The word housewife has meant many things to many people, and most of them never made it into the historical record. Sources are particularly scarce in the pre-industrial period, but here is a little of what we can tease out.
This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.
Over the past eight episodes, I have told you about laundry, sewing, lighting, scrubbing, shopping, trashing, cooking, and refrigerating through history, and I have finished with my discussion of individual tasks. True, there are a lot of tasks I didn’t cover. Some because they are now mostly defunct like churning. And some because they are so not defunct that they deserve a series all to themselves, like childcare. But for now, we’re moving on anyway. The original idea was to have a little retrospective this week about the changing nature of being a housewife, then taking my usual break before the next series. However, this little retrospective has ballooned into not one, not two, but three (and possibly counting) episodes. So today is episode 7.9 The Pre-Industrial Housewife.
Housewives are practically invisible in history, so you may wonder how I can possibly split this into three episodes. And it is true that I have little to say about the ancient world. Their documents were largely written by elite men. They undoubtedly benefited by the labor of the women in their lives, but they had little concern with the details. They had little concern with even the broad overview, to be honest.
They did sometimes manage to say a few kind words after the housewife died. Here’s a Roman epitaph for you: “Here lies buried Amymone, wife of Marcus, best and prettiest, wool-working, dutiful, virtuous, frugal, chaste, and stay-at-home” (quoted in Vanderploeg, 31). Let us hope that Marcus was as flattering during Amymone’s life.
The Analects of Confucius mention women a grand total of three times, and none of them concern the ordinary housewife (Kinney, 148).
The first Chinese text directed at women as housewives was written by the female scholar Bān Zhāo, who lived from 34-116 CE.
Image: A 1690 depiction of Bān Zhāo, Wikimedia Commons
She insisted that her daughters should be educated for their future lives. So far, so good. So she wrote Admonitions for Women and had them copy it out for their own use. It’s full of little gems like “Let a woman modestly yield to others.” And “Let her not refuse to perform domestic duties whether easy or difficult. That which must be done, let her finish completely, tidily, and systematically.” And “Womanly words need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation” (Swann). So far, not so good. It is a relief that some scholars do not think that Bān Zhāo was the beginning and the end of the conversation on how to be a woman even at the time (Goldin). Let us hope they are right. But at any rate, it’s hardly a detailed look on the day-to-day experience of being a housewife.
In the English language, housewife is a word that has been both idolized and vilified, so let’s talk about where it comes from. In Old English, there was only the word wif, which meant both wife and woman. They apparently felt no need to make a distinction; and in some languages that is still true. In French, for example, une femme is “a woman” and ma femme is “my wife.” Same word. But Old English speakers eventually noticed that not all women are wives and they split that out into wifman (which you know as woman) and a husewif (or huswif) from huse (house) and wif (wife or woman).
The earliest written record of this English word that I am aware of is the Sawles Warde, an anonymous allegory from the late 1200s or early 1300s, in Middle English.
Image: A page from the Katherine Group (which includes the Sawles Warde), kept in the British Library.
Ordinarily when things are anonymous I like to make a case for maybe it was an anonymous woman, but in this case, I am not so sure we want to claim it. Though there is no doubt that women were the target audience. This allegory just drips its moral lesson. The man of the house, lord of his castle, is named Wit. As in he’s got some brain cells to rub together. His wife, the huswife, apparently has no brain cells worth mentioning. She is named Will and she (I’m quoting here) “should that household follow her will, she brings it all to ruin unless Wit as lord restrains her better and takes away from her much of what she desires.” (Huber, 3-1).
It is hardly a flattering depiction and certainly not a feminist manifesto. After a great deal of lecturing, the poem says “Now Will, that housewife is entirely silent—who before was so willful—fully guided according to the instruction of Wit, who is husband” (Huber, 48-1).
