestic affairs and the children.

All this sounds reasonably equitable; but of course the rights lay with the man should things go wrong. Men had a legal right to discipline their wives, just for instance, a right which lasted up to the 19th century. There was a lot of talk about what this meant in practice; in the 16th century the consensus appeared to be that a man could, and I quote from Linda Pollock ‘physically correct his wife but not violently’. I am not quite sure what this means, but the long and short seems to be that unacceptable abuse as a concept was very much recognised, and abuse could include isolations or confinement. However, we go back to Richard Gough’s story above; I’m pretty sure I am reading that right that he abused his wife so violently that she lost the sight of an eye – and there was no consequence as far as I can see.

If everything came completely unstuck, there was recourse to law to be had, and people did take it; and although the cards were stacked against women they could and did win cases. The kind of cases that come up play very much to the accepted gender roles – men complain that women were insufficiently obedient, or extravagant, or neglected the children. Women complained men didn’t provide for them, or denied their property to them, or failed in their fatherly duties. When women petitioned the court, they would play up to their accepted roles, presenting themselves as defenceless and dependent. Obviously going to court was rare, and here am I now going through a litany of the problems that might occur in marriage, which is you know, uncomfortable, but I think the bigger point is that gender roles were important, but not hard and fast or even perfectly understood.

For couples that got a relationship wrong, or at least the public face of their relationship, there was also the hideous prospect of public humiliation for it by their peers. I speak of the popular ceremony, and by popular, I mean that it was visited on the afflicted by your neighbours informally not by official sanction or court of law. Just to get your attention for a moment, in case you are flagging, learning about this was one of those shoe damaging moments when the bottom of my jaw went to ground. This popular punishment has many names; Charivari, skimmington, rough music, stang riding, I could go on and those are only the English versions, for this is a European wide phenomenon. Basically the idea was that people who did not abide by social rules suffered public humiliation. And in a small community, public humiliation was an effective form of punishment; so much so that the courts could also use the approach for other offences – adulterers, male or female, for example, would often be made to walk in white through the streets holding a candle, exactly in the way that whatshername in what’sit thrones thingy was made to do. Or stand at the front of church. Anyway, a skimmington ride was based on that principle, and was a ceremony, if that’s the right word, that originated in the medieval world, and was common to Europe, and it would make it to the US of A. Commonly the chosen crime deserving of humiliation was where a woman dominated her husband; the word skimmington probably came from a large wooden ladle, and the connection is that it would have been a likely instrument with which the husband might have been beaten by the disobedient wife. The husband didn’t get off either though – both husband and wife were being taken to task for failing in their proper rolls. Here’s a pretty little ditty called out in Oxfordshire, apparently, according to Christine Bloxham:

There is a man in our town

Who often beats his wife,

So if he does it any more,

We’ll put his nose right out before.

Holler boys, holler boys,

Make the bells ring,

Holler boys, holler boys.

God save the King.


So the village or parish would get together, drag the couple or individual from their house, push them up backwards on the horse and away they’d go through the streets. Or they might ‘ride the stang’ – the stang being a long pole held by 3 or 4 sturdy lads. Things might be thrown at them, everyone would make as much noise as possible, banging pots and pans, hence the name rough music. Abuse and mockery would be yelled out along the way, there might be a ducking at the end. In the safer versions, effigies were used instead of the actual people which sounds far preferable to me. It’s a rather hideous tradition but thoroughly fascinating in its implications. It rather gives the lie to idea of a village composed of repressed villagers who would have been all merry if only the yeomanry and gentry hadn’t been there to force morality on them; it gives the lie to the old image of the puritan forcing reluctant villagers to behave like lemon suckers against their will. It demonstrates just how strong community values and mores were – this is a very close society. The practice of skimmington continued into 18th and 19th century Europe and England, and even into the 20th century. Should I suggest we revive it in my village? Send your votes on a postcard to the shed, England, the world.



I mentioned earlier then, that whilst sitting within the context of patriarchal dominance and authority, marriage was clearly a partnership in which the contribution of both wife and husband was essential for success. We might look at the roles within the context of the household, while accepting that any such attempt again falls foul of the ‘context is king’ rule – but you know, it’s almost impossible not to generalise in life, and its impossible not to generalise in podcasting too, because after all, podcast IS life and life IS Podcasting.

