The Tudor Housewife


When I volunteered to review this book I had a vague idea that it would be one of those picturesque publications with lots of recipes for things like lark pie or roast swan alongside handy hints on how to starch a ruff or make your own soap. It would have some coloured picturesque pictures of Tudor kitchens and the original recipe for marmalade. In fact Alison Sim does cover food and drink and housework in her short but methodical account of the lives of Tudor women but she expands the information to cover all the other aspects of their lives from Childbirth to Religion to Business Life.

Alison Sims' definition of 'housewife ' expands to all women because they were either married or involved in particular household duties. She is particularly interesting on the subject of housework, pointing out that the popular idea that folks in days of yore never took baths or changed their clothes is utter bunkum. Of course the Tudors were limited by the technology available at the time. There was no hot water on tap but most of them washed regularly and clean linen was a mark of respectability. Wooden cups and bowls were difficult to clean. The details given on the care of linen and other clothing reminds one of Mrs Beeton writing in the mid nineteenth century: woollen clothes were to be brushed and shaken regularly to get rid of moths whilst most housewives had their own recipes for stain removal. Washing the linen was a very heavy job and the laundresses suffered from sore hands.

Although confined to the home women had a very wide ranging practical education. Many of the contemporary manuals, usually written by men, set a high standard of skills. The author quotes Gervase Markham's The English Housewife which advised that women should be able to brew, bake, doctor, distil and act as dairy maid. Although most women could not write some kept accounts and organised their husband's estates in his absence. But the manuals were aimed at the 'middling classes', those with one or two servants who could afford a book. Poorer women would have had little time or opportunity to gain all these skills. The author points out that the majority of the population ate bread, pottage and vegetables which took little time to prepare. We know nothing about the daily lives of women who were forced to do hard practical work just to avoid starvation. If they were very lucky there was a household pig which was killed and salted down once a year. Another job that was heavy on the housewife's hands.

In her introduction the author states that this book is 'only an overview' of the lives of Tudor women and that the subject of each chapter would earn a book to itself. Indeed if you are involved in scholarly research or study of the period I do not think that this is the book for you. Many of the quotations and references are taken from other publications and although there are source notes there is no bibliography. However if you have an interest in the Tudor domestic scene or wish to encourage a young relative with an awareness of all things historical this short summary could be a useful book to start off with.

Rosemary Conely
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2013