Friday 13 November 2020

Good Housekeeping: “the arte of hus wifship”




“the arte of hus wifship”


Gwen Hamilton


“the arte of hus wifship”


“But yet er I begynne to shewe the wife, what warkes she shall do, I wyll firste teche her a lesson...that is, that she shulde not be ydle at noo tyme.”  John Fitzherbert, The Boke of Husbandry, c.1530


My intent in researching this subject is to learn about the life of the medieval housewife and about houses, household work, and domestic practices in the late middle ages.  My search is not intended to cover the extreme poor, about whom we know very little and whose resources were not sufficient for domestic comfort, or to cover the noble houses, which had many tiers of servants, almost all male.  My interest is in the “housewife”, partner of the male householder, who had resources, few or many, that she either used herself or directly instructed someone else to use.  In studying her, I am using the medieval concepts of her tasks rather than those we currently attach to the term “housework”.  My sources are generally English and French and refer to the typical northern European household centred on a married couple rather than an extended family. 


Fitzherbert’s instructions to the wife in the Boke of Husbandry speak to her as the partner of her husband in making a living from the land.  She would not have done tasks such as ploughing, which was considered men’s work, but other important areas of effort, such as dairy, which were considered women’s work.   Fitzherbert suggests that after praying upon rising, the wife should sweep and tidy the house, milk the cows, check on the calves, strain the milk, get the children up and dressed, get breakfast, and start provisions for dinner and supper.  Grain needs to get to and flour from the mill and the amounts checked, in case the miller is cheating.  She will often need to bake and to brew, to feed the swine morning and evening and feed the poultry in the morning and gather eggs.  He gives instructions for successfully breeding poultry, then moves on to gardening.  At the beginning of March, she needs to plant her kitchen garden, making sure she has all the necessary herbs and vegetables for the pot, and of course the garden will need regular weeding.  March is also time to sow flax and hemp, both crops which need arduous and careful processing.  He suggests that she could also spin wool if it is available and that she should keep her spindle handy to use in any idle moments and make blankets and clothing.  Winnowing, making malt, washing and wringing, making hay, and helping her husband with filling the dung cart or hay wagons are also mentioned as possible tasks.  She might also go to market to sell butter or cheese (which she presumably would have made) and to purchase things for the house, carefully reckoning up the money in either case.  Fitzherbert also gives some good – and no doubt necessary – advice on prioritizing tasks. 


This rather overwhelming list of duties shows respect for the importance of the work of the wife, including the specifically domestic part of it.  Her day is obviously very full, but still time is taken to put her house in order and see that her family is properly cared for.  The urban housewife’s work list would be different, as it would not include agricultural work, but the work list of the wife of an artisan or merchant could include work in the shop.  It certainly would include responsibility for the cleanliness of the house, care of children, supervision of servants and apprentices, spinning, sewing, purchasing household items, brewing, and baking, and preparing meals.


Goodman refers to apprenticeship papers, possibly for orphan girls, offering to teach “the arte of hus wifship”, perhaps to prepare them for domestic service.  (Goodman, 2015, 110)  As well, many young people worked as servants for a period of time to learn skills in addition to those learned at home and to earn some money for setting up their own households in adult life.  The role of housewife required the appropriate knowledge and practice to be effective.  Hanawalt quotes some of the many female tasks mentioned by a young female servant:  “I must learn to spin, to reke, to card, to brew, bake, make mault, reap...weed in the garden, milk, serve hogs...sweep filthy houses...turn the spit, scour pots, wash dishes, fetch wood, scald milk pans, wash the churn...set everything in good order.” (Hanawalt, 1986, 158)



To envision the labours of the housewife, it seems to me necessary to understand the home she was working in.  By the late middle ages, a basic pattern for the arrangement of space in the house had formed.  A few “long houses”, with living space at one end and shelter for animals at the other, still existed, but they were gradually disappearing.  The very poor might live in one-room cottages or rent a single room in a town,  but larger houses, from peasant to merchant to gentry, centred around a hall with a chamber at one end and service area at the other.


 Typically, the hall had an open hearth in the centre, with a louver in the ceiling for the escape of smoke, and provided space for work, cooking, child care, and socializing.  This would also be where some members of the household slept.


The chamber provided some privacy and was where the family slept.  Small valuable items would likely be stored there. 


In a substantial home the service area would be divided into two rooms, the buttery and the pantry.  In the buttery, drink and the utensils to serve it were stored; in the pantry, food, particularly bread, dishes and table linen were kept.  A wealthy home might have more rooms and perhaps a separate kitchen, but hall, chamber, and service area were the core elements expected in a house.  (Gilchrist, 2012, 115-120)

In a rural village, the house sat within the “toft”, the part of the peasant holding that included outbuildings such as latrines, a separate kitchen, an oven or bakehouse, barn or granary, or pig sty, for instance, depending on the status and needs of the householder.  These were increasingly arranged to form a courtyard in the late middle ages.  In excavations, such as at Wharram Percy, refuse appeared to be concentrated at the outer edges of the “crofts” (enclosed kitchen gardens and paddocks), well away from the houses.   In a town, because of reduced space available, the house might be on two or more levels, with the lower level forming a shop and/or storage, and the living quarters above.  Additional space was sometimes added with jetties protruding from the front of the upper stories over the street.  An open area called a burgage was often behind the town house, with space for some outbuildings such as latrines and for refuse pits, which would of necessity be nearer the urban house than the rural one.   There might also be a small garden.  (Gilchrist, 2012, 115-120)


Wealth and status were shown in the size of the houses and in the materials used to build them.  A typical construction was timber framing filled by panels of wattle and daub.  Stone pads under the main timbers or a stone foundation would add to the durability of the house and gradually became more common.  Improved techniques in timber framing also led to longer-lasting houses.  High status homes might be built of stone.   Some London houses show decorative use of stone, for example with chequered patterns on the walls formed with white limestone and flint.  There is evidence for the use of brick in London from the late 13th century, but it does not seem to have been commonly used until the mid-15th century.  (Egan, 1998, 26-35)


Thatch was the most common roofing material, but ceramic tile, wooden shingles, and slate were used on some buildings.  The London findings showed mostly ceramic tiles, but of course wooden shingles would have been less likely to survive, and thatch would have left no trace.  Towns and cities tried to ban thatch because of fire hazards, but were generally not successful.    There are examples in the London findings of decorative ceramic finials for the roof ends and possibly gutters.  (Egan, 1998, 26-35)



The floors of the majority of houses were probably tamped down, “beaten” earth, clay, or chalk in the early part of the late middle ages, with “cobbled” floors created with small stones apparently fairly common.  (Wood, 1983, 389-390)  There were wooden floors in some upscale houses and forming the upper story floors in houses of more than one level, which of course would apply to most urban housing.  Stone slab floors and brick floors were adopted later in wealthier homes.  Ceramic floor tiles, both plain and decorated, had been in use since the early 13th century in institutional buildings, but only came into widespread domestic use during the 14th century, although they are rarely found in situ as they could be removed along with other household fittings when the residents moved.  (Egan, 2010, 37-40; Schofield, 1995, 111-113)  Numerous medieval paintings of domestic scenes show tiled floors, usually with plain tiles.

To form tiles, clay was processed and mixed with ground up fired clay, then shaped in a mould.  A design may be stamped in the wet clay and filled with slip/pipeclay.  The tiles are fired in a kiln and when dry may be glazed and treated with linseed oil and beeswax.    “Westminster” and “Penn” tiles were made in England; later, inexpensive, plain-coloured tiles were imported from Flanders in large numbers.


Floors of all kinds were generally covered with rushes or straw, which were swept out and replaced when dirty.  Rushes could be either strewn loose or woven as mats.  The wealthy often strewed the floor with sweet smelling herbs and even flowers.   (Forgeng, 2009; Kowalseski, 2008, 148-149; Egan, 2010, 38)   Thomas Tusser in Points of Good Husbandry lists appropriate strewing herbs:  “Basil, baulm, camomile, costmary, cowslip and paggles, daisies of all sorts, sweet fennel, germander, hyssop, lavender...marjoram, mandeline, pennyroyal, roses of all sorts, red mints, sage, tansy, violets, and winter savory.”   Although we have ample documentary evidence for the use of rushes, and archaeology has located huge numbers of them in dumps, they are not generally shown in pictures of domestic settings.

Two 15th century versions of the Birth of Mary, both showing tiled floors. 










From the 12th century, many churches and some large buildings had windows with beautiful stone tracery and glass, some of it stained glass.  However, it was not until the late middle ages that glass was much used in domestic settings and even then remained expensive.   Some window openings that were not glazed were covered with horn or with oiled parchment or oiled or waxed cloth.  Some windows that were unglazed or partially glazed were provided with wooden shutters to keep out cold and rain.  (Gilchrist, 2012, 121)

This stone and glass window is from Ightham Mote Manor, Kent, a wealthy home dating from the 14th century. 

In larger homes, oriel and bay windows could be found.  In the towns, where space was at a premium, bay windows might project over the street on an upper floor. 


On the opposite page are some examples of types of medieval windows.  At the top are pictures of a building from the Weald and Downlands Open Air Museum, showing unglazed, wooden-barred windows that could be covered with shutters from the inside.  Further down a picture of the kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall shows the uncovered window providing light.  The John Bourdichon painting shows an industrious couple working by the light of a window with metal bars and no visible shutters.  Three pictures below those show glazed and partially glazed windows, with shutters to aid warmth, security, and privacy.  The example from the Mérode altarpiece also has a decorative touch of stained or painted glass.  Panes were necessarily small as the technology to produce large panes did not yet exist.  Panes would have been joined by lead cames.


At the bottom of the opposite page is Barley Hall’s horn window, believed to be the only extant example in England.  Barley Hall is located in York and the horn would have been a by-product of the shambles there; horns were boiled to separate the translucent horn from the core.  The horn was then cut and shaped into slats and dried flat. 


Even where glass was used in a house, it would not likely be used in all rooms; the expense of glazing would likely be confined to rooms where visitors would be impressed. 


Warmth and Light

Fire was a necessity in all homes, for warmth, for cooking, and often for light.  For much of the middle ages, there would have been a central hearth in the centre of the hall, with smoke escaping through an opening in the roof.  Sometimes that opening had a cover which could be used in inclement weather; sometimes the opening was fitted with a louver, which could be a simple structure, perhaps made from a barrel, or it could be a ceramic roof tile, often in fanciful shape, which had holes that permitted smoke to escape but discouraged the entry of rain.  The central hearth was slow in disappearing, with some homes still using them in the 16th century.  Goodman theorizes that this may have been because with a fireplace much of the heat produced goes up the chimney and the central, open hearth would use less fuel to produce needed warmth.