One reasonably major difference with the modern idiom was that looking after the physical structure of the home was rather less effort – essentially because for most people, there was so much less of it, and it was so much simpler; even a prosperous household would live in a house confined to a large ‘hall’, earth-floored, open to the rafters, with a central hearth, a screened-off ‘parlour’ at one end, a service area at the other, and perhaps a separate kitchen in the yard. The same largely applied to merchant houses of the towns, but plus cellars or storerooms; Craftsmen generally had a small workshop and a single living room, and the poor inhabited tiny cottages or tenement rooms in congested alleys and yards.

The standard day would be much more aligned to the season, and therefore you might be up at 4am in the summer, maybe not til 7 in the winter. This was partly because there was not much between you and that season; glass in ordinary households was quite rare, and curtains even more so, unless you were one of the lucky ones who used curtains where they should be used – to go round a bedstead. I say bedstead because for many the bed was pretty much what we would call a mattress, and there was a full range – some might sleep directly on the floor, there could be a bed of straw, and then all the way up to flock or even down mattresses; and then over that were laid blankets, maybe you’d have a bolster for your head. Here is a quote from a very cross, world-beating humanist thinker whose works will echo down through the centuries with his erudition. He visited England, and he wrote that English floors

‘are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish and other abominations not fit to be mentioned’.[3]

The whiner was the great Erasmus of Rotterdam. Even great minds hate the dirt.

Now Bedsteads as opposed the floor had lots of advantages, lifting you away from drafts, but with central hearths and no chimney there was a lot of smoke around, and it hung around down to a certain level; there was essentially a line under which the air was much clearer and smoke free. So bedsteads could also have drawbacks, lifting you towards the smoke. Still, bedsteads would be highly valued, as we know from Shakespeare’s will of course and that’s partly because one of the great transforming inventions of the 16th century is the seemingly humble brick fireplaces – not so humble I must tell, not so humble at all. Brick had become cheaper, and so fireplaces were not simply the preserve of the super-rich any more, the preserve of those who could afford stone buildings. Later in the century, cheap brick and the rising income of classes yeoman and upwards would lead to W G Hoskin’s ‘Great rebuilding of England’, which I have already promised for a future episode. Springs on beds are some way in the future so rope strung lengthways and cross ways across the bedstead would probably be what you laid your mattress or straw on, though you might lie on wooden planks also. Key to your comfort therefore was how tightly strung were these ropes, otherwise everything would go all droopy, and no one wants that. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the origin of the phrase ‘sleep tight’. As in tight ropes. It’s amazing what you find out here at the History of England.

It would be crowded in the house; given that a large proportion of households included domestic servants, and houses are not partitioned into sleeping areas, you are all one big happy family in there. There’s not a lot of privacy, should the evening be leading to a bit of slap and tickle. Still, sounds quite nice and warm in an animal sort of way unless well you know. Anyway, onward, and onward would be to morning prayers. Pre-reformation it’s probable that some of the many printed devotional texts would have been used to help a personal ceremony of religious devotion; afterwards, the reformers tried hard to encourage the direct relationship with God and thought that free form praying would help, so it might be that no book was used, but helpful books did begin to appear in Elizabethan England too.