Like I say, feminist manifesto it is not, but nevertheless, there are a few points about the word housewife. For one thing, it is not a general term for a female. Being the housewife is a position of respect. It means she is not one of the servants. Neither is she one of the daughters, all of whom play a role in the story. Also, I will point out that the root of the allegory is a power struggle between husband and wife. You only need a power struggle if it is in fact conceivable that the wife might win. Apparently there were enough homes where the servants followed the wife’s orders, to make this relatable.
Note that she is also not a spinster. She is in fact, as high status as it was possible for a woman to go, without actually being nobility. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a housewife originally as “a (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household” (O’Connor). Did you catch that word “managing”? I have over the past 8 weeks described an enormous amount of work involved in housework, but the housewife at this stage did not necessarily do it all herself. Rather, she managed the servants and lower status people who did.
In the modern era, having a servant seems like the height of luxury, but only because we have appliances and corporations to do some of our work for us. If you had to wash every dish by hand with water you hauled yourself and heated on a fire you tended yourself, the price of hired labor would start to seem a lot more reasonable. Most housewives had help. Maybe not every day. Maybe not even every year. But even poor families hired help if at all possible. There was simply too much to do otherwise. These women who were servants, not housewives, were either those who were too young to have married yet, too poor to have married well, foreigners, or possibly, slaves. In early colonial America, they were indentured servants. The previous colonists paid their passage because the labor was seriously needed. The servants accepted the situation because they hoped to survive long enough to become housewives themselves.
Men may have written allegories at the housewife’s expense, but she was still the highest status woman around. You wanted to be the housewife. It meant you were CEO of the establishment. Sure you had to answer to the husband as board of directors, but it was a whole lot better than being one of the peons.
A great many women would aspire to being housewives and many of them never reached so lofty a height, either because they never married or died young or never had the resources to establish their own household, rather than working for someone else. Those women were not housewives. What’s interesting is that a housewife was not necessarily even a woman. In 1416, the post of husewif at a poorhouse could be taken by either a man or woman (O’Connor). And it was used as a surname. A Richard Husewif appears on the records of a church in Sussex from around this time too (Sussex, 43). A husewife was also the same word as hussy, which originally meant the same thing, just a different pronunciation. Over centuries, spellings and pronunciations diverged, with the negative female connotations going to the word “hussy.”
Arguably, the most famous woman of this sort from pre-industrial England is not a real historical woman at all, but a fictional one.
She’s Alison, better known as the Wife of Bath, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in 1387ish.
Image: Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere manuscript, from Wikimedia Commons
As far as I can tell, Chaucer does not use the word husewif, just the word wif, but she is of interest anyway for a couple of reasons. For one thing, though she is known as a wife, that does not prevent her from having a profession. “In cloth-making she was excellent” it says in the Prologue “surpassing those of Ypres and Ghent”, which were the Dutch cloth industry centers of Europe at the time. She was also not currently married, though she’s called the Wife of Bath. She’s been married five times though, and she says “Welcome the sixth, whenever he befall!” Throughout, she seems to enjoy considerable freedom.
She says “Blessed be God, that I have wedded five, and they I picked out from all the best, both for their nether purse and their chest” as if she did the choosing. She also travels all over, including to Jerusalem, so she is tied neither to her cloth-making, nor a particular house. She also declares herself to have been the master in all her marriages. “I have the power during my whole life over his proper body, not he.” She also says she is an expert of tribulation in marriage. “That is to say, [she] has been the whip.” She then goes on to explain how she managed her husbands, and she was not above physical abuse.
The Wife of Bath, Will of the Sawles Warde, these strong-willed women (and the men who are afraid of them) pepper the literature and the records where women are involved at all. Over in Paris, the Ménagier of Paris wrote a manual of conduct for his 15-year-old wife. It includes the instruction that she should remember that “his pleasure should come before [hers]” and that she should give him counsel, but only subtly, not nagging, “for the heart of a man findeth it hard to be corrected by the domination and lordship of a woman.” My own experience with 15-year-olds does not suggest that subtlety is their strongest characteristic, generally, so I hope that all went well. Speaking of the entire body of records on the subject, historian Barbara Tuchman comments dryly that “so much emphasis is repeatedly placed on compliance and obedience as to suggest that opposite qualities were more common” (Tuchman, 214).