The hearth in some instances moved to the side of the room, saving space and making it easier to hang pots, etc. from the wall over the fire.  Funnel-shaped hoods were developed to guide the smoke up and out, resulting in less smoke in the room.  True fireplaces were eventually built, first in the towns, where space was a concern.  The chimney was often built outside the house.  There were problems as this evolved, as not only were the houses readily flammable, but the chimneys were often made of wood, plastered over as a fire retardant.  The resulting fires led to laws prohibiting the use of wood in this way, but as the laws were repeated one presumes they were not universally obeyed.  Stone, brick, or tile could be used to fireproof the wall behind the hearth.  Eventually, as fireplaces and chimneys became more common, some larger houses would build chimneys which could serve two fireplaces, back to back, in different rooms.  In homes with separate kitchens, kitchen fireplaces could be large, to allow multiple dishes to be prepared.  There might even be two fireplaces and a built in oven in wealthy kitchens.  At night, the fire could be banked or covered with a “curfew” or couvre-feu for safety. (Schofield, 1995, 113-116)

However, not all rooms would have fireplaces.  The cost of fuel would definitely be a consideration and people were not accustomed as we are to a uniformly warm house.  In a number of pictures that show a fire, like the one to the right, a servant is entering with more wood to keep it going.  The man in this picture is trying to warm himself and has hat, hood, and a covering for his lap to help.          Book of Hours France, Rouen, 1495-1503 MS M.261 fol. 2r

When necessary, portable heating was sometimes provided by a brazier holding hot coals.  This could also be used to heat food.  Similarly, chafing dishes were used for some cooking.  H. 1490, detail of Virgin Birth, Pedro Berruguete, Museum of the Abbey of Montserrat, Barcelona showing a brazier. 


The most important type of light in the middle ages was definitely natural sunlight.  The typical daily routine was set to maximize the use of natural light, with most people rising before dawn and going to bed shortly after dusk.  Many guilds had regulations against their members working by artificial light because it was felt that the poor light would affect the quality of the workmanship.  The main meal of the day was dinner, in late morning.  This meant that several hours of good light were available in which to work on the dishes required for the most important meal of the day, and of course to clean up afterwards. 

Rablais quoted an old proverb in Pantagruel:

            Rise at five, dine at nine,

            Sup at five, to bed at nine,

            Makes a man live to ninety-nine.


That said, there were circumstances that required light in the evening or night-time on occasion or in areas with few or no windows, such as some storage areas.  There were several types of artificial light available.  Wax candles provided good, reasonably steady light, but were extremely expensive and the wicks needed trimming every 20 minutes or so to burn properly.  They were primarily used in churches and by the very wealthy.  Candles made from animal fat (tallow) were much more economical, but were smelly and didn’t provide as good light as the wax candles, and again had wicks that needed trimming as they burned.  Candle holders were typically metal, mostly of the “pricket” type with a sharp spike holding the candle in place, which worked well with candles of any diameter.  Some socket-type candle holders were used from about the 14th century, usually with an opening in the socket to eject the candle stub easily.  Candlesticks frequently appeared in period inventories.  Candelabra, some pretty basic, could be used to hold multiple candles, particularly hanging from the ceiling.


There were lanterns of various types, with translucent horn or pierced metal, which made it possible to take a light outside, perhaps to see to livestock, while keeping the flames safely enclosed.  There were oil lamps as well, some of which could be hung from the ceiling.  Some glass ones were used, but the most common type was probably a simple ceramic or metal container for oil or animal fat, with a pinched “spout” which allowed the wick to be held above the fat.  Oil, such as whale oil or olive oil, was pleasanter smelling than animal fat and burned clearer and brighter, but animal fat was more readily available and less expensive. 

Melted animal fat could also be used to make rushlights.  Rushes were gathered, then stripped down to the pith, leaving only a thin strip of the outside peel to make it less fragile to handle.  The pith was soaked in the melted fat, and then dried.  The rushlight was held in a metal clip at an approximately 45 degree angle.  It provided a rather brief light and not a terribly strong one, but was very inexpensive and provided adequate light for many things.                                                 Rushlight in holderF

Where stone or brick walls – or an outdoor setting – made for fewer concerns about fire, torches could be used.  These could be made of rushes, dried grass, or other flammable materials, sometimes saturated with fat.  This was the cheapest possible lighting, but the most dangerous, throwing off sparks and hot ash. 

Some buildings had built in small shelves or niches to put candlesticks or small lamps on.    (Newman, 2001, 56-59)                                                               


Plaster and/or whitewash were frequently used to brighten interior walls.  We have documentary evidence of pictures being painted on plastered walls, although this documentation is for royal residences such as the royal rooms in the Tower of London, in great houses, or in churches.  A very typical style of painting on plastered stone walls was to paint “grout” lines to form faux stones, often with flowers painted on the “stones”.  More elaborate pictures, particularly with a religious theme, also were done.  The paintings themselves rarely survive, but we have an extant example of a 14th century “painted chamber” at Longthorpe Tower.   The Thorpes, who commissioned these paintings, were locally important, but certainly not noble nor of high status, nor was Longthorpe a particularly large house.  This makes it quite possible that paintings on walls were more widely popular than has been realized.  Some of the Longthorpe pictures include a Nativity, the Seven Ages of Man, and a frieze of Apostles, as well as a hermit with birds and rabbits meditating on a vision of Christ.  The style is similar to that of the Luttrell Psalter, although Wood deems the work finer.  Some of the paint has faded and disappeared, but the original would have likely have included blues and greens, with gold and vermilion.  (Wood, 1983, 394-401)


Wainscoting was also used from the 13th century, although usually painted, often in bright colours such as green, and sometimes with pictures.  (Wood, 1983, 394-401)

Hanging fabric, particularly wool, on the walls to discourage draughts began early, even from the Saxon period.  By the 14th century painted cloths were in vogue, sometimes with very elaborate pictures.  Tapestries became popular with the wealthy, but painted cloths continued to be widely used as a less expensive way to add colour and style and block cold breezes.  (Wood, 1983, 402)  Painted cloths are featured in various inventories, including those of the merchant class.  In 1391, Richard Toky, grocer, had three painted cloths, and in 1406, John Olyver, draper, had a “steined sale”, a set of hall-hangings, probably stencilled.  Tapestries were being made in England in the 14th century, mentioned in the wills of the wealthy such as the Earl of Arundel, but the draper, John Olyver, mentioned above, also had a set (presumably much less valuable than the Earl’s) of red and black tapestry, which included matching “bankers” or bench covers and 12 cushions.  (Schofield, 1995, 128-129)

 Exposed joints and beams were sometimes moulded or carved and perhaps painted.  Medieval paintings of interiors sometimes show elaborate carvings or mouldings on fireplace surrounds. (Schofield, 1995, 118-119) 

15th century beam end fragmentF



Medieval households were sparsely furnished.  Typical pieces in the hall were trestle tables, benches, cupboards, and chests.  There was sometimes a stool or chair or two or a form with a back, possibly in front of the fire.  Chairs, particularly with arms, were status symbols, used only by the master of the household and possibly the mistress if there was a second chair.   Some inventories of halls include work items such as spinning wheels or looms, suggesting that the area was also used by women of the house to produce fabric, whether for home use or to sell.


Chests were important for storage, keeping belongings clean and tidy and safe from rats and mice.  Many chests had locks, as did doors.  Archaeology in England has turned up many examples of padlocks, for instance the excavations in Coppergate, York produced 37.  Chests were very versatile pieces of furniture, as one could also sit on large ones or use them to place things on.  Aumbries, cupboards often used for food, could have openings to permit the circulation of air.  They could be hung on the wall, which would also have helped keep the food safe from vermin.  Some open cupboards were designed to show off impressive dishes, of ceramic, pewter, or silver, depending upon the means and status of the householder.  For instance, the list of household goods of William Harecourt, a wealthy merchant of Lincolnshire in 1383 included 8 drinking vessels bound with gilt-silver, 3 silver cups with lids, and 6 silver plates.  Some dishes were clever jokes, like this one showing an animal or bird within as the contents became lower.                           Bowl, Castle Museum, York 1350-1500F

“Soft furnishings” were also important.  Christine de Pizan talks about the importance of linens to the housewife:  “Having smoothly-woven, fine linens is a well-earned, honest pleasure for any woman who is careful and provident. She can take great pleasure in white, sweet-smelling linens stored in her coffers. These may be used for any special guests her husband invites to stay with them at the house, for which she will be highly praised." (Pizan, 1989, 188)

Bench covers called “bankers” might offer colour, and cushions, often matching the bankers, could add comfort.  In a comparison between inventories of rural and urban homes, discussing “bourgeois domesticity”, Goldberg describes a tendency for rural householders to spend more on practical items such as kitchen utensils and for urban householders to spend more on items for comfort and status, such as cushions and silver spoons.  A wealthy merchant, Richard Lyons, in 1376 owned 39 cushions, kept in several rooms.  A century later, however, even a relatively poor farmer, Thomas Arkyndyll, possessed two cushions.  (Kowalseski, 2008, 132-133)

Bedsteads were often the most expensive item of household furniture, a matter of pride and a symbol of status.  In many ways, it was more than a piece of furniture.  The article An Honest Bed discusses the bed’s place in the home as the appropriate setting for consummation of marriage, for childbirth, and for making a “good death”, in other words for the most important life passages.  A fully appointed bed would consist of a wooden bedstead, possibly with intertwined ropes as a base.  On this would be placed a mattress stuffed with wool or sweet-smelling bedstraw and herbs, with a featherbed above it.  The featherbed would probably be made of linen, waxed on the inside to discourage the escape of feathers.  White linen sheets would follow, with blankets or quilts, perhaps a decorative coverlet.  A bolster might lie across the head of the bed, topped with feather pillows.  Curtains, hung from the ceiling, enclosed the bed at night, providing warmth and some privacy.  Medieval pictures often show people sleeping in a semi-reclining position, propped up by bolster and pillows.  Some of the experts say this is indeed likely the way they slept, others feel that the position may have been an artistic device, rather along the lines of showing people wearing crowns in bed.   

Of course, an elaborate bedstead with featherbed and curtains was a best case scenario.  Children and servants might sleep in a “running” or trundle bed, which would be hidden under the larger bed during the day, and which would likely have a simple mattress, with no featherbed to add greater comfort.  Simpler, poorer beds might be no more than a wooden box with a mattress or a pallet stuffed with straw or rushes.  (Foreng, 2009, loc1486)  Babies slept in cradles, some of which had clever arrangements which allowed the mother or nurse to rock it with a foot, leaving her hands free for other things.  Few people slept alone, whatever their status.  Bedrooms often did not have fireplaces and no doubt a warm companion was welcome. 

