Women's Domesticity In Medieval Europe During The Late Middle Ages
Role of Women as Mothers/Wives
During the pre-industrial period in Europe, European housewifery included not only the housework chores, but also medical services, distillation, water purification, brewing, veterinary services and producing simple goods (Wall 19). During the time, although some of the European women contributed to the economic well-being of the society, they were not at anytime identified through their occupational designations. Therefore, although some of the women were working, the society throughout identified them through their marital status (McKeon 177). Nonetheless, all the early women in Europe undertook domestic chores. Although there were two types of women, those from high ranks, and those of lower ranks, both attended to domestic chores, which made them equal.
The ranks were achieved owing to the type of work, or it was dependent on the husband's profession. For the low ranked wives or mothers, their husbands usually performed jobs such as farming, art, husbandry and lower gentry, whereas those of high ranks, mainly played most of the supervisory roles. Nonetheless, the women seemed content with their household duties and they were doing this in compliance with the model of good wife; the woman who was not hesitant (Wall 22). The concept of good wife led to domesticity. In order to comprehend domesticity in Europe, it is important to be aware of the routine activities a mother or wife undertook in the home setting (Wall 19).
One of their roles as wives is to give birth. Society, however, appreciated motherhood, and when wives gave birth, their husbands often awarded them (Gilchrist 144). Alternatively, the European society viewed the time used by women working at home as passing time (Gilchrist 144). Therefore, the women were to sew sacks, make vestments for priests, and make some cloth, but when doing this, they were to teach their daughters the same. The medieval period in the European continent completely isolated women from skilled labor (Howell 2). They were to remain at home to take care for the children, mainly by breastfeeding them and preparing food (McKeon 193).
In Wall (21), Lady Margaret's diary makes it apparent that women, regardless of the rank in the society were to undertake housewifery chores. Women were to wake up before anyone else in the house to prepare breakfast for children, husband, and all the people who comprised their family. In addition, their roles in the kitchen were too many and they often had to arrange objects in the kitchen to serve as reminders for other chores. They also served as nurses, particularly for their children and they undertook cleaning chores, for all the family (Wall 19-21).
Notably, in the medieval period, women were not to take part in any productive activity in the society; however, some scholars report that apart from household chores, women engaged in skilled labor. This is in reference to Butcher's perspective, which lacks empirical evidence, but either way, contributes to confusion in the same line of research (Howell 3). Another scholar, Kathleen Casey also supports Butcher's claims, but she later on contradicts herself when she suggests that in some skilled labor, women were never admitted, but formerly, she had suggested that women were not all confined to household work (Howell 3).
Functions of Women in Relation to Domesticity
Women performed a variety of tasks in relation to domesticity. Some of the roles, however, in some degree are similar to the household duties. This is because the duties often required or rather involved performing duties that they performed to their family. In this context, clothing, preparing food and nursing family members, including neighbors was seen as both a domestic role, and household role (Howell 11). On the other hand, women were from different ranks. Peasant women actively took part in the production of food, and other roles such as clothing their families, whereas their superiors took charge of resources (Howell 11).
In the same context, men and women had similar roles, and they were to manage the family's economy together. In addition, the both had appropriate skills and resources. Women, however, opted to concentrate in particular domestic roles, especially those compatible with the day-to-day livelihood. Women also played the role of heirs to their husbands, parents, and landlords and also played an important role in economic production to sustain their families. In addition, owing to the economic significance of the women, in other times they served as heads of the families in the absence of their husbands (Howell 19).
In the period1480-1490, domestic service for women seemed to decline (Klapisch-Zuber 176), which saw to the use of males to perform most of the skilled duties. However, during the period amid 1770s-1780s, nursing in Europe had changed from paid to unpaid labor and subsequently from a class-stratified to a sternly gendered task. In both senses, nursing was domestication. Therefore, this saw to the preference of mother's milk in comparison to milk from wet nurses. This is because using the latter approach, milk from wet nurses; it increased the possibility of the infant taking contaminated milk. This is concerning the diversity of the wet nurses, in terms of foreign or racial otherness (McKeon 193).
The further argument for this is that breastfeeding was an individual role and best undertaken by the wife or mother. Therefore, the limiting of the wives and mothers to the household roles was a way of reducing their productive potential. Women, in reference to wives or mothers, had managed to contribute to the productivity of the workplace, which McKeon (193) suggests they had enjoyed in the domestic economy. In addition, Women played the roles of philanthropists and consumers, and they did this as individual contributors in the market economy.
Similarly, during the domestication period, women also played the role of caring, and one influential Hannah More suggested "Charity was a calling for ladies (McKeon 193)." In addition, women engaged in hospitality, and by the end of the 17th century, personal giving had attracted attention, which led to the development of movements to reach the poor people in the society. In the late 18th century, women began learning charitable organizations, and at the same time, other women engaged in stewardship whereby domestic women exercised their skills in financial management (McKeon 193).
The medieval Europe provides other roles that women undertook. In the 15th century, for example, women took part in two main fields of occupation (Gilchrist 146). These were dairying, making cheese, milking, making butter, preparing linen and cloth, including textile making. Previously, women took part in nursing, particularly in the production of breast milk (McKeon 193); in the same context of nursing, women also played an important role in needlework. In addition, women also took part in pottery and decoration (Gilchrist 146).
Extent of Limitation in Women
Apparently, domesticity saw that women performed a variety of roles, including roles that involved the economy. In this regard, it was possible for the women to achieve liberty from the confinement of household roles. However, their attempt to break out was futile, mainly because men were still the heads in every aspect of life. The dimensions of the patriarchal system in medieval Europe were clear. Although the women had discretion and accepted responsibility in matters concerning the economy, enjoyed some privileges in respect to motherhood, received protection from the cannon law and had some autonomy, women remained subordinates to the males.
Therefore, men had most of the control in important matters, which made it impossible for them to take part in public issues. Men wrote the law, which protected the women, but in a larger degree protected the male. Therefore, any attempts of trying to break out from the society, which subordinated the females, were futile (Howell 20). On the other hand, although women took part in some skilled labor, they were not as skilled when compared to men; therefore, they were generally excluded to the most skilled professions.
In addition, women did not have enough capital to start their own businesses. Therefore, the opportunities the women could access the household training opportunities, which further prevented them from breaking out from the bondage of men (Gilchrist 145). Most importantly, in the year 1500, female employment was experiencing a constant decline, which saw to the hiring of few numbers of women (Klapisch-Zuber 177). In addition, some of the women gradually came to believe that their role in society was that of being subordinates to men.
Although literature suggests that when women labor at domestic chores, their minds are free to entertain some rebellious thoughts, which is true. Even so, the rebellion was only happening within them. Women were still at bondage within and this translates to the bondage in the society (Wall 13). The society has also done nothing to address the issue, which has made women to believe that their role was a calling, to be good wives. This also made the women to go back to their household roles, further preventing their attempts to become independent.