16 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: The Life of a Medieval Peasant Woman

By Lindsay Townsend

A medieval woman had to be many things, depending on her social position. A noble woman could be responsible for running and managing a castle, great house or estate and also be involved in actively pursuing her family's or husband's aims, including warfare. A woman in a town would need to oversee her house and also continue her own business, or that of her husband's if she was a widow. A peasant woman would need to be skilled in herb-lore and folk-medicines, also a cook, laundress, spinner, harvester, child-minder, store keeper, brewer (or brewster, the female of brewer) and more! So the day in the life of any medieval woman was likely to be busy.

I'm looking at the day in the life of Mary, a peasant woman who lived in the 1300s before the Black Death. Mary is a housewife who is married to Adam and they live with their three children on a small holding in medieval Oxfordshire.

Mary's day begins at first night whatever the season. In summer this might be as early as 4 am. In winter her simple wattle and daub timber-framed home would be shared with the family's few animals, for extra warmth and to protect the beasts from wolves and other predators. Today in July Mary rises early from her sacking and straw bed. She dresses in a plain dress of wool, usually russet in colour, and then helps the children to dress before providing them and Adam with a breakfast of ale and bread or cold pottage. While Adam and the two older children leave to help with cutting and turning their lord's hay harvest, Mary is busy at home. She will help with the harvest later but she has other tasks first, beginning with washing the clothes.

She and her youngest daughter take the woollen and linen clothes down to the small river to pummel with small paddles and rinse in the clear stream. They spread the wet things on bushes to dry and Mary then tends her few chickens and geese. She and her daughter work for a while in her kitchen garden, weeding and gathering herbs and vegetables. Both are glad of a drink of ale, bartered from the village ale-wife, when they take a break.

It is July, hay-making time, back-breaking and tedious. July is also the hungry month, when wheat and other grain stores are low. Mary is always hungry in July and when she has time she grinds up the bits of wheat and old peas and beans on her small saddle query to make a kind of flour she can turn into bread and bake on her hearth under an upturned pot. She grinds in secret, with her youngest daughter keeping watch by the cottage door, because the miller would complain to her lord that she is not getting her wheat ground by him and paying a fee for the 'privilege'.

Some days Mary makes rush lights, or collects berries and wild fruits from the surrounding countryside, or helps her husband Adam tend their own or their lord's field strips. Some days are a holy day--a holiday--when the family go to church to celebrate special saints' days and festivals. Today, although her back is hurting--many skeletons from medieval times show people plagued by rheumatism and stress injuries brought on by the sheer hard work--Mary goes to join Adam and her two older children, labouring to bring in the hay harvest. She takes with her a lunch of bread and cheese for her family--the cheese is a soft one, made by her from the milk of their cow, and needs to be eaten quickly. She also gathers a few wild strawberries.

Reaching the hay fields of their lord, Mary finds the other workers resting and taking a midday meal. The reeve has brought some ale for all the hay makers and more bread. Adam and her children eat quietly. Her youngest child asks what is for supper and Mary has to admit it will be cold pottage again--she has no time to prepare anything else. Later, Adam draws her aside and whispers he has bartered another day's hay-making with the reeve for a fat rabbit, taken from the lord's warren. With onions from their garden they will eat well tonight, God willing.

With a lighter heart Mary works in the hay field for the rest of the day, gathering and turning the long grass and flowers the men have cut with scythes. The summer evening and dusk is long in coming but then she, Adam and the children wander off to their cottage with the prospect of supper and bed.

I show the impact of the Black Death on the lives of peasants like Mary in my forthcoming novel, TO TOUCH THE KNIGHT. For details of this and my other medieval historical romances, please visit my website.

Lindsay Townsend writes historical romance set in medieval England and the ancient Mediterranean. Her latest is A KNIGHT'S ENCHANTMENT, available now. She lives in Yorkshire with her husband.