The linens, particularly bed hangings, could be worth more than the piece of furniture.  A study of 550 English wills, about a third of them from merchants, from 1327 to 1487, that list and occasionally describe household textiles, include such items as tablecloths, napkins, towels, sheets, blankets, feather beds, coverlets, fabric wall hangings, and bolts of cloth.  A girl named Alice was bequeathed “toward her marriage”, a featherbed, a bolster, ten pairs of sheets, three down pillows, a red and green coverlet, two “carpet” cushions, and two flowered cushions.  The type of fabric is usually not mentioned, although sheets, pillow covers, tablecloths, and napkins were almost certainly made of linen and bed hangings and coverlets likely made of wool.  A few items were specified to be of “diapered fabric”, linen or occasionally cotton woven in a small repeating pattern of diamonds.  Colours are more often mentioned than fabric types, with red being the most popular for coverlets and curtains, although white, green, and blue ones are also listed.  Some are described as “poudred, peinted, and steined”, referring to textiles with images/designs on them, such as a bed “powdered with butterflies” in a 1381 will.  We do not know if these were painted or embroidered.  Another is a “white hanging bed, stained with branches, roses, and leaves, with all the apparel of stained cloths for the chamber”, and one cord-maker left a coverlet powdered with penny-sized dots and a dosser with a dragon on it. (Netherton & Owen-Crocker 2005, 143-149) 

There would likely be a basin and laver, for washing face and hands, somewhere near the beds, and, of course, a chamber pot.  EDetail from Geburt Mariens, c. 1438     Detail from "St. Elizabeth of Thuringia bathes the lepers," 15th centuryF


Brears’ descriptions of kitchens in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England would suggest that where there was a separate kitchen, it might be somewhat separated from the main building because of fire hazards.  The floors were sometimes slightly sloped to ensure drainage.  There would be a fireplace, perhaps two in a large household, and possibly an oven.  There would likely be a small wooden table used only for preparing vegetables, which would be chopped with a pair of chopping knives.  Probably there would also be a large wooden ‘dressing board’ on which to prepare meat, using sharp knives and a meat axe.  There would be a lockable cupboard or aumbry to secure expensive items such as sugar and spices and secure containers to prevent rats and mice getting into grain and other food.  Baskets would be used to bring in and store fruit, vegetables, fuel, and kindling.  Graters, mortars, spits, ladles, sieves, pots for boiling things, flesh hooks, large spoons and forks, salamanders and shovels to be heated and used to “broil” items such as melted cheese would be part of the kitchen equipment in a well-equipped household.  There would be wooden bowls and possibly ceramic ones for mixing things.    Water would have needed to be fetched from a well or cistern or other water source.


Lighting in the kitchen would be mostly natural light through unglazed windows or windows covered with oiled linen.  This is, as mentioned before, one reason for the main meal of the day being in the late morning, to utilize the best light of the day.  In the winter, when there is less light, artificial lighting was sometimes needed in addition to the firelight.  Wax candles would have been prohibitively expensive for most households, and according to Brears provide insufficient light, although Chiquart recommends candles of suet or tallow for night work (Henisch 2009, 144).  Brears suggests cressets as a popular and practical solution, usually consisting of a stone column or slab with hollows approximately 3 by 4 inches cut into the flat stone and filled with oil or animal fat, with a wick added.   (Brears 2008, 173-194)


Henisch describes the typical cook in period comedies.  He would be male, as kitchen staff in large homes all were, and cross.  “His kitchen is unbearably hot; fires burn, tempers flare.  An unsavoury rabble of assistants, jerked to and fro by bellowed commands, is perpetually engaged in ineffectual crisis control, as pots boil over, fat sizzles, roasts char.  Everyone is shiny with sweat, greasy with handling food, and grimy from grappling with smoke-blackened equipment.”  While fictional and intended to be humorous, it provides a useful vision of the kitchen as a centre of ongoing, rather frantic activity rather than the static and empty room we see in pictures of surviving medieval kitchens.  (Henisch 2009, 9)  Smaller households would not have many servants frantically producing large feasts, but would provide their own difficulties for those preparing food while distracted by other household matters, such as keeping small children away from fires and pots full of hot pottage and needing water and fuel supplies constantly replenished. 

(Illustration of table and knives from Luttrell Psalter)


Advisors such as Fitzherbert and le Ménagier de Paris agreed that the day needed to start with prayer, when the medieval day began about an hour before dawn.  The fire needed to be revived and water provided for washing.  Children, if students, were expected to be at school by 6:00 and men would likely be in the fields or in the shop by that time. 


Both advisors also agreed that the first task in the day would be ensuring the tidiness of the house.  Obviously work is more easily done in an organized environment and certainly le Ménagier was concerned for the appearance of his home.  He advises his young wife to instruct her companion thus: “First she must assign the chambermaids early in the morning to sweep and keep clean the entrances to your house...and to dust and shake out the foot rests, bench covers, and cushions.  Next, every day the other rooms should be similarly cleaned and tidied for the day, as befits our social position.”

Animals attached to the household needed to be dealt with early, whether it involved the farm wife milking cows or the lady’s servants feeding her pets and reporting on any concerns with animals on the manor.  Le Ménagier does not expect his wife to be milking or feeding farm animals, but absolutely does expect her to know what the work involves and to ensure that it is being done well. 

Breakfast was not a major meal in the middle ages and not everyone would eat breakfast.  This distinction is seen in Alice de Breyne’s food accounts: typically 3-8 people were fed at breakfast, about 20 at dinner.  (Swabey, 1999, 10 )  Food would likely be bread and ale, perhaps with some cheese. 

However, the main meal of the day would be in late morning, sometime between 9:00 and 11:00, and preparations for it would take up much of the morning.  For some families this might consist of cooking a pottage containing perhaps dried peas and whatever vegetables might be on hand, with occasional additions of meat.  For a well to do family, the servants might spend considerable time creating a meal with multiple courses of several dishes each.  Although the servants would do the actual preparation in a wealthier household, the lady of the house would have planned the meal, would likely supervise to some extent, and would need to use her keys to access the more expensive ingredients such as spices. 

Another frequent task would be the care of the valuable textiles in the home.  Beds needed to be made, which would often involve tightening the rope undercarriage and shaking the mattresses to prevent the contents bunching up.  There would be the necessary clean up after preparation of food.  Water needed to be fetched from a well or other outside source.  Firewood must be collected and cut to appropriate lengths, then safely stored to feed the fire or fires in the house.  Gardens must be tended regularly during the growing season and even urban homes often had gardens.  The house must be supplied with bread and drink and other necessities, whether this was done by baking and brewing or by purchase.  Some women added to the family income with brewing, dairy work, or spinning.

Childcare threaded through the day.  In the extant fragment of the ballad The Tyrannical Husband, the wife points out to her complaining husband that she had to do her tasks hindered by crying children and often after being up most of the night with a child.  Sick children, apprentices, and servants were the responsibility of the housewife, who was expected to have some knowledge of helpful herbs to act as remedies. 


“Whan I lye al nyght wakyng with our cheylde,
I ryse up at morow and fynde owr howse wylde; 
(in disarray)
Then I melk owre kene and torne them on the felde.

Whyll yow slepe fulle stylle, also Cryst me schelde!

“Than make I buter ferther on the day;
After make I chese, – thes holde yow a play;
Then wyll owre cheldren wepe and upemost they,
Yett wyll yow blame me for owr good, and any be awey.

“Whan I have so done, yet ther comys more eene, (remains more to do)
I geve our chekyns met, or elles they wyl be leyne:
Our hennes, our capons, and owr dokkes be-dene. 
(all together)
Yet tend I to owr goslyngs that gothe on the grene.

“I bake, I brew, yt wyll not elles be welle:
I bete and swyngylle flex, 
(pound flax) as ever have I heylle: (health)
I hekylle the towe, I kave, and I keylle, (I separate the chaff from the grain, and I stir the pot)
I toose owlle and card het and spyn het on the wheylle.”


Supper was a lighter meal, usually eaten around 5:00.  Before retiring to bed around sunset, the house would need to be carefully checked.  Generally, seeing the household safely shut down for the night was the housewife’s responsibility. (Hanawalt, 1986, Ch. 9)  Was all the food carefully put away in where mice and other vermin couldn’t reach them?  Did everyone know what they needed to do the next morning?  Was the fire banked or covered with a curfew?  Were candles or lamps safely put out?  Were chests and doors locked?  Finally, a chance to rest, sleep, gather energy for the next day. 

“Wash dishes, lay leavens, save fire and away,

Lock doors and to bed, a good huswife will say.”   Thomas Tusser



People living in the middle ages of course knew nothing about germs or about how illness was spread.  Insect pests made people uncomfortable, so they were anxious to rid themselves of them as far as they were able to do so.  Clean and attractive homes were pleasanter and more comfortable to live in and certainly more impressive to visitors.  Historian Ian Mortimer suggests that “foul-smelling homes have connotations of sinfulness, corruption, and decay.  No one wants that sort of label; rather, they want the opposite, cleanliness and respectability.” (Mortimer, 2008, 196 )

Also, they believed that illness could be spread by bad smells or “miasma”, so they preferred a house as free of them as possible.  Urban outdoor areas were often filthy with animal excrement and other unpleasant detritus, but recurrent waves of plague caused authorities to attempt a periodic clean up of the streets in order to lessen the odours, fearing they would engender disease.  The other concern with hygiene involved food.  Knowledge of germ theory is not necessary to understand that contaminated food makes people ill, experience and folk knowledge will do that.  Any period instructions about dairy work make the importance of extreme cleanliness very plain.

Floors were swept with a broom, sometimes called a besom, made of a wooden stick with branches of a plant such as broom, heather, or birch.  Archaeological evidence shows that floors were swept frequently and thoroughly enough to leave U-shaped depressions in the floors of house sites.  (Hanawalt, 1986, Ch. 9)  Furniture surfaces were wiped down with a cloth.

The household required large amounts of water each day, which would have been carried in buckets from the source.  Given how heavy water is and that wooden buckets are also heavy, even using a yoke for ease in carrying, this is a work-intensive task.  In the country, where most people lived, the water would come from lakes, rivers, springs, or wells.  People were well aware that water varied in quality.  Some recipes specify water from a spring or other extremely pure source.  In some urban areas, water might come from similar sources, but in large cities such as London, water could be piped to outlets in some areas or sold by water-carriers. 