You might then wonder why so many medieval husbands were so eager to marry all these shrews and henpeckers. But that is clear. The Wife of Bath makes a big deal out of her sexuality, definitely a point to be considered. But she also mentions her land and property, and of course, we already know about her cloth-making business.
A housewife was an economic asset. For starters, medieval marriage involved a transfer of property from parents to children (Searle, 18). Not every parent had land, but even tools and furnishings were of enough value to make a woman economically worth having.
But even beyond that, the word housewife did not mean a woman who had no income, as it was used in later centuries. Depending on time and place, it could be that neither the man nor the woman had income in terms of money because many a household was not really run on a market economy. Everything was a joint effort. Men may have hunted the meat and grown the grain, but it could not be eaten until women cooked it, no trivial task as I explained in episode 7.7. Women may have scrubbed the floors and the laundry, but men made the lye they used for soap. Marriage was not a matter of love (or at least not entirely about love). It was just a solid economic investment in a world where labor was at a premium. If you got married, both of you were better off in your worldly wealth (Cowan, 24-25).
Urban women and women who lived in more established communities may have had more resources and more specialization. But they were still an economic asset making a crucial contribution to the financial well-being of the household. Man or woman (and often the child too) were certainly working. Practically of them at home. And if there was need to refer specifically to the typical women’s jobs the word was not housework. That word did not exist until 1841. But perhaps they’d have used housewifery as in a letter from July 27, 1652, where a godfather urges his goddaughter to leave off on Latin and Greek, but stick to French, a language “which affords many admirable books fit for you as romances, play, poetry, stories of illustrious (not learned) women, receipts for preserving, making creams and all sorts of cookery, ordering your gardens and in Breif all manner of good housewifery” (Verney). In other words, remember you are a woman and stick to your place. But at least it was a place and an important place at that. Men and women had different tasks and yes, men tended to look down on women’s tasks, but economically a wife was still a very good financial investment. Men needed their housewives. They needed the children and the servants too.
Women are rarely mentioned in the records because public life excluded them, but economic life did not (Charles, 6). Many women worked in the fields alongside a husband if he needed the help. Some women were members of craft-guilds in their own right, but many more participated through their husband’s guild (Charles, 6). If a man died, his guild membership was often taken by his widow. This was the only official recognition that his wife did know the business and had probably been helping all along (Charles, 10). This sharing of the family business went right up the social chain. Barbara Tuchman also wrote that “the châtelaine of a castle more often than not had to manage alone when her husband was occupied elsewhere, as he generally was, for the sun never set on fighting in the 14th century. If not fighting, or attending the King, he was generally being held somewhere for ransom. In such case his wife had to take his place, reach decisions and assume direction” (Tuchman, 216-217). She leaves it unsaid, but it seems likely that such a housewife, if we can apply the word, was also responsible for raising that ransom somehow.
And even beyond helping with what was technically men’s work, women also brought in money by expanding their own duties, the women’s work. The lack of sources is a major problem for the details, but even with the sources we have there is a problem of separating a women’s professional work from her housework. For example, brewing was typically a woman’s task, and a woman might sell some of her ale. But does that make her a professional brewster? Or does that make her a housewife who happens to sell any excess that her own family cannot use? The lines are simply unclear because there was no official separation between house and work (Charles, 14).
There is, sadly, not much in the way of diaries or personal narratives from any of these housewives, alewives, or brewsters, so what we know is cobbled together court records, tax records, wills, etc., but it is enough to know quite a few things. For one thing, brewing ale wasn’t for the benefit of party goers. Ale was the drink for the masses. It provided needed calories and, even more important, it was safer to drink than the water. Nearly every housewife would have done so for her own household’s use, regardless of her class status. Any surplus, she could sell, and the sale was regulated. Brewsters appear regularly on the court records for this or that violation. All of them are women because if you weren’t a woman, the word was brewer, not brewster.
