A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century

Written by Anonymous (translated and edited by Tania Bayard)

(Harper Perennial, 1991), 139 pages

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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This is an unusual, but very interesting book. It is the heavily abridged book of advice an older man wrote for his young bride – she was fifteen!

Her age is just one of the things that a modern reader will have to get used to when reading this book, and yet the read is worthwhile. Most of the excerpts Bayard passes on to us concern things like how to garden and how to cook. There are many interesting passages, such as that dealing with fleas in the house. The original work was highly religious, but Bayard did not think that would be of much interest to us, so she cut them out. Perhaps she was correct. Nevertheless, its most fascinating passage is highly edifying and beautiful: it is about how to ‘bewitch’ your husband:

Remember the country proverb that says that there are three things that drive a good man from his home: a house with a bad roof, a smoky chimney and a quarrelsome woman… Mind that in the winter he has a good fire without smoke, and that he is well couched and covered between your breasts, and there bewitch him.” (p. 63)

A reader might consider this rather self-serving advice and yet the older man was fully aware that his wife would likely outlive him and remarry. His advice is as much about living well with the next husband as with himself. And, even still, if one were to think that this is still self-serving, recall that the life the author imagines for himself is equally as onerous, if not more so, than the one he prescribes for her:

The case of outside affairs is men’s work: a husband must look after these things, and go and come, run here and there in rain, wind, snow and hail—sometimes wet, sometimes dry, sometimes sweating, at others times shivering, badly fed, badly housed, badly shod, badly bedded…

It is his conclusion to this subject that is the sweetest line of the book, one that I think every husband can respect:

And nothing harms him because he is cheered by the anticipation of the care his wife will take of him on his return…” He outlines some of these, adding at the end, “with other joys and amusements, intimacies, affections and secrets about which I am silent.” (p. 62)

I was edified by this, living as I do in an age where the antagonistic language of ‘rights’ holds sway even amongst married couples.

It is an unusual book. What kind of person would have written such detailed advice, I wonder. And yet for as offputtingly diligent a man as the author seems to have been, he was one with a good and loving heart. This book gives us glimpses into the reality of marriage long before it became a political issue.woodharp2

Additionally, it is filled with wonderful illustrations, woodcut line drawings.

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