The morning wash presented something of a challenge, in that it was a necessary but dangerous activity. Tudors and indeed Medieval folks were every bit as concerned to be clean as you or I…well, you, but the medical advice of the time warned that disease and sickness entered the body through the pores in your skin; obviously nose and mouth were the primary routes, but the pores were to be guarded carefully also. So it was important to stay away from evil smelly pools as much as possible – as we know from the disease malaria, bad air, it was believed that just the smell could kill you, seeping into your body. Conversely, perfume could have magical effects; the smell of rosemary, for example, was believed to stimulate the function of memory, directly strengthening the brain. Such perfumes though were expensive and available only to a few thousand of the richer people, but natural herbs and flowers were widely used; marjoram was used during the day, because it, like the rose, was supposed to keep the mind lively. For those that could afford it, an apothecary could provide a scent bag to carry around and hold to your nose; or a pomander is quite common. I have met pomanders in novels, and heard them mentioned in nick nack shops into which I had unconsciously wandered or been enticed before noticing and legging it, but I have never really known what one is. It is apparently a solid perfumed mixture, of herbs and spices which were worked into either a ball of wax or a lump of resin. I shall now try to forget this fact, so that my brain does not become full, but before I do, the smelly lump might be kept in a perforated wooden or metal box, that could be suspended from a cord; or a girdle, if you were wearing a skirt, so that it could bash against your legs and body like a censor and spread happy smells. Obviously doesn’t work with hose or trousers, since it’ll get all tangled up. Herbs might also be used to scent the house and be deeply practical – Natural insecticides such as tansy, rue and wormwood were strewn on floors and mingled with bed straws.

So, given the susceptibility to disease through the skin, the morning wash should be conducted with clean, cold water which would wash away the dirt but not, you know, kill you at the same time. You would probably rub your teeth with a bit of linen at the same time, and all the manuals about health or manners agreed that you should comb your hair at least once a day. Washing hair was unusual though, but not unheard of. Every so often there might be a chance for an all over wash – swimming in rivers for example was reasonably common; but Henry VIII had most public stews or bathhouses closed down, such as these at Winchester and Chester. This was not because Henry VIII was blind to the wonders of a hot steamy bath. It’s just that the stews were known to be steamy for more than one reason. Henry meanwhile had himself a massive bathroom built for him at Hampton court, which Elizabeth was also to enjoy. No one said Tudor society was fair. Or indeed that life was fair.

Remaining healthy though meant that clothes must indeed be kept clean, especially those close to your skin, and underwear was therefore on the frontline of the struggle to avoid evil smelling – and again smelling bad was as socially unacceptable then as it was now. Linen was therefore particularly prized for underwear, on the principle that it absorbed grease and dirt and drew it away from the skin. Linen was also recommended for a good, vigorous rubbing down in the morning; Thomas Elyot’s book ‘The Castel of Helth’ recommended a thorough scrub with a piece of linen until ‘untyll the fleshe do swelle, and be somewhat ruddy’. I feel invigorated just by reading it.

Clothes were of course expensive, and so linen was regularly changed and washed, because people would often own only two or three sets. The more expensive items of clothing, like their best gown, or doublet, would be carefully kept for the will, and clothes are a central part of most wills. A Yeoman farmer would have a bit more to give away; maybe three shirts, one on, one in the wash and one for best. Which sounds great, but which also emphasises just how relatively expensive clothing is, and not just the performance gowns and things; even a canvas shirt was a very major outlay. So for the poorest, keeping clean would indeed be a major issue. It also meant that the market for second hand clothes was very vibrant, since not everyone could afford to go to the Mercer to buy cloth and either the tailor to have them made up, or indeed make them up themselves.

This calls for a full and frank discussion of clothing and sumptuary laws, but I feel I lack the courage and integrity required. I seem to remember doing one on medieval fashion and the pain lives with me still. Droopy sleeves and things, a layer of technical skill that is beyond me, and one of the reasons why the Great Sewing Bee is such compelling telly – how do they make those things? Anyway, so in a principled stand, I’ll content myself with just talking about some low hanging fruit like codpieces. Which were of course covered by Sumptuary laws which were legion – Henry VIII in 1533, Edward Vi apparently wrote his law himself in 1552 because Edward was as we know a puritanical sort of chap, Elizabeth passed plenty of sumptuary laws too. If you were a nobleman, then an assertive codpiece was perfectly acceptable, and even de rigeur, embroidered and thrusting; soldiers were also much given to a mighty piece as well and there are obvious sociological and psychological things going on here I feel I don’t need to mention; because among the poor, a big codpiece was frowned on. Interestingly, I read a piece that suggested the arrival of the codpiece coincided with the arrival of Syphillis at the start of the 16th century, starting out as a mixture in a bag hung around the knicker area to protect the crown jewels from biological warfare – not sure I can get any more twee or euphemistic than that to be frank. Interesting theory. I am in over my head now because I also read a summary article of some work by one Victoria Bartels, who argues that the codpiece did not disappear for the reasons normally thought. The normal argument has been that in the late 16th century, the codpiece fell from favour as a vogue for femininity that swept through the French and English courts, with the arrival of elaborate ruffs, and also ballooning breeches which heralded a shift in focus to the face and hips. Why am I telling you all this? Are you actually interested? Don’t answer that. Anyway Victoria Bartels tells us that the development of the Peascod doublet, skilfully constructed to give a rounded and tapering look to the belly. ‘Akin to the fecund shape of a peapod ripe for picking,” says Bartels[4]. I have to say I think I might have achieved a rounded effect to the belly without any skilful construction, simply through the judicious application of a pint of ale every day for 30 years, but anyway your peascod apparently squished therefore the codpiece – and so the codpiece disappeared.