Providing for Personal Hygiene

Courtesy literature of the period stresses the importance of washing your face and hands upon rising.  In wealthy households, soap made from olive oil, such as the Spanish Castile soap, might be available, or water with pleasant-scented herbs added to it.  Most households would use plain water followed by a rub down with a linen towel.  The hands would be washed several more times a day, particularly before and after meals.  People did take baths, but this involved a great deal of work, so washing from basins was more frequent.  For a bath, water would need to be brought in and heated in pots over the fire.  A wooden tub would often be lined with cloth to avoid splinters, and then the water poured in.  Afterwards, the dirty water needed to be removed, again a bucketful at a time, and the tub cleaned out.  In many households, the bath water would be used by several people.  Babies, however, were frequently bathed.  All the literature on infant care stresses the importance of keeping the child clean. 

Linen underclothing was changed as often as possible, given availability and laundry opportunities.  The linen underclothing next to the body protected the more difficult to clean outer clothing. 

Fifteenth century recipe for water for washing hands:  “Boil some sage and pour off the water, and let it cool until it is a little more than warm.  Add to it camomile or margoram or rosemary, and boil it with orange peel.  Laurel leaves are also good.”  (Sloane MS, British Museum)


Caring for Textiles

Household laundry would include underclothing, tablecloths and napkins, bed linens, and towels.  Commonly all of these would be made from linen.  Very fine linen or embroidered linen would be soaked in a fine soap solution or possibly soapwort, and then gently washed in a tub.  Heavier linen could be soaked in lye or in ammonia made from fermented urine, then washed much more vigorously, beaten with paddles or against stones in a river bed.  Black soap, a soft soap made with lye from hardwood ashes combined with animal fat, sometimes with the addition of lime, was often used for laundry.  The laundry would be laid on grass or bushes to dry, which also aided bleaching.  Linen is not white, but a shade of beige or grey unless bleached.  A friend, THL Anne of Saffron Walden (MKA Wendy Maurice), experimented with bleaching hand-spun, hand-woven linen over a period of six months using various medieval bleaching methods: “The basic with all the bleaching methods I tried was water and sun, keeping wet and sunlight.  Just wet and put out on the grass and not sprinkled every couple of hours lightened but much less so. Those alone were marginally fourth behind the most complicated in efficacy. Generally speaking, other methods involved alternating between acid and alkali using human urine, lye, cow dung water, buttermilk, sour milk, fermented bran; in winter moonlight with frost.  It did however require lengthy exposure of the damp linen to sunlight on grass.”  In the middle ages, when linen was extremely valuable, this required having the fabric guarded while spread out.  Washing and bleaching gradually made the linen softer and whiter.  Laundry was one of the household chores most often hired out when there were sufficient means to do so, as it was a backbreaking job.  The people hired to do laundry were always female. 


Other fabric also required care, but could not be washed.  Outer garments for most people were made of wool and so were many of the wall hangings and bankers.  Silk and velvet and fur were other textiles that might be in the homes of the well to do and required special care.  Le Ménagier gave very specific directions both as to protecting the home from fleas and moths and caring for various textiles. 

He says that the household women should air out, shake out, and inspect all sheets, coverlets, clothing, furs, and other similar items regularly.  They should be aired only on dry sunny days to avoid attracting moths, and then should be shaken and beaten with dry sticks.  Oil or grease stains can be treated with warmed urine, soaking the spot for two days, afterwards compressing the part of the cloth where the spot is.  Fuller’s earth mixed with lye is another possible stain remover he mentions, or clean chick feathers soaked in really hot water.  To remove stains from silk, satin, and damask, he feels that verjuice is the best treatment.

For fur or skin that has stiffened, he instructs his wife to remove it from the garment, then sprinkle it with wine, toss flour on it, and allow it to dry for a day.  After rubbing the skin thoroughly, it should return to its former condition.  Dried roses or other sweet smelling herbs could be laid among clothing or linen to give it a pleasant scent.

For fleas, le Ménagier recommends any of the following treatments:  alder leaves scattered throughout the room, slices of bread smeared with glue or turpentine with a lighted candle in the middle, spreading a rough cloth in the room and carrying away the fleas that land on it, or wrapping flea-infested items tightly and shutting them in a chest to kill the insects with lack of light and air.  He also feels that white sheets are the best, as fleas and other insects are easily seen on them – he stresses that freedom from fleas is important for husbandly comfort. 

Other herbal remedies (or attempted remedies) were tansy against flies, lavender or southernwood against moths, camphor against almost anything, and pennyroyal against fleas.  Wormwood and mint were used against mice and ants.  (Heise, 2007, 35-36)

Cleaning Kitchen and Dining Equipment

Platina, a mid-15th century Italian gourmet, describes the setting in which one should eat:  “Napkins should be white and the tablecloths spotless, because, if they were otherwise, they would arouse squeamishness and take away the desire to eat.  Let a servant scrub the knives and sharpen their points so that the diners will not be delayed by dullness of iron.  The rest of the dishes should be scrubbed clean whether they are earthen or silver, for this meticulous care arouses even a sluggish appetite.” (Scully 1995, 173)


Ruth Goodman, a historian with the Victoria and Albert Museum, does experimental archaeology in the domestic field and has had many opportunities to work with period techniques in medieval and early modern settings.  She lists the chemical tools for cleanliness in period as potash (ashes and lye), ammonia (from fermented urine), acetic acid (vinegar), and salt, used with sand, chalk, soot, fuller’s earth, and brick dust.  Herbal helps would be mare’s tail/horsetail, tansy, wormwood, soapwort, rosemary, sage, and thyme.  Ashes, straight or used to make lye, could be used to cut grease.  Fermented urine whitened stains and killed bacteria.  Vinegar was a de-scaling agent and was anti-bacterial.  Salt was abrasive and killed bacteria; it was also used in food preservation because they did understand that it prevented food from spoiling.   Most of the herbs mentioned were used as pesticides, as mentioned before, but soapwort sap could act like a mild soap.  The silica in mare’s tail made it a useful scouring pad. 

Goodman says that for scouring pots and pans the best method is to toss some ashes into a warm pan, scour it using a handful of straw or grass, then rinse with water – or as Horman’s Vulgaria has it “take a wyspe of strawe and asshes; and scoure this potte”.  (Henisch, 2009, 65)  The straw would then be thrown into the fire.  Burned on food could be tackled with mare’s tail or with a damp rag dipped in sand, then the pan rinsed.

She suggests that dishes, cups, and bowls could be more gently cleaned with some vinegar in hot water, using a cloth or a bunch of rosemary to wash them.  Knives, because the iron could rust, would be best cleaned with a paste of chalk and water, then dried at once.  (Ginn, 2013)

Worn out towels and tablecloths were used for washing up, although on occasion cloth needed to be purchased.  In 1419, Alice de Breyne bought six yards of linen for washing windows and kitchen ware.  Linen for towels was sometimes woven as “huckaback”, for greater absorbency.  (Swabey, 1999, 95 )


Gervase Markham in The Well-Kept Kitchen says, “To speak then of the outward and active knowledges which belong to our English housewife, I hold the first and most principal to be a perfect skill and knowledge in cookery.”  Housewives could often take considerable pride in their skill.  When an apprentice in the home of Sabine Johnson complained to his parents of her cooking, particularly her bread, Mistress Johnson wrote an indignant reply, sending a loaf of her bread with the letter as proof of her ability in baking.  (Sim, 1996, 61-62)


Our medieval housewife would have needed to plan meals, with choices affected by resources, religious rules, and the age and status of the members of the household. 

Food Resources

The majority of the population lived in the country.  For them, grain for bread would most frequently be from their own fields, vegetables from the garden which the housewife would tend, meat from a pig or pigs allowed to forage in nearby wooded areas and the occasional chicken too old to lay eggs.  Possibly there might be pigeons or wild birds that were not game birds.  (Hunting was legal only for the nobility.)  There would likely be eggs from poultry and dairy products from a cow or goat if they had one.  The care of poultry and the dairy were considered female responsibilities.  The grain would need to be taken to the mill to be ground and bread would likely be made in the home, although possibly baked in a community oven.  Because grain keeps better than flour, it would be taken to the mill in relatively small amounts as needed.  Drink would most typically be ale, brewed by the housewife, or sometimes cider.  Fruit such as apples would be available seasonally, as would nuts and berries from the woods. 


Availability of food was affected by the seasons far more than we would immediately think.  Cows were not in milk constantly, fresh garden produce was available only in some months, hens laid fewer eggs in some seasons than others and in any case laid fewer than modern chickens.  Milk did not keep well, so was generally made into butter and cheese.  Salt, which needed to be purchased, was the most important preservative, with sea salt the cheapest.  Some people had access to fresh fish, but where that was not possible, salted or dried fish might be available to purchase.  Obviously, the more prosperous the household, the greater the available resources and the more meat would likely appear in the diet. Those with sufficient means could purchase other foods and wines from markets in nearby towns, where they might also sell surplus food they had themselves produced. 

Those who lived in urban areas had access to a wider range of foods, although their choice was still affected by the seasons and by the difficulties of preserving many foods.  Le Ménagier gives very specific instructions to his wife about marketing and how to know if various foods are fresh, although it is evidently the steward, Master Jehan, who will do the actual purchasing.  Obviously she needs to be able to recognize the appropriate quality of food when it comes home.  Le Ménagier mentions 19 butchers and the type of meat they would be likely to carry, sheep, oxen, pigs, calves, kids, chickens, pigeons, and goslings, all of which would likely be brought live to market and slaughtered there.  He gives instructions for telling if a coney (rabbit) is fat, when certain types of fish would come to market, how to tell the age of mallards and ring-doves and hares, how to tell if partridges have been freshly killed, and the qualities of good carp and eels.    


Alice de Breyne’s household accounts for 1412-13 show purchases of almonds, raisins, rice, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, figs, currants, dates, sugar, pepper, mustard seed, soda-ash, and honey.  Beef and pork were served throughout the year on flesh days in her household. Beer or ale was the most common drink, although wine, cider, mead, and perry (cider made with pears) were also beverages of the period.  Sweet red wine was the most favoured of the imported wines according to import duties and price controls.  (Swabey, 1999, 86 )


The mistresses of more modest households would no doubt do their own marketing.  The High Street would have had temporary booths and stalls set up on market days or for fairs, as well as chapmen carrying their wares on horses or on their backs.  In the booths and shops, there could also be candle sellers, basket makers, soap  (some fine, made from olive oil and even scented), brooms, combs, glassware, wooden hoops, rush matting, knives, and pater nosters, as well as all the foods.  In the typical medieval city, there would be brightly coloured signboards over the many taverns and tradesmen’s symbols over the shops, a bush for a vintner, three gilded pills for the apothecary, a unicorn for the goldsmith, and so on.  In the permanent shop stalls the front when opened would fold down to form a counter to display the wares and often an upper part would fold up to create a small canopy to protect them. 


