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February 2012 Meeting Report

Robina Hodgson on Tudor Housewives

Robina started her talk by apologising for not dressing up as a Tudor housewife, which, because of the cold weather, was very understandable. It was very gratifying that well over 30 people had braved the cold and snow to attend the meeting.

Robina started her fascinating talk by pointing out that Tudor housewives had to work very hard and to be expert in all aspects of child rearing and running a household. The typical "middle class" housewife might have had two or three servants to help her with baking, meat and bacon curing, laundering, brewing, cooking, making candles and soap, keeping accounts, treat the families illnesses, amongst other things.

Typically the Tudor woman got married at around 25, but often as a pragmatic business proposition between 2 families of a similar social background and who both hoped to boost their status as a result of the match. In the wealthy, upper class, woman were often expected to marry when in their early teens, usually as part of a deal entailing exchanges of land, estates, or titles. The woman, however, did not enjoy the present day equality now expected but was regarded as the property of her husband so had no rights.

The church marriage service was often quite different to todayís typical service, there were no "white weddings" and the couples health was toasted while inside the church. Divorce was unknown and the woman could often be literally thrown out of her home if she upset her husband, but the reverse wasnít the case!

Pregnancy and giving birth was dangerous, but often fatalities occurred as a result of infection after the birth. During pregnancy, foods such as salads and milk were generally forbidden, as was fresh air. The new born baby was immediately wrapped up or swaddled so that he/she could not move. The baby was usually taken to the church for baptism by the midwife, mum not being allowed to go to the church until about 6 weeks after her confinement.

Robina scorned a common misconception that the Tudors didnít wash themselves or their clothes. Keeping clothes clean was very difficult and tenacious smells were usually from the clothes, not the wearer. This onerous task was usually delegated to the servants. Stubborn stains were often removed by scouring the clothes with sand and brushing with horsetail cloth. Sometimes urine was also used as a bleaching agent as it contains urea which decomposes to ammonia. The dried clothes were kept in chests with liberal quantities of lavender and wormwood to act as pest repellent, especially fleas.

The Tudor housewife was expected to do her own bread baking which was often difficult as this required a big oven which whose temperature was difficult to control very accurately. She also often brewed her own beer as an alternative to water which was often of a dubious quality. The beer making required the water to be heated at a temperature sufficient to kill most bugs. When entertaining guests for dinner it was very important to have a "good table", but everything had to be cooked over an open fire, often in large cauldrons to make what we would call a stew. Guests were often expected to bring their own plates and utensils, however. Servants were expected to eat on square, semi hollowed wooden platters, or trenchers, giving the origin of a "square meal".

A good knowledge of herbs for providing medicinal cures and was also expected, and she often grew these in her herb garden. Robina bought along a fine selection of such herbs and invited the audience to help themselves, using pieces of cloth and a ribbon to secure a generous sample of each herb. These included catnip, especially valuable for cat lovers, feverfew, woodruff, lavender amongst others.

And, oh, she was also expected to be able to keep the household, and often business accounts. They had rarely been taught how to read and write, but may have been taught the basic language skills by either her husband or parish priest. We know that women such as Elizabeth 1 and her ill fated cousin, Mary Queen of Scots were both highly educated and skilled in languages and music, but then they were not middle class!

Robina's talk gave a fascinating insight into the way of life of the 16th century housewife, making one wonder if the Tudor husband got off rather lightly!

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