Anyway, back from the brink; sumptuary laws of course reflected the enduring obsession with social hierarchies, and an innate dislike of social change. In Tudor days then, by your cap could you be known, and pretty much everyone wore one – in fact, it was the law. And by and large if you had a bob or two it would be black, since black was pricey. Just a note there for the unconscious assumption that black means puritan, which it really doesn’t. Brightly coloured caps survive, and are assumed to be from the less well off. The number of sumptuary laws in itself rather indicates just how vain was the attempt to hold back social change in the face of the arrival of capitalism and social mobility, as fruitless as a peascod. Policing them was almost impossible, and prosecutions very rare. The laws and customs made dress, in fact, the boon of the con artist, easily able to don the mantel of respectability with a few well chosen clothes. It was also a feature of the sex trade, where by wearing high status clothes, sex workers could appeal to a certain audience; an people recognised this and resented it. In 1538, a complaint was taken to a London Bawdy court

‘concerning the evyll example for the gorgeous apparel of the Common women of the stewes to the great temptation of the young maydens, wyffes and apprentices’ [5]


Preparing food was an important and major activity, though nothing like the complexity of the grander sort. The main meal of the day was still 10, or more usually now back to 11, and also if it was summer you’d have to have done a couple of hours work before you had breakfast around 6 am – although a bit of legislation in 1495 specified 5 am as the start of the working day in towns. If you did get breakfast, it is apparently in the 1550s that we get the first mention of the full English according to Ruth Goodman when an Andrewe Boorde complained that workmen were having bacon and fried eggs when they should just be sticking to poached eggs.

In the houses of the mighty, the main meal of the day was done with great ceremony, with maybe 6 officers laying out the room and preparing it before the family came in; an announcement was loudly made and then family came in to sit and be served. Obviously most of the staff and kit was absent from the houses of the yeomanry and husbandmen, and indeed lunch tended to be a little later at noon; but there was a bit of social copying going on where possible with boards set at the side of the room to carry the cutlery. In many houses of course there would be no table, but whatever the level of ceremony this was an important, family occasion for sharing the good things in life, and would be preceded by grace.

Most people lived on bread or oatcakes, pottage or porridge, and ‘white meats’ – which is an interesting phrase meaning cheese, butter and eggs. There would be bacon, poultry every so often, and there would be weak ale. Only larger households tended to bake their own bread and brew their own ale, others would carry their prepared dough to a communal oven, or simply buy it. Bread was at the centre of every meal; and there was great variety from different grain – wheat, rye, barley; even pea and barley flour. The closest to modern bread, or modern white bread was the manchet loaf, but even then it’s very different – thicker and chewier I am told. Because wheat was different; yeast was different; and the milling process left stuff in. For both wheat and yeast, like everything else, there would be the regional flavour or variety; yeast was home grown from whatever was available, there was none of your modern control and standardisation. Doesn’t that sound great? All the variety. All bread, including the various types of less good quality bread – such as Cheat wheat, or Maslin or even Dredge, which was a mixture of oats and Barley – were thick and chewy. They were also affected by the ovens in which they were cooked, which as I mentioned might be communal. And so I am going to give the roots of two bits of deep lore, lore as deep as any that Gandalf uncovered in the libraries of Minas Tirith. Pat a cake, pat a cake bakers man do you know that nursery ryhme? ‘Pat it and prick’ it – well that’s reasonable advice for any lump of dough, I guess, but then, ha! Mark it with B why – well because you are in a communal oven and need to know whose it is. Second piece of deep lore – Upper Crust – you know the expression? For posh people? Well, I have it on slightly dodgy authority that this is because the lower crust of the bread would pick up ash and stuff from t’oven, so the upper crust was reserved for the family of the house. I commend both these bits of slightly iffy historical lore to your care, to do with as you will.

