Friday, April 24

Everyday Medieval Women

So much of the fascination of history is accounts of kings and queens, mighty battles and events that helped shape the modern world. Medieval history is no exception. The murder of Thomas Becket, The Wars of the Roses, Magna Carta, Richard the Lionheart, the Crusades: all indeed showstoppers. But what of the everyday day life that millions of people had to lead? I confess to finding that equally, and at times, even more absorbing. When visiting re-enactments or museums, I’m less taken with sword A or helmet B, but more likely to watch as a woman makes a dish of pottage using twelfth century implements and ingredients.

Honey, I'm home!
The fascination for me is that it’s so relatable. Everyone has to make their way in the world and we (most of us, anyway) don’t do it from the battlements of a castle. Yet even in the history of the ordinary man, it tends to be just that. Men. Whatever sparse records exist tend to disappear almost entirely when it comes to women, as so many records are linked to land. We do know some of what life was like for a woman who was not at the top of the social tree: challenging is a word that springs to mind.

As jobs for women go...
Everyday women were excluded from holding any kind of office. A woman’s legal rights were defined primarily by men throughout her life. Men defined her description. When she was a maiden, her father was in charge. As a wife, her husband. A medieval legal definition of married women from 1180 tells us that “every married woman is a sort of infant.” A wife has to agree to her husband’s sexual demands, cannot borrow money without his permission and is not able to make a will. A widow’s standing is based on her late husband’s status. This might suggest some level of independence.

A woman and a man marry, with a monk performing the marriage. 

But the widow of a villein (a tenant entirely subject to a lord) had, in reality, to remarry. She had a brief few months to make her own choice. If she did not, then the lord’s bailiff or reeve would select her next spouse for her. Refusal brought a fine, or imprisonment. Giving birth to an illegitimate child carried a fine called childwyte. This seems particularly punitive when one considers the law on rape. It was believed that conception could only occur when a woman experienced orgasm. And if she did so, then she had enjoyed the encounter with the man. And so it wasn’t rape. Blinding logic. For medieval men, that is.

A wild man seizing a woman.

Childbirth was a terribly risky endeavour for medieval women, no matter what their status in society. It is estimated that for every pregnancy, a woman had a one in fifty chance of dying in childbirth. Women from the lower classes were often employed as wet-nurses for the wealthy.

A woman nursing her baby as another milks a goat. 

The wives of peasants and villeins shared much of the agricultural labour with their husbands. They could earn money as labourers but were paid about half than men for the same work. Seasonal work paid better than service. Women’s tasks included sheep shearing, milking cows and looking after livestock and chickens, planting, winnowing and weeding. This was on top of all the domestic tasks: keeping a fire, cooking, washing.

A woman milking a cow.

The dark hours were put to good use also. Cheese making and brewing could yield a woman some extra income. Many women brewed ale. The demand for ale was high as drinking water was frequently dirty and unsafe. While the brewers were women, the tasters were male and women could be fined for sour beer. With the introduction of hops to brewing (which makes beer, rather than ale and preserves the drink for a lot longer), it became a male-dominated practice, through women continued to sell it.

A woman fishing with a net. 

With the expansion of towns and cities in the medieval period, women found other opportunities to earn an income. Many unmarried young women opted for service as it gave a yearly wage and moved from the countryside to secure a place. Women also worked as huxters. They would buy produce such as bread, eggs, vegetables or other foods and sell from baskets, either door-to-door or on foot in the increasingly busy marketplaces. The female ale sellers went by some rather wonderful names: gannockers, tapsters or tranters. The money earned in these ways was pitifully small.

A woman offering a man a loaf of bread. 
Medieval towns also saw the rise of the apprentice, where a young person could be trained to learn a craft over many years. But there were no female guilds, and female apprenticeships do not occur in large numbers in the records. The skilled weavers, for instance, were men.

A woman carding wool. 
The preparatory work for weaving, such as combing, carding and spinning of the wool tended to be done by women who would be paid little for this work. Silk weaving developed as an all-female craft in London, yet the silk-women only formed a collective, not a guild.

A woman spinning.

Laundry was an all-female preserve. Women did their own washing at home, often using unpleasant substances such as lye and urine as cleaning agents. They also worked as laundresses, travelling to the houses of the rich to carry out their duties. Naturally, the work in the laundry is dismissed by some chroniclers as a hot-bed of gossiping. It must in reality have been back-breaking.

A woman beating a man with a stick- a field day for the gossips!
Moving to towns and cities made women vulnerable to exploitation. Prostitution was rife. Female prostitutes were tolerated in fourteenth century London so long as they wore a yellow hood that marked them out. This was to save confusion on behalf of men who might mistake a respectable woman for a prostitute.

I like chain-mailed heroes as much as the next medieval history fan. But for me, these forgotten women were pretty darned heroic too.