Bread and ale and even ready-made food could be purchased in the city.  Scully cites street cries from Piers Plowman, 1377:  “Cooks and their kitchen-boys kept crying, ‘Hot pies, hot! Good pork and geese! Go dine, go!  Tavern-keepers told them the same, ‘White wine of Alsace and red wine of Gascony, Of the Rhine and LaRochelle, to wash down the roast!’  Other cries from Europe quoted by Scully include the following:  Mussels, lily-white mussels! I have ripe strawberries, ripe strawberries! Buy my dish of great smelts! Fine oranges, fine lemons!  Fresh eels!  Rabbits for sale!  Rats or mice to kill!  Old shoes, old shoes!”



Fast and Feast

Specific weekdays on which to fast varied through the middle ages, although Friday and the eves of holy days were always included.  Those fast days essentially were non-meat days, with other foods, particularly fish, allowed as substitutes.  There were two long 40-day periods of fasting, Lent and Advent, when the fast was stricter.  Particularly in Lent, not only meat but dairy products were forbidden.  This was more difficult in northern Europe, where butter was used, than in southern Europe where the cuisine more frequently used oil.  Where the household was prosperous enough to purchase almonds, almond milk could substitute for cow’s milk.  In well-to-do homes, almond milk was frequently used even on feast days as cow’s milk did not keep well.  Some recipes were particularly designed for Ember Days, days when meat was forbidden, but not dairy.  Children, pregnant women, and the ill were not expected to keep fast as strictly.


Age and Status

Children were thought to need a different diet to adults.  “Pap”, a type of porridge, was a typical first food, made of hulled grain, flour, or breadcrumbs, cooked in water or milk until the mixture thickened.    Once teeth were present for chewing, children were encouraged to gnaw on crusts.  Walter de Bibbesworth also recommended carefully peeled and cored apples or a soft-boiled egg.  (Henisch 2013, 37-38)   The study of child skeletons found at Wharram Percy seems to indicate children ate a diet more dominated by plant foods than the diet of adults.  This appears to have led to somewhat slower physical maturation than children in our time and culture.  (Gilchrist 2012, 33, 41-42)


Servants ate less elaborate meals than their masters, with fewer dishes and less meat.  Le Ménagier recommends one filling dish which they can eat until satisfied, accompanied by wine, but not an inebriating amount.  The difference made by rank to the food provided is also demonstrated in the plans for three meals for those who attended the funeral of Thomas Stonor, documented in the Stonor Letters.    After the dirges, poor men received bread and cheese, while the priests and gentlemen had lamb, veal, roasted mutton, and chickens in a dish.  For breakfast, the “priests and other honest men” had calves’ heads and salt beef, but nothing was provided for the poor.  For dinner, the poor had “umbles to pottage”, salt beef, roasted veal in a dish, and roasted pork.  The gentry had pottage, “browes of capons or”, mutton, geese, and custard for the first course, pottage, jussell (grated bread and eggs in broth), capons, lamb, pig, veal, roast pigeons, pheasant, baked rabbit, venison, and jelly for the second course.  There were pewter vessels for the gentlemen and silver spoons and silver salt cellars for the most important.


The farm housewife would on occasion need to feed seasonal workers as well as her family and to plan special meals for the Christmas season and other festive days when they would likely have guests to join in the celebration.  Brears cites a middle-class menu from Furnivall’s Early English Meals and Manners – A Feast for a Franklin:


First course:                Brawne with mustard, bacon with peas, boiled beef or mutton, boiled chicken or capon, roast goose and roast suckling pig, baked custard of eggs and cream

Second course:            Mortrews and jussell (eggs and broth), roast veal, lamb, kid, cony, or pigeon, bakemeats and dowcets (small cream-filled pastry), fritters, a leach (pudding, sliced), spiced apples and pears, bread and cheese

Void:                            Spiced cakes and wafers, braggot (very strong ale with honey and spices added) and mead


Wealthier and more socially prominent women such as le Ménagier’s wife would need to plan and supervise the preparation of elaborate meals to satisfy her husband’s guests.  The Ménagier provides his wife with a number of menus, “divers dinners and suppers of great lords and others…whereupon you may choose, collect, and learn whatsoever dishes it may please you…when you have to give a dinner or supper.”  I infer that these suggestions are for company dinners for other well-to-do, prominent bureaucrats rather than everyday fare, since he generally stresses that he and his wife are not great lords and do not move in that set.  A suggested menu of his which his friends would no doubt have found impressive follows:


“First course:               Beef and marrow pasties, hare in civey, great joints, a white coney brewet, capons and venison with sops, white porray, turnips, salt ducks, and chines.

Second course:            The best roast, a rosee of larks, a blankmanger, umbles, boar’s tail with hot sauce, fat capon pasties, fritters, and Norwegian pasties (made with cod’s liver)

Third course:               Frumenty, venison, various sorts of glazed meats, fat geese and capons, cream darioles (small pastries containing custard, possibly with dried fruit or almonds) and leches (slices) fried and sugared, bourreys of hot galantine, capon jelly, coneys, young chickens, rabbits, and piglings

Fourth course:             Hippocras (spiced and sweetened wine) and wafers for issue.”


Food Preparation

Supplies of fuel and water needed to be readily available to the cook.  In rural areas, those attached to manors usually had the privilege of gathering fallen wood and dead wood from their lord’s woods and forests, although growing wood was always carefully protected.  Many people in villages and towns had fuel gathering rights associated with their property.  In the cities, fuel was more difficult to obtain and might be bought from a woodmonger.  Woodmongers were organized in London by the 14th century, selling wood shipped down the Thames or shipped from Kent and Sussex down the coast then up the Thames to London.  Wood prepared for market was cut into standard sizes, with standard prices.  The City of London had a numbered size system, with pieces cut into four foot lengths of timbers of 16 inch girth, 23 inch girth, 28 inch girth, and 33 inch girth.  Each of these could be split into halves or quarters.   These larger pieces of wood made good fires for roasting and general cookery.  Smaller branches and twigs were cut into convenient lengths and tied into bundles called ‘faggots’ or ‘kids’.  Smaller bundles yet were called ‘bavins’.  These bundles were used for ovens.  (Bears, 2008, 56-57)

Peat and coal were used in some areas and charcoal was used for cooking in braziers. 

Bread – the most important item of the diet

Grain, typically referred to as ‘corn’, was central to the diet of all classes, and included wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, oats, buckwheat, and spelt.  “Give us this day our daily bread” was quite literally meant.  Grain could be kept over the winter and ground into flour as needed, mostly into what we would call whole-grain flour, still including the bran.  An experienced housewife would presumably know how much to take to the mill at a time, based on family size and what baking she expected to do.  To take too little could leave her to run short at an awkward time, but to take too much would risk waste of a valuable resource.  Leavened white bread made with wheat was the most prized bread, but was mostly eaten by the wealthy and not necessarily as standard fare even for them. 


According to Stone in Food in Medieval England, Diet and Nutrition:  “It has been estimated that at the beginning of the 14th century grain accounted for up to 80 percent of a harvest worker’s calories and 78 per cent of a soldier’s; even among the lay nobility of medieval England, grain provided 65-70 per cent of their energy intake...consumed in three main ways:  as bread, as pottage.  On balance, bread was the most important.” 

Grain could be used in many ways and bread made in a variety of ways with a variety of grains.  Grain such as oats could be used for porridges and to add bulk to pottages.  One dish of boiled grain that could be found at many economic levels is frumenty, wheat hearts or sometimes barley, boiled with broth or milk to form a thick porridge.  Honey, eggs, and other good things could be added, making for a golden, tasty dish which was frequently served with venison or other meat and was a favourite festive dish. 

Bread was not necessarily baked in an oven.  Small homes did not generally have ovens, and community ovens or the use of bakers’ ovens usually had a cost involved. As well, baking loaves in an oven would take more time and fuel than cooking the dough either in flat cakes on bakestones or on iron plates or in a cooking pot.  The pot could be either hung or turned upside down over the dough and covered with ashes.  An example of a stone bakestone with a 14 inch diameter and an inch thickness was found at the Wharram Percy site and likely would have been used to cook flat bannocks, possibly with mixed grains.  Round iron plates, sometimes also referred to as bakestones, have been found in many places.  Many had loops on one side for hanging when not in use.  Piers Plowman speaks of eating oat cakes with curds and cream. (Brears, 2008, 109-112)  I would personally imagine that even a housewife who ordinarily baked her bread in an oven would on occasion make bannock this way when out of regular bread or in need of a quick meal for the children.  

Brears includes several recipes for breads cooked without an oven, including these:

Thin Havercake/Oatcake

85 g fine oatmeal                   5 g lard or dripping

45 ml warm water                  Pinch of salt

Melt lard or dripping in the water and mix into oatmeal and salt to form a dough.  Knead quickly and roll or pat out on a thin layer of oatmeal to form a 10 inch diameter disc.  Heat bakestone.  Slide havercake onto bakestone and leave to bake for 5 or 6 minutes until edges begin to curl up.  Turn over, using a thin board to give support and bake on the other side.  It will still be pale.  Remove from bakestone and prop in front of the fire to dry out and slightly toast. 


Crock or Flick Cakes

225 wholemeal flour, with coarse bran sifted out                 150 ml milk

Pinch of salt                                                                            120 g raw pork fat

Grease the bottom of a cooking pot and place it over a gentle heat to warm up.  Chop fat into small pieces...mix into the flour and salt, then mix in just enough milk to produce a stiff dough.  Form into an 8-inch diameter round cake, floured top and bottom.  Place in the bottom of the cooking pot, cover, and bake each side for 10 minutes.  Remove and allow to cool. 


In Brears’ opinion these recipes, although not from medieval cookbooks, are similar to ones that would have been used in the medieval period.  Neither recipe contains leavening, but I have seen and eaten leavened wheat loaves baked very successfully in an iron pot put in the coals, in a way believed to be used in the middle ages.


Wheat, with its gluten content to help the bread rise, was the preferred grain.  Rye and barley made coarser bread.  Wheat flour, just as ground, was good for making bread for trenchers, the coarse bread used as personal plates/cutting boards when dining.  The first stage in refining it was a horsehair or canvas sieve, used to remove the coarsest particles of bran.  The resulting flour was used to make cheat or cribble loaves, similar to modern whole-wheat bread.  The next stage was called bolting or bunting, with the sieved flour wrapped in a linen bolting cloth, then jerked up and down, allowing only the finest particles to escape.  Depending on the fineness of the linen weave, this flour made either mancets, cockets, cracknels, simnels (good quality breads) or wastel and paindemaine loaves (the finest breads, served only at important tables). 


If the bread was being made in any quantity, it would probably be made in a kneading or dough trough, which provided the necessary space.  Alice de Breyne’s household produced “230 white loaves and 36 black loaves” from eight bushels of wheat every five days.