I don’t think I am going to go into food much, because I must get on to work at some point, but let me quote a line from Ruth Goodman again: ‘Tudor food is generally very good indeed. It’s fresh and seasonal and cooked over wood or peat fires whose smoke is a pleasant flavour addition’. There you go; food was deeply seasonal and much more limited, no Kumquats flown from China into Waitrose on a bed of silk just in time for that dinner party. But you know, it had its compensations in flavour, regional variety and all that.

After the day’s hard work, there would be some kind of final meal, or supper; again, much driven by the time of year, so said supper might be 4 or 5pm; or in summer you might eat and then go back to the harvest. Supper would be a pretty light meal – porridge, oatcakes, that sort of thing. I remember don’t know if it’s still true that when the old folks came up to see me in St Andrews the B&B’s always used to serve supper late at night really quite late I think – just a couple of oatcakes around 11pm. Might be wrong.

As far as the day’s work is concerned, for men of course it was shaped by their profession – whether farming or some craft; and said profession would affect a women’s work too. But a general point is worth re-making, which is that the hard and fast lines of the modern world don’t exist in the same ways – there are exceptions like the professions, of course, but for most working people there might be a main task, but lots of other things to make ends meet. So we have talked about rural crafts, especially spinning and weaving; in the town, the division between urban and rural living was fuzzy; most towns people would have a yard of land, for chickens, the odd pig maybe.

Which brings us back to huswifery.  The meaning of the word was broad and covered a number of tasks and skills, common to most in some regards, and infinitely variable and local in many others.  In 1523, John Fitzherbert in his Boke of Husbandry described a work day as sweeping the house, tidying the dishboard, doing some milking; then getting the children up, preparing the meals, doing some spinning with hemp and flax, do the laundry, make hay, take corn to and from the mill, sell her butter, eggs and cheese at market, do the family shopping, turn barley into malt and make the family’s underwear. She might also help her husband with stuff, like I don’t know filling the muck wagon, driving the plough and shearing the corn. John sinks back with exhaustion and breathes

‘thou shalt have so manye things to do, that thou shalt not well knowe where is beste to begyn.’[6]

Of course many jobs depended on where you lived and what you did; so the huswife might need to have dairy and cheese making skills, and indeed blessed were the cheesemakers and indeed makers of all dairy products, although not yet have they inherited the earth. In towns it might be craftwork, and I could not find a way to write that and avoid mention of a German technopop band, sorry about that, a failure of creativity. But yes, women might be every bit as involved in crafts as men; they would need financial skills too, keeping the books, usually being the one to go to market to sell any surplus. All of this emphasises the point where I think we came in; that while there’s no doubt that this was a patriarchal society, for pretty much all families to survive and thrive required family partnership.

Right I am of course terribly conscious of both all that I have said and more importantly that which I have left unsaid. It is a bottomless lake to try describe every aspect of different jobs and industries, so I appreciate this is but a flavour, a bit of crust as it were.

[1] Wrightson, Keith. Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, 1470-1750 (The Penguin Economic History of Britain) (p. 42). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[2] Quoted in Pollock, L ‘Little Commonwealth’ in Wrightson, Ed: ‘A Social History of England, 1500-1750’ p66

[3] Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life (pp. 5-6). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[4] https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/what-goes-up-must-come-down-a-brief-history-of-the-codpiece

[5] Ingram, M: ‘Carnal Knowledge’ p290

[6] Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life (p. 175). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “283 Little Commonwealth

  1. Hi David – this episode is not appearing on Stitcher for some reason. I’ll listen to it some other way but just wanted to let you know.

    1. Hi Jackie and thanks how odd. They are a bit of a law unto themselves are Stitcher, but I’ll see what I can do

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