The fact that the surname Brewster survives to this day is pretty remarkable given that surnames are generally passed through the father, not the mother. If a housewife had a husband, her brewstering activities were probably secondary income for the family. But if she became a widow, it might ramp up into primary income, a true commercial venture.
There is a general assumption that life for women didn’t change much in the pre-industrial period. That is probably not true, but you can’t document change where there are no sources. One historian who has tried is Judith Bennett who wrote about women as brewsters in England between 1300 and 1700. And what she found was change. In 1300, Bennett concludes that most brewing was small scale, done by women in their own homes. By 1600, brewing was large scale and done by men (Bennett, 9). What happened? Well, brewers started using hops to make beer, rather than ale. It was cheaper and easier to transport. Therefore profits went up. Therefore men with capital and organization moved into the industry and women were pushed to the fringes. (Bennett, 9-10). At least they were in the fringes as far as selling the drink was concerned. Many a woman still brewed for the family. Gervase Markham still gives directions for it in his 1623 bestseller The English Huswife. (Markham, 228), and by that point, many a colonial housewife was still brewing because the commercial product did not reach her.
There were probably a great many more changes and variations, most of which we’ll never know about. But industrialization is just around the corner, and it would hit housewives like a high-speed train. Their lives would never be the same again. But that’s next week’s topic. And the week after that it will be housewives in the 20th century and beyond.
My major source for today was indeterminable because it was all over the place, but there is a list of all the books and articles at the bottom of the transcript on herhalfofhistory.com. You can find me on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook at Her Half of History. Occasionally I even check my email. Reviews are lovely. I really appreciate the ones I get. Thanks!
Charles, Lindsey, and Lorna Duffin. Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England. London, Routledge, 2013.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” Www.poetryintranslation.com, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/CanterburyTalesVI.php. Accessed 30 June 2022.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. United States: Basic Books, 1983.
Goldin, Paul R. “Ban Zhao in Her Time and in Ours.” In After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy, 112–18. University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1wn0qtj.11.
Huber, Emily Rebekah, and Elizabeth Robertson. “Sawles Warde | Robbins Library Digital Projects.” D.lib.rochester.edu, 2016, d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/sawles-warde. Accessed 29 June 2022.
Kinney, Anne. “Women in the Analects.” A Concise Companion to Confucius, edited by Paul R. Goldin, Germany, Wiley, 2017, www.academia.edu/35759725/Women_in_the_Analects. Accessed 29 June 2022.
O’Connor, Patricia T, and Stewart Kellerman. “The Grammarphobia Blog: From “Housewife” to “Hussy.”” Www.grammarphobia.com, 1 June 2016, http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2016/06/housewife-hussy.html. Accessed 30 June 2022.
Swann, Nancy Lee. trans, Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, (New York: Century Co., 1932), pp. 82-90, https://china.usc.edu/lessons-women-ban-zhao-pan-chao-ca-45-116, Accessed June 29, 2022.
Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County. United Kingdom: Sussex Archaeological Society., 1908.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror : The Calamitous 14th Century. New York, Knopf, 1978.
Vanderploeg, Sarah. “The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome: Evidence for the Real Housewives of Ancient Rome: Evidence for the Economic Contributions of Women Economic Contributions of Women.” 2016. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5305&context=etd. Accessed June 29, 2022.
Verney, Frances Parthenope, and Margaret Maria. Memoirs of the Verney Family during the Seventeenth Century : Comp. From the Papers and Illustrated by the Portraits at Claydon House. London, Longmans, Green, 1904, archive.org/details/memoirsofverney01vern/. Accessed 21 June 2022.