The housewife's duties (a long list)
John Fitzherbert (A Book of Husbandry, 1525) offers this advice:
When thou art up and ready, then first sweep thy house, dress up thy dish-board, and set
all things in good order within thy house; milk thy kine [cows], feed thy calves, sile [strain]
up thy milk, take up thy children and array them, and provide for thy husband's breakfast,
dinner, supper, and for thy children and servants, and take thy part with them.
And to ordain [organize] corn and malt to the mill, to bake and brew withal when need is. . .
Thou must make butter and cheese when thou may; serve thy swine, both morning and
evening, and give thy pullen [fowl] meat in the morning, and when time of the year cometh,
thou must take heed how thy hen, ducks and geese do lay, and to gather up their eggs;
and when they wax broody to set them thereas no beasts, swine or other vermin hurt them. . .
And in the beginning of March, or a little before, is time for a wife to make her garden. . . And also in March is time to sow
flax and hemp. . . and thereof may thou make sheets, board-cloths [table- cloths], towels, shirts, smocks, and such other
necessaries; and therefore let thy distaff be always ready for a pastime, that thou be notidle. . .
In sickness and in health. . .
The housewife was to care for her family both in sickness and in health. Here she irons clothes on the left, and
applies a household remedy (fevers which came at regular intervals -- quotidian (daily), tertian (every second
day) and quartan (every third day) --were usually the results of malarial diseases. Sweating is a symptom of the
passing of fever; here the attempt is made to induce the symptom in the belief that it is a cause of the cure
rather than an effect. Of the single tertian For a single tertian fever, or each other day's ague [probably a malarial
disease]; take a quart of posset ale, the curd being well drained from the same, and put thereinto a good handful of
dandelion, and then, setting it upon the fire, boil it till a fourth part be consumed, then as soon as your cold fit beginneth
drink a good draught thereof, and then either labour till you sweat, or else force yourself to sweat in your bed, but labour is
much the better provided that you take not cold after it. ) to a member of the family on the right. Many people
preferred home medicine to the physicians.
Childbirth was hazardous; medical works of the time are full of remedies for a difficult labour.
For ease in child bearing
If a woman have a strong and hard labour: take four spoonful of another woman's milk, and give it the woman to drink in
her labour, and she shall be deliveredpresently.
For a woman that is new brought in bed, and swooneth much
Take motherwort (plant boiled in water for women to soak in), and mints, the quantity of a handful in all, seethe them
together in a pint of wine and give her to drink thereof two or three spoonful at a time, and it will appease her swounding.
The yard, with its poultry and pigs, was another area (though outside the house) where the housewife was in charge.
Chickens, ducks, and geese provided eggs and meat, both for the household and the market (Two or three times a week
the housewife took produce to market to sell it. Whether the family was wealthy or poor, John Fitzherbert reminds us of
the economic importance of the housewife. She is "to go or ride to the market to sell butter, cheese, milk, eggs, capons,
hens, pigs, geese, and all manner of corn. And also to buy all manner of necessary things belonging to a household.").
Order in the sexes
The concept of equality between the sexes would have seemed very foreign to
most in Shakespeare's day: Adam was created first, and Eve from his body; she
was created specifically to give him comfort, and was to be subordinate to him,
to obey him and to accept her “lesser status”. A dominant woman was
unnatural, a symptom of disorder.
A lesson on domestic order
In The Taming of the Shrew, Kate, tamed, gives a famous (or infamous, or
ironical) lesson to the other women on the "natural" domestic order. The
imagery makes clear thecorrespondence between the family and the nation:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign . . .
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband,
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest* will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple [foolish]
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
The “short” list of duties
First, a training up of her children and maids in the fear of God, with prayers and catechizing, and all religious duties.
Secondly, a curing and healing of all wounds and sores with her own hands; which skill either she brought with her, or she
takes care she shall learn it of some religious neighbour.
Thirdly, a providing for her family in such sort, as that neither they want a competent sustentation [sustenance], nor her
husband be brought in debt.