Brears describes probable methods, based on a combination of descriptions of medieval breads and early post-medieval recipes.  Trencher and coarse cheat breads were probably made by putting the meal into a dough trough that still had soured dough from a previous batch in it, then working in hot water and salt.  It would be left overnight to ferment, and kneaded in the morning to make a stiff dough to be baked at a high temperature. 


The best cheat bread would use a piece of sour dough beaten into warm water, thoroughly mixed, and sieved.  This leaven would be poured into a well in the flour and mixed with the hand to form a smooth batter.  After being covered with a layer of dry flour it was left overnight.  In the morning, a little warm water and salt was added, then the dough kneaded, either by hand, or put in a cloth and kneaded by foot, or worked with a “brake”, a wooden bench and leaver combination.  It was then put into loaves, allowed to rise, and baked. 


Manchets and paindemaines were leavened by frothy yeast skimmed off the top of fermenting ale.  It was probably mixed much like the cheat bread, then after rising formed into small round loaves, the edges cut in all around and the top pricked to make it rise higher.  (Brears, 2008, 115-118)


Some bread was made from dredge (oats and barley) and Maslin bread was made from wheat and rye combined.  The bread of the very poor might well partly consist of bran that had been removed when producing white flour and might also partly consist of peas and/or beans.


The oven needed to be prepared.  Ruth Goodman, working with period ovens, found it took four to five faggots of wood to heat the oven to the necessary temperature, taking about 45 minutes to achieve this.  It could be tested by throwing a handful of flour against the back wall; the flour should spark when it touches the wall.  The embers would be quickly raked out onto the floor and scraped out of the way.  The oven was roughly wiped out with a damp mop and the loaves slid into the oven.  The door would be propped in place and gaps sealed with simple dough made of flour and water.  The bread would take about 40 minutes to bake, sounding hollow when tapped on the bottom.  The loaves would be quickly removed so that pies and pastries could now be baked in the cooler oven.  Speed counted here as heat would be rapidly lost through the open door.  (Ginn, 2013, loc)


Because they did not have baking powder or baking soda to make risen cakes or cookies, bread crumbs were used to provide body to dishes such as gingerbread, which was often coloured and moulded.



Take good honey and clarify it on the fire, and take good white bread and grate it and put it in the boiling honey, and stir it well with a slice so that it will not burn to the container; and then take it off and add ginger, long pepper, and sanders, and mix it up with your hands.  Put it in a flat box and strew sugar on it, and pick cloves in it around the edge and in the midst, if it please you.  (Hieatt, 2013, 81)

Here is a simple, savoury dish which also uses grated bread.


Take grated bread and eggs and beat them together; add saffron, sage, and salt, and mix it with broth.  Boil it and serve it forth.  (Hieatt, 2013, 30)


Bread was also used in slices in various recipes such “panperdy”, a recipe from Gervase Markham’s The Well-Kept Kitchen:


Panperdy (from “pain perdu”)

To make the best panperdy, take a dozen eggs and break them, and beat them very well, then put unto them cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and good store of sugar, with as much salt as shall season it:  then, take a manchet, and cut it into thick slices like toasts; which done, take your frying pan, and put into it good store of sweet butter, and, being melted, lay in your slices of bread, then pour upon them one half of your eggs; then when that is fried, with a dish turn your slices of bread upward, and then pour on them the other half of your eggs, and so turn them till both sides be brown; then dish it up, and serve it with sugar strewed upon it. 



Pottage basically refers to food cooked in a pot and was found at all income levels, with a wide variety of ingredients, depending on the household’s resources.  Meat and spices were, of course, luxury items.  The flavour in pottages in poorer homes would come from onions, leeks, garlic, and herbs, all of which could be grown in garden, rather than expensive imported spices.  Many pottages could be left to simmer on the fire for some time while other things were done, and in a simple home could provide a one-pot meal for the entire family when accompanied by some bread. 


The pots might be metal or earthenware, although earthenware pots were more difficult to use and very apt to crack or break, requiring a slow introduction to heat.  The redeeming feature of earthenware pots, however, was their cheapness, and they were apparently regarded as more or less disposable.  (Brears, 2008, 221)


The recipes below are from Brears, showing some of the possible variety. 


Beans Yfryed

1 lb broad beans         1-2 cloves garlic, chopped      1 large onion, finely chopped     Olive oil or lard

Simmer the beans in water for 20-25 minutes until they burst, then drain.  Fry the beans, onion, and garlic in the oil or lard for 5 to 10 minutes, until pale golden brown.  Pour into a dish and sprinkle with a little sugar and cinnamon. 


Long Worts of Meat (Thick stew with greens)

2 lbs lean beef joint    60 oz white breadcrumbs       beef marrow bone      pinch of saffron

8 oz cabbage or spring greens           1 tsp salt

Put beef and bone in pot, just cover with boiling water.  Bring back to the boil, skim, then simmer gently for 1 ½ to 2 hours until tender.  Parboil the cabbage or greens until just tender, then drain, chop coarsely and stir into the beef stock with the breadcrumbs, saffron and salt.  Simmer briefly, then serve all in the same dish. 


Hens in  Gauncelye

2 lbs roast chicken      4 beaten egg yolks      1 pint milk      

pinch of saffron           4 cloves of garlic, peeled

Remove meat from the chicken and cut into cubes.  Grind the garlic with a little of the milk; add remaining milk, chicken, and saffron.  Simmer for 10 minutes.  Scald the yolks with a little of the hot milk, return to the pan and stir without boiling until it thickens, then serve. 


Plaice Boiled

1 plaice, about 1 lb     2 tsp salt          ½ tsp ground mustard             ¾ pint light ale

2 tsp chopped parsley

Mix mustard and salt into a ½ pint of the ale and bring to a boil, then set aside.  Clean and wash the fish.  Put remaining salt and ale, parsley, and ¾ pint water into a shallow pan and bring to a boil.  Put in fish, reduce heat, and poach gently for 10-15 minutes until tender.  Remove fish to plate.  Add ¼ pint of its stock to the mustard mixture, bring to a boil, and pour over fish just before serving hot. 



Brears speaks of the medieval concern about eating uncooked vegetables and fruit, quoting a warning from John Russell to “beware of saladis, grene metis, & of fruites rawe, for they make many a man haue a feble mawe (stomach)”.  Greens washed in unboiled water or otherwise contaminated could certainly cause some unpleasant stomach upsets.  (Brears, 2008, 258)  However, the warning would suggest that some people did indeed eat salads.


Hieatt provides a 14th century recipe from The Forme of Cury for salad:

“Take parsley, sage, green garlic, spring onions, onions, leeks, borage, mints, scallions, fennel, town cresses, rue, rosemary, purslane: rinse and wash them clean.  Pick them over.  Pluck them small with your hand, and mingle them well with raw oil; lay on vinegar and salt and serve it forth.”  (Hieatt, 2013, 152) 


Markham talks at more length about salads, although most of what he calls “sallats” are combinations of cooked or pickled vegetables.  Some versions are apparently meant as table decorations.  However, what he calls a “simple sallat” indeed contains a mixture of uncooked greens and gives an interesting list of what would be available.  “First then to speak of sallats, there be some simple and some compounded; some only to furnish out the table, and some both for use and adornation:  your simple sallats are chibols (a mild onion) peeled, washed clean, and half of the green tops cut clean away, so served on a fruit dish; or chives, scallions, radish roots, boiled carrots, skirrets (water parsnip), and turnips, with such like served up simply; also, all young lettuce, cabbage lettuce, purslane, and divers other herbs which may be served without anything but a little vinegar, sallat oil, and sugar; onions boiled, and stripped from their rind and served up with vinegar, oil and pepper is is samphire, bean cods, asparagus, and cucumbers, served likewise...with a world of others, too tedious to mention.”  (Markham, 1968, 64)


Pies and Pastries

“Next to these already rehearsed, our English housewife must be skilful in pastry.”  Gervase Markam, The Well-Kept Kitchen.


In the middle ages, most pastry was designed as a convenient and disposable baking dish.   The “paste” would be prepared and usually formed into a “coffin” or container, which would either be left to dry out or be briefly baked in order for it to keep its shape.  Sometimes ceramic dishes were used to support the pastry walls, such as ceramic flan dishes which were also used for baking some rather large and fragile foods, but most often the coffins were free-standing containers into which combinations of boiled meats or other foods would be placed, covered with a pastry lid, and briefly baked just before serving.  The simplest and apparently most frequently used type of pastry was composed of flour and boiling water.  This formed a hard and not very tasty outer shell from which the food would be served.  The poor, buying pies, probably ate the whole thing, but wealthier diners would not.  Some recipes call for the addition of eggs and sugar, which make the pastry more suitable for fancy shapes, as the flour and water paste tended to dry unevenly and blister in the oven.  (Brears, 2008, 125-130)


Markham talks about choosing different types of pastry for different contents: a moist, tough, coarse, long-lasting crust made with rye flour for pies of venison, boar, and bacon, while a thinner white crust made from wheat flour is more appropriate for chicken, calves’ feet, olives, and the like.


Tart of Flesh (Brears, 2008, 131)

12 oz wheat flour                                1 tsp mixed ground cloves, mace, pepper, ginger, & saffron

4 dried figs                                          ¼ pint  wine or ale

2 tbsp raisins                                       2 tbsp pine kernels

1 oz lard                                              1 tsp salt

4 oz white cheese                               1 tbsp sugar or honey

6 dates, finely chopped                       1 tbsp almond milk yellowed with saffron

10 oz minced pork                              1 egg, beaten


Prepare an 8 inch case and lid with the flour and 6 fl. oz boiling water.  Simmer the figs in the wine or ale for 5 minutes, cool, drain, and chop.  Fry the raisins and pine kernels in lard until they start to brown, then cool.  Chop the cheese finely, combine with pork and egg, then stir in raisins, pine kernels, spices, salt, and sugar or honey.  Pack the filling into the case, top with chopped dates, fit the lid on and pinch the edges.  Cut a hole in the centre.  Brush the tart with the saffron milk and bake. 


Apple Tart (Brears, 2008, 132)

Pre-baked tart case                            4 dried figs

Pinch of saffron                                   1 lb peeled and cored apples

4 oz peeled pear                                 ¼ tsp cinnamon and ginger

2 tbsp raisins


Simmer figs for 5 minutes, cool, drain, and chop.  Mix all ingredients and grind to form a smooth paste.  Fill the case and bake until the fruit pulp is cooked.


Custard or Doucet (Markham, The Well-Kept Kitchen)

To bake an excellent custard or doucet...take a good store of eggs, putting away one quarter of the whites, and beat them exceeding well...and mix with the sweetest and thickest cream you can get...Season it with salt, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, mace, and a little nutmeg, which done, raise your coffins of good tough wheat paste and if you please, raise it in pretty works, or angular forms...When the coffins are ready, strew the bottoms a good thickness over with currants and sugar; then set them in the oven and fill them up with the confection before blended...adorn all the tops with caraway comfits and slices of dates pricked right up and so serve them up to the table.