A fearless woman taking on a wild boar. 
Speaking as an everyday woman, I'm so privileged I have my life--and not theirs.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Dyer, Christopher: Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press (2002)
Gies, Frances & Joseph, Life in a Medieval City, New York, Harper & Row (1981)
Gies, Frances & Joseph, Life in a Medieval Village, New York, Harper Perennial (1991)
Leyser, Henrietta, Medieval Women: a Social History of Women in England 450-1500, London, Orion Books Ltd. (1996)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

Note: I originally posted this article or an edited version of it on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on April 17th 2015.

Wednesday, April 1

The Medieval Origins of Popular Games

Yes, it seems impossible that already in 2015, it's time to greet the month of April. We may still be huddling in inclement weather but we know, just as the medievals did, that Spring is on its way and with it the chance for children to play outdoors during the long evenings. What's less well known is that many of the games still played today by young and old alike have their origins in medieval times.

Medieval Zodiac

Hide and Seek

This game first appears in records around 1042. It was originally called "Hyde and Squeak" and involved getting a cow (the "hyde") to sit on a mouse and make it squeak. Pest control was a major issue for medieval people, and it is thought that the game was introduced to alleviate the relentless tedium. Pictorial records exist that clearly reflect the fun that could be had. Some people were less good at following the rules, such as the early twelfth century painters, Hildebert and Everwin.

Hildebert and Everwin with Mouse (and Lion)

Here we see Hildebert merely cursing the mouse and has his lectern balanced on a lion. That is a different game, and has fallen out of favour, especially in Las Vegas.


These days an easy game that can be played anywhere. Its medieval origins were more demanding. Players had to each collect a "Ticke, a Tacke and a Toe". For most, the Tick and the Tack were straightforward: people had any number of bodily parasites and it was easy enough to find a nail. The Toe was also easy to acquire as most people had at least one.

Not-so-welcome visitor- the Tick

But as a game to pass the long winter nights, it tended to be good for only about five minutes. In the late 1300s, we see the Toe rule changing to mean "the toe of another."  The chroniclers report a huge surge in popularity but for the very ticklish, it brought nothing but misery. One abbot in Munich refused to go to sleep for three months for fear of having his digits grabbed.

Follow the Leader

It is interesting that this game was first popularized by medieval kings. The game started with someone at the head of the line. Anyone who didn't follow the action of the leader was out of the game, in a slain-in-battle sort of way. The last person standing was the new leader. Some uncles liked to play this game with their nephews but there are no records of what the nephews thought of it.

Uncle Richard III


The medieval version of this game was very different to what we play today. It involved scanning your friends and neighbours for any suspicious eruptions. At the first sight of a boil or pustule, you ran away, screaming "I'm not flipping catching that!" It is a game that has prompted much debate amongst historical fiction writers and some real historians. Central to the controversy is the precise date of the game's origins. There are those who have evidence for February 11th 1406, a claim vociferously challenged by the February 12th 1406 Society. There was an ugly scene at a recent Historical Novel Society Conference where the issue was debated by a panel and a plastic cup of water was spilled. The organisers of the upcoming HNS Denver 2015 conference have decided to cancel their related panel as a precaution.

Good call, HNS!

Rock, Paper, Scissors

A game which has evolved over time. In the general absence/rarity of paper or scissors, it was just called "Rock". Players pelted each other with rocks until one person fell down. Or ran away. It is a topic in history that continues to fascinate. The most recent edition of Exciting Archaeology reported on a find from a garden in the north-west of England that bears an uncanny resemblance to a description from a text from 1308: “A nyse whyte one, of goodly size, that fittes in the hand and has mosse on that it does not slippe.”

© Exciting Archaeology 2015


We may think of it as modern, but Monopoly is a corruption of the early medieval game of "Mon au poly." The name can be translated from the Old French as Mine of Many, or the Old English Kiddersham dialect, meaning "The Whole Boiling Lot." Again, it was mostly played by kings. Henry II and his sons, Richard and John, were keen players, especially at Christmas.

Henry II with sons Richard & (cheat) John
© 2015 E.M. Powell 

Henry and Richard were extremely skilled, but there are accounts that John frequently stole from the bank and had a tendency to tip the board over when he was losing.

Game of Thrones

Our last game, which, ironically, is often mistakenly believed to have medieval origins. But it doesn’t. Honest.

This one belongs to George.
I wouldn't, if I were you.


Exciting Archaeology, Volume III, February 2015
Fun With Leeches: A Dorling Kinderegg Rough Picture Guide
Martin, George R. R.: A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), Bantam; Reprint ed.(2011)
Oxen Droppings and Other Related Signs, 1233-34: Oxford University Press
Powell, E.M.: King John: Tyrannical Rex: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Powell, E.M.: King John: Good With Kittens and Liked Rainbows: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Powell, E.M: Kitten Slaughter- the making of King John: Bandwagon Press (2015)
Starkey, David: History: A Catholic Conspiracy.(Various eds.)

All images Public Domain unless otherwise stated. I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.
Please note: the information in this post is only ever valid on April 1st. Except the part about King John cheating at Monopoly. That is historical FACT. Thank you.

- See more at: