A Medieval Home Companion by Tania Bayard

A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century, is translated and edited by Tania Bayard. Housekeeping manuals get relatively little attention in comparison with romances or histories, so I was surprised to find many copies of this little book at Half-Price Books. The introduction does a good job of summarizing the contents:

Around the year 1393, an elderly citizen of Paris married a girl of fifteen. Although this in itself was not unusual at the time[1], what is remarkable is the fact that the old gentleman, knowing his inexperienced young bride would probably one day be a widow, felt it necessary to write her a book of moral and domestic instruction so she would do him credit with a second husband. In doing so, he left for future generations a priceless document that describes how a medieval woman was expected to behave toward her husband, perform her religious duties, conduct herself in society, manage her servants, plant her garden, and care for her household.

Ms. Bayard acknowledges the scholarly work done with this original manuscript, but notes that she thinks this document should be made accessible to the general public. She has kept only a quarter of the original work, choosing passages to which she believes modern readers can most easily relate: “what he has to say about how a wife should care for her husband’s bodily comforts; all of his chapters on gardening and managing a household; most of his suggestions about shopping, cooking, and other practical matters; and a few of his recipes.” She omits most of the passages concerning religion, partially because she feels they would bore most modern readers, but also because reading them without background knowledge would give the non-medievalist the idea that he is a “dictatorial male chauvinist.”

Much of the advice given in this book is nothing surprising. The author urges his young wife to make sure that she’s respectably dressed when she leaves the house so that she doesn’t look “drunken, silly, or ignorant….” Chastity and wisdom are two of the highest qualities to be pursued. Run a clean household. Stir the stew often so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Don’t be a slacker. Etc.

Some material is more specific to Paris in this period, particularly gardening information. The author lists planting, pruning, and harvesting times for various herbs and vegetables. The section on servants, which just means anyone who would be hired to work in the household or on the land, gives a wealth of information. It not only gives specifics on what type of people would be hired for what type of jobs, but it also has extensive detail on what techniques a woman should use to effectively manage these people.

Some of the material will be surprising to the types who pick up this book expecting tales of bizarre ignorance of spousal abuse. For example, the author says that husbands and wives should conceal each other’s follies when one makes a mistake. He gives the example of a couple who have three children. The wife admits to the husband that one of their three children is not his. She is about to tell him which one, but he stops her, saying that he doesn’t want her or the children to be shamed, nor does he want to risk that he might come to love one child any less than the other two. Rather, forgiveness and understanding is all that is necessary for both.

Pinning down the social class of this book’s recipient is difficult, particularly because medieval class doesn’t correspond to modern class, but we’d probably call her a member of the upper middle class. The wife who read this book performed some labor herself, but was also engaged laborers of various types. From the instructions, she would hire some people for a specific job (fix a shoe), some for short-term work (the harvest season), and some for constant employment (domestic work). However, the wife would still be the one to change her own bed linens and perform some household duties, so her job is not entirely managerial, though it’s notone of hard labor.

I have never seen the original manuscript that this book is translated from. However, I can judge that Bayard produces a clean, efficient end product. Her writing is efficient and as engaging as possible for a book on this content. The text is interspersed with woodcuts that are not part of the original ms, but are helpful visual aids for an unfamiliar period.

Table of Contents

  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • The Husband’s Prologue
    • Worship, Dress, Deportment, and Speech
    • Chastity
    • Love
    • How to Care for a Husband
    • Gardening
    • The Household
    • The Kitchen
    • Other Small Matters

[1] I disagree with this statement, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to confidently challenge it.

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