Beef and mutton account for the majority of remains in bone pits and were the most widely eaten meats medievally.  However, the wealthy enjoyed a great deal of variety in meat in their diet – the information on butchers in Le Ménagier de Paris gives an idea of this variety – and the diet of the poor was mainly vegetarian, with the small additions of meat probably most frequently pork.  A pig could be raised on poor land, be allowed to scavenge for part of its food, and produced large litters.  Its meat was very suitable for long-term preservation by salting, smoking, or combined drying and smoking, an important factor for the poor.  (Woolgar, 2006, ch.5-7)


Nothing was wasted of the animal.  Small scraps of meat would be made into puddings or sausages, as was the blood.  Here is a recipe of Markham’s for blood pudding:


Blood Pudding

Take the blood of a hog whilst it is warm, and steep in it a quart or more of great oatmeal grits, and at the end of three days with your hands take the grits out of the blood, and drain them clean; then put to those grits more than a quart of the best cream warmed on the fire; then take mother of thyme, parsley, spinach, succory, endive, sorrel, and strawberry leaves, of each a few chopped exceeding small, and mix them with the grits, and also a little fennel seed finely beaten; then add a little pepper, cloves, and mace, salt, and great store of suet finely shred, and well beaten; then therewith fill your farmes, and boil them, as hath been before described.


Meat was often boiled or stewed, which was particularly practical for older, tougher cuts of meat, and required less attention during preparation than roasted meat.


A breast of mutton stewed  (Markham, The Well-Kept Kitchen)

Take a very good breast of mutton chopped into sundry large pieces, and when it is clean washed, put it into a pipkin with fair water, and set it on the fire to boil; then scum it well, then put in of the finest parsnips cut into large pieces as long as one’s hand, and clean washed and scraped; then a good store of the best onions, and all manner of sweet pleasant pot herbs and lettuce, all grossly chopped, and good store of pepper and salt, and then cover it, and let it stew till the mutton be enough; then take up the mutton, and lay it in a clean dish with sippets, and to the broth put a little wine vinegar, and so pour it on the mutton with parsnips whole, and adorn the sides of the dish with sugar, and so serve it up.


Roasts of tender, young animals were a luxury and a dish England was famous for doing well.  Markham provides rules about the roasting of meat.  He stresses that the equipment, the spits and cob-irons, must be clean and the meat picked over and washed before spitting.  The spit should not pierce the most desirable parts of the meat and the meat should be properly broached – that is, firmly tied together and attached to the spit in such a way that it sits firmly on it, not slipping on the spit or falling apart during roasting.  Markham feels that the best bastings are sweet butter, sweet oil, barrelled butter, or fine rendered up seam, with cinnamon, cloves, and mace.  He recommends fine white bread crumbs or very fine white meal for dredging.  Roasting is done in front of the fire rather than over it and the spit must be turned regularly to ensure the meat being evenly roasted.  A dripping pan would be beneath the roast to catch the drippings. 


How to roast a Hare (from A Book of Cookrye, printed by Edward Allde, 1591)

Wash him in faire water, then perboile him, and lay him in colde water againe, then Larde him and roast him on a Broche, then to make sauce for him, take red vinegar, Salt, Pepper, ginger, Cloves, Mace, and put them togither, then mince apples and onions, and fry them in a Panne, then put your sauce to them with a little sugar, and let them boyle well togither, then baste it upon your Hare and so serve it. 


“Good ploughmen look weekly, of custom and right,

For roast meat on Sundays and Thursdays at night;

Thus doing and keeping such custom and guise,

They call thee good huswife – they love thee likewise.” 

Thomas Tusser, 1575



Brewing ale was one of the standard tasks mentioned as part of the housewife’s duties.  Ale was not primarily a recreational drink, but a contributor to calories and nutrition.  Because the water was boiled in the process, it was also a safer drink where water supplies were possibly contaminated.  Because ale without hops could only be kept for a week to ten days, women expected to brew frequently.  They could, however, purchase ale from others for their household or to eke out their own supply.  A woman who wished to sell ale could simply put a pole with a bush on it out a window and that would advertize that she had ale available.  Tusser, ever concerned about unnecessary expense, advises the housewife to brew her own ale, especially since the leftovers from the process contribute to fattening the pigs being raised.


Great houses and monasteries had enormous brewing houses, usually attached to a bakehouse, with large vats and many butts to hold the ale.  Alice de Breyne’s household, for instance, produced approximately 130-140 gallons at each brewing, while one priory could produce 700 gallons.  (Woolgar, 2006, loc 248)  Most households had much simpler arrangements.  Eventually the European custom of adding hops became more popular in England, replacing the sweeter ale with the more bitter, but better keeping, beer.


The first stage of brewing is malting the barley to convert its starch into sugars that will feed the yeast.  Barley is the traditional grain used, but other grains could be and sometimes were substituted.  The cleaned grain is spread about an inch deep on a clean wooden floor, and then sprinkled with water.  The grain is stirred and watered until all the grain is evenly damp, when it would be spread out again to a depth of three inches or so.  The stirring and watering is repeated every few hours until all the grains swell.  Now the grain is moved into a deeper pile to allow warmth to build up.  Over the next few days, the heap continues to be stirred, ensuring the grain is developing evenly.  When the grains begin to sprout, the grain must now be heated sufficiently to kill the shoots, but not scorch the grain.  Malting kilns were structures with low arches and a smooth top.  A fire was built beneath and the grain spread on top.  For small, regular batches, the floor of the oven after baking was sufficient, but larger batches required a kiln.


Yeast, often originally captured from wild yeast, was also needed.  Yeast was kept and fed from brewing to brewing. 


Water was brought to a boil and poured over malt in a wooden tub.  Flavourful herbs such as heather, sage, elderflower, nettles or alecost could be added at this point.  The mix was then left to sit while the sugars leached out of the barley.  In cool weather it might be necessary to wrap the tub with a blanket to keep it warm enough.  After a time, the thick, dark liquid is drawn off into another tub and frothy yeast added and the new mixture left overnight to brew.  A second batch of boiling water would be poured over the malt to make “small ale”, weaker and less alcoholic.  In the morning, after new yeast was collected from the top of the brew, the liquid would be strained and stored in pots or barrels with lids, although they would not be completely airtight as gases would continue to develop and need to escape.  (Ginn, 2013, ch 6) (Markham, 1986, 204-209)


Markham also writes about the making of cider and perry.  He describes the apples or pears being picked, cleaned, and put in a press mill to be crushed.  The fruit would then be strained through a haircloth bag, allowed to settle, then put into hogsheads or other vessels.  The residue in the bag would not be wasted, but would have water added to it to make “small” cider or perry.  Cider or perry made from summer fruit would be called “sweet” cider or perry, that from winter fruit, “sour” cider or perry, which would be used last as it “endures the longest”.  (Markham, 1986, 209)


Wine would be purchased rather than made, but there was much concern about preserving the quality of the wine.  Le Ménagier advises having the wines checked weekly and suggests a number of cures for possible problems.  For wine gone bad, exposing the barrel to frost is suggested; for tartness, adding ripe black grapes; for an ill smell, powdered elder wood and grain of paradise hung in bags inside the cask; for “muddiness”, hard boiling eggs, frying the whites and shells, and then putting them in a bag to be hung in the cask; for redness in white wine, adding holly leaves.  (Power, 1992, 141-142)



The dairy was traditionally a female enterprise and any financial gain was often hers as well.  Skill in the dairy was highly prized and the butter and cheese – “white meats” – produced were an important part of the diet.  As Markham in The English Housewife describes the best kind of “kine” for dairying, the housewife quite possibly would have been the one to choose the animals as well.  He describes the ideal cow as “of big bone, fair shape, right breed, and deep of milk, gentle and kindly.”


Cows would typically be given names by their mistress, some of which we know, such as ‘Motherlyke’, ‘Galyan’, ‘Nutte’, ‘Lovely’, ‘Lightfote’, and ‘Goldelockes’.  The milkmaid would sit on a three-legged milking stool, with a tub of around one-gallon in capacity firmly held between her feet and against the stool.  One stave would extend well above the top to act as a handle.  Once the milk was in the tub, it was taken into the dairy to be ‘siled’ or strained by being poured through a haircloth canvas or woollen cloth to remove any hair, grit, or other debris, and then left overnight in broad, shallow earthenware ‘settling-pans’, which had been scalded.  When the cream rose to the surface, it could be skimmed off with a shallow wooden dish.  If it was to be used for butter, it would be put directly into the churn.  (Brears, 2008, 79-80)


Because milk, whether from cows, sheep, or goats, did not keep well and because the amount of milk produced was little to none in some parts of the year, it was important to preserve as much as possible as cheese and butter, using salt to increase its shelf life.  Everything in a dairy was kept spotlessly clean, with vessels carefully scalded out, as the housewife or dairymaid was well aware even a touch of dirt or mould could make dairy products turn quickly and become inedible. 


At this period, the dash churn, with a tall, narrow coopered wooden bottom and a wooden piston-like dash was common.  The dash would agitate the cream until small globules of butter began to separate from the buttermilk, the amount of time depending on temperature and quality of the cream.  As the process continued, the mass of butter could eventually be lifted from the buttermilk.  The buttermilk still in the butter needed to be removed by first washing it and then beating it with a wooden spoon in a wooden bowl to remove the last traces.  Salt was then beaten into it and it was packed tightly into pottery jars to be stored until needed.  The buttermilk could be used as a refreshing drink.


Cheese was made by warming the milk to blood temperature, then stirring in rennet (salted and dried lining of a suckling calf’s stomach) to coagulate the milk into curds and whey.  The juice of lady’s bedstraw could be used the same way, but not as effectively.  Once broken up and partly drained, the curds were mixed with salt and transferred to a cloth-lined tub called a cheese-vat, which had openings to allow whey to escape.  A wooden form was placed on top of the cheese within the cheese-vat and then a cheese press was used to press out the remaining whey.  After pressing, the cheese was rubbed with salt and often wrapped in cheesecloth, then put on racks to ripen.  The cheeses would be regularly checked and turned.  Hard cheeses, sometimes made with skim milk, kept best – although skim milk cheese could be tough and less flavourful – and were common in the diet of the poor.  More prosperous homes could make treats such as cheesecakes, cottage cheese, and junkets. Below is a recipe for a soft cheese:


Vyaunde Leche

2 pt full-cream milk                2 TBSP honey                                      1 pt light ale                           

1 lb cottage cheese                 a little red food colouring                   pinch of salt

Mix the milk and food colour, heat to 100° F, pour in the ale, remove from heat, and leave for 15 minutes.  Pour the curds and whey into a square of fine muslin, hang up and leave to drain for 20 minutes.  Mix cottage cheese, drained curds, and honey together, with salt to taste.  Pack into a muslin-lined cylindrical vessel with holes pierced through base and sides.  Allow to drain overnight, then unwrap, and serve in slices.  (Brears, 2008, 84)




The majority of medieval households had gardens, which ranged from the large gardens of the wealthy, which might have hired gardeners who sold produce as well as providing for the kitchen, to the more typical small plot of land tended by members of a household and the produce of which was directly consumed by the household.  The gardens would have boundaries, usually with ditches and/or fences to prevent damage from wandering animals.  Even in urban settings, a small garden with a vegetable plot and a few fruit trees was possible and garden plots could also be rented, both in the town and in the countryside.  The produce did not provide the main sources of nutrition or calories, but rather were additions to the diet.  (Woolgar, 2006, loc 401)


Markham and Le Ménagier both provide information on when to sow and transplant various plants. 

Le Ménagier adds advice on watering plants early in the morning or in the evening, watering only the stem and earth and not the leaves.  His advice on planting is month by month, and would provide a succession of garden produce for the table throughout the year. 


We know the names of most of the plants grown, thanks to extant lists such as Fromond’s, compiled about 1525, as well as earlier ones, such as Jon Gardener’s from 150 years before.  Many of the plants, particularly those grown to add to pottage, are familiar to us as food, such as beets, cabbage, lettuce, mint, spinach, onions, leeks, carrots, parsnips, radishes, and turnips.  Some others are certainly known to us, but are no longer seen as usual additions to the diet, for example marigolds, daisies, violets, and poppies.  Some plants common in the middle ages are rarely or never heard of now, such as Good King Henry (similar to spinach), and Alexanders (which has a taste between celery and parsley).  Where space was sufficient, trees and shrubs were planted, to bear apples, cherries, mulberries, pears, walnuts, and other fruit and nuts.  Fruit trees were skilfully grafted, another procedure about which Le Ménagier gave instructions.  (Landsberg, 2003, 79-81)


Some of the plants grown were for medicinal purposes, as the housewife was the first and often only resource for care during illness.  Markham suggests various remedies, such as this one:  “To make a poultice to cure any ague sore, take elder leaves and seethe them in milk till they be soft, then take them up and strain them; then boil it again till it be thick, and so use it to the sore as occasion shall serve.”





Le Ménagier has a great deal to say to his wife regarding the hiring and supervision of their servants, saying that “he that hath to do with good servants, he hath peace”.  Along with the advice, however, he gives her a great deal of authority:  “I leave you the rule and receive them into our service, to hire them at your pleasure, to pay and keep them in our service as you please, and to dismiss them when you will.”  Later, he continues:  “After your husband, you should be mistress of the house, the giver of orders, visitor, ruler and sovereign administrator, and it is for you to keep your maidservants in subjection and obedience to you, teaching, correcting and chastising them.”  He also makes it plain that she needs to be kind and encouraging to good servants and to care for their morals and their welfare.  (Power, 1992, 134-140)


Le Ménagier and his bride were wealthy and had a large household, but Thomas Tusser, speaking of a much less exalted establishment, advises that at least one of the husband and the housewife needs to be present at all times to keep an eye on the servants:  “When husband is absent, let huswife be chief, And look to their labour, that eateth her beef.  Where husband and wife be both out of place, Their servants do loiter, and reason their case.”  He does add later, “Good servants reward.” 


A great many households, including peasant households, had servants.  Assigning their tasks efficiently, supervising the amount of care they took in performing them, teaching new, probably young, servants the needed skills, and managing the interactions of the people in the home must have taken considerable time and patience. 


It is notable that Margaret Paston, whom we know from the Paston letters, seems to feel comfortable making decisions in her husband’s absence and sending him lists of purchases she wishes, without any sense that she has to beg and plead for anything, even if he is definitely the head of the household.  In a letter of 1453, she speaks of supervising the construction of some additions to the house and although John had asked for some furniture to be set up in a particular chamber for him to use as an office and bedroom, she measured, decided there was not enough space in the room he wanted and switched it to another.  In another letter, she speaks of doing business for him, then requests, “I pray you will vouchsafe to buy for me such laces as I send you examples of in this letter and one piece of black lace.  As for the caps you sent me for the children, they are too little for them.  I pray you buy them finer caps and larger than those were.”



I found it interesting how much the books of advice referred to expectations of piety, pleasantness, manners, and dress.  Le Ménagier presumably had a personal interest in this, but much of his concern about her dress and behaviour seems to be for the family’s standing in the community.   


Markham also speaks of religious devotion, of not using angry or unbecoming language, and of dressing according to her husband’s “estate and calling”, in “comely, cleanly” garments.   His paragon of housewifely virtues should be “of chaste thoughts, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good neighbourhood, wise in and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsels.”  This is certainly a description of someone who would manage a household that would be very pleasant to live in for husband, children, and servants, but it is also a description of someone who would be well respected in the community. 



I enjoyed doing this research, which has provided me with a much better picture in my mind of the medieval woman managing her home.  It is a fantasy picture in some ways, the medieval male dream of the perfect housewife, which has probably about as much truth in it as the picture of the modern housewife in television commercials.  However, I firmly believe that Fitzherbert, Markham, and Tusser were correct in seeing the housewife as being as much responsible for the success of the household as the householder, and that part of this success was the comfort of the home.  I believe she did her best with her resources to provide a clean, pleasant, healthy place in which her family could live, work, and relax. 


Medieval clergy were often misogynists, but one fifteenth century preacher, Bernadine of Sienna, wrote a sermon that was a paean to the housewife and I will close with his words.


 That man knows it who has her, the good housewife, who rules the whole household well .... If a man have neither wife nor other to rule his household, know you how it is with the house? I know, and I will tell you. If he be rich, and have plenty of grain, the sparrows and the moles eat their fill thereof.  It is not set in order, but all so scattered abroad that the whole house is the fouler for it. If he have oil, it is all neglected and spilt... And his wine? When at last he comes to the cask, he draws the wine without further thought; yet perchance the cask shows a crevice behind, and the wine wastes. Or again a hoop or two is started, yet it may go its way for him; or the wine turns to vinegar, or becomes utterly corrupt. In his bed, know you how he sleeps? He sleeps in a pit, even as the sheets chance to have been tumbled upon the bed; for they are never changed until they are torn. Even so in his dining-hall; here on the ground are melon-rinds, bones, peelings of salad, everything left lying on the ground almost without pretense of sweeping. Know you how it is with his table? The cloth is laid with so little care that no man ever removes it till it be covered with filth. The trenchers are but sparingly wiped, the dogs lick and wash them. His pipkins are all foul with grease: go and see how they stand! Know you how such a man lives? even as a brute beast. I say that it cannot be well for a man to live thus alone.”





Bayard, Tania (translator, editor), A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the 14th Century,

1991, Harper Collins


Brears, Peter, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England,

2008,  Prospect Books


Egan, Geoff, editor, The Medieval Household: Daily Living c.1150-c.1450

                2010, The Boydell Press


Forgeng, Jeffery L.,  & Will McLean, Daily Life in Chaucer’s England

                2009, Greenwood Press


French, Dr. Katherine, Dr. Kathryn Smith, & Dr. Sarah Stanbury, article:  An Honest Bed: The Scene of Life and Death in Late Medieval England, April 24, 2017


Gilchrist, Roberta, Medieval Life: Archeology and the Life Course

                2012, The Boydell Press


Ginn, Peter, Ruth Goodman, & Tom Pinfold,

Tudor Monastery Farm:  Life in Rural England 500 Years Ago

                2013, BBC Books


Goodman, Ruth, How to be a Tudor:  A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Everyday Life

                2015, Penguin Random House UK


Grenville, Jane, Medieval Housing,

                1997, Leister University Press


Hanawalt, Barbara A., The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England

                1986, Oxford University Press


Heise, Jennifer, Hygiene of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Volume Two: Domestic Arrangements

                2007, The Compleat Anachronist, Issue #137


Henisch, Bridget Ann, The Medieval Cook

2009, The Boydell Press


Hieatt,  Constance B., The Culinary Recipes of Medieval England

                Prospect Books, 2013


Horton, David A., Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins:  Possessions  and People in Medieval Britain,

                2005, Oxford University Press


Kowalseski, M. & P.J.P. Goldberg, editors, Medieval Domesticity

                2008, Cambridge University Press


Landsberg, Sylvia, The Medieval Garden

                2003, University Toronto Press


Mortimer, Ian, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the 14th Century

     2008, Random House


Markham, Gervase, The English Huswife, 1615

                1986, McGill-Queen’s Unversity Press


Markham, Gervase, The Well-Kept Kitchen, 1615

                1986, McGill-Queen’s Unversity Press


Netherton, Robin  & Gale R. Owen-Crocker (editors), Medieval Clothing and Textiles I

                2005, The Boydell Press


Newman, Paul B., Daily Life in the Middle Ages

2001, McFarland & Company, Inc.


Pizan, Christine de, A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor:  The Treasury of the City of Ladies, translated by C. Willard, edited by M. Cosman

1989, Persea Books, Inc.


Power, Eileen (translator, introduction, notes) The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris),

1992, The Folio Society


Sherman, Dennis R., Domestic Lighting: Candles, Lamps, and Torches in History

                1993, The Compleat Anachronist, Issue #68


Sim, Alison, The Tudor Housewife

1996, McGill-Queen’s University Press


Schofield, John, Medieval London Houses

            1995, Yale University Press


Scully, Terence, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages

1995, The Boydell Press


Swabey, ffiona, Medieval Gentlewoman: Life in a Gentry Household in the Later Middle Ages

1999, Routledge


Tusser, Thomas, Some of the Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, as Well for the Champion or Open Country as Also for the Woodland or Several, Mixed in Every Month with Huswifery , 1573

            2017, Triest Publishing Pty Ltd


Verberg, Susan, To Make Black Sope: A Medieval Soft Soap Manual

                2016, The Compleat Anachronist, Issue #174,


Wood, Margaret, The English Medieval House

                1983, Harper Colophon


Woolgar, C. M., D. Serjeantson, & T. Waldron (editors):  Food in Medieval England, Diet and Nutrition

                2006, Oxford University Press


Worsley, Lucy, If Walls Could Talk:  An intimate history of the Home

                2011, Faber and Faber Limited


Classes, demonstrations, and notes on cooking over an open fire and in a clay or brick oven, Pennsic Wars 2017, Baroness Catherine of Deva/MKA Cathy Haynes and Lady Miriam bat Pessah/MKA Marilyn Finkelman.

No comments:

Post a Comment