The upper story was reserved for the lady and her maidens. It was the part most protected, and was sometimes strengthened further by the placing of heavy doors at short intervals on the staircase which led to this portion of the house. Originally consisting of only one apartment called the solar, this upper floor was gradually enlarged until it comprised several sleeping-rooms, the hall becoming more and more a place for dining and receiving guests and transacting business, while the real family life was lived upstairs. Mediæval manners necessitated some retreat where the women-folk would not be exposed to contact with any passing stranger who might claim hospitality. It seems, however, to have been customary for the lady of the house to sit with her lord, or, in his absence, to preside at the dinner or supper taken in the hall. Her place was at the upper end, away from the entrance, and only privileged guests would be permitted to sit close to her. There was a full acknowledgment of the wife’s social position. To women of rank and station the feudal system brought certain advantages. Every feudal lord was a kind of princeling, and his wife shared his dignities. The state kept up in the feudal castle and in the mediæval manor-house gave the wife considerable importance. As far as social duties went, husband and wife acted as partners, receiving and entertaining the guests together. The unsettled times, which so often kept the lord from his own roof, brought the lady into prominence as sole guardian of the family possessions and interests. She was hedged round with a little circle of ceremony. A great lady always had a body-guard of maidens who lived under the eye of their mistress, while the lord had a similar contingent of pages or squires. It was a general custom in feudal times, and even somewhat later, for the daughters and sons of good families to be sent to live in the household of some knight or gentleman to be instructed in all the arts pertaining to their station. Feudal etiquette required that a great lady should be personally served by ladies of rank. With this personal service was combined training in all domestic accomplishments which it was necessary for a well-bred maiden to acquire. The English fashion of sending children from home was commented on by foreigners as a proof of the lack of parental affection. It was a fashion that was in full vogue in the middle of the fifteenth century. In 1469, Dame Margaret Paston writes to her son, Sir John Paston, about his sister Margery—
“I wuld ye shuld purvey for yur suster to be with my Lady of Oxford, or with my Lady of Bedford, or in sume other wurchepfull place, wher as ye thynk best, and I wull help to her fyndyng, for we be eyther of us werye of other.”
There were large establishments of celibate priests, like that of Bishop Swinfield who lived in the thirteenth century, where no female servants were permitted to enter, and men performed all the domestic work. Unless the nuns of some neighbouring convent were employed in working for these semi-monastic households, there must have been a supply of masculine weavers and spinners. Curiously enough, the only in-door employment in these priests’ houses for which female labour was engaged was that of brewing. The brewing was always exclusively in the hands of women, and it is thought possible that even in ecclesiastical establishments the old custom was followed.
In the Middle Ages it was not usual for women to be employed about the royal palaces except to attend on the queen and princesses. In France, says Meiners, in his “History of the Female Sex”—
But to return to the manor-house. A great lady, who had to superintend and take an active share in the making only of the clothes for the household, would in these days feel herself very hardly pressed, especially if she were also expected to be her own housekeeper and see to the good ordering of the kitchen. But if she had also to manufacture material and to preside over all those initial processes of which she now sees nothing but the results, life would seem an intolerable burden. It was not so thought in mediæval times. It is true that in noblemen’s houses there was a steward, whose business it was to provide the household with necessaries. In the Berkeley family, which may be taken as a typical case, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the steward was accustomed to order, either monthly or quarterly, certain quantities of provisions to be supplied from the manors and farms belonging to the estate. But the lady of the house exercised a general superintendence. Joan, the wife of Thomas, third Lord Berkeley, who lived in the reign of Edward III., is described as—“When the kings lived apart from their consorts, they had in their palaces no persons of the female sex, except a few of those menials whose services are indispensably necessary in every family, such as washerwomen, needlewomen, etc., and even these were removed by Philip the Fair from his court. In like manner the palaces and apartments of the queens and princesses were inaccessible to all persons of the other sex, except the maître de l’hotel and the knights or esquires who mounted guard before the doors and chambers of the princesses. At table, in rising and going to bed, in undressing and dressing, queens and princesses were attended only by their women and maids; and this ancient practice was retained by the queens of France so late as the sixteenth century.”
There was a dignity attached to manual labour which is exemplified in the use of the word “spinster.” It was a term of which women were proud. We now confine it to unmarried women, but as late as the sixteenth century it was used by married women of the better class. A gentlewoman who married a man of inferior rank claimed the title of spinster as a sign of her good birth and gentle breeding.“a vertuous lady and great huswife and a wise overseer of such household affayres as were proper to her sex and government.... When shee came to theis farm-houses (as often shee did) to oversee or take accompt of her dairy affaires, shee oftentimes spent in provisions at a meale there the valewe of 4d. and 4d. ob. [4¼d. about] whereof allowance was afterwards given to the Accomptant before her husband’s Auditor at the end of the year. And some tymes also a cheese of two pound weight was at such a tyme spent by her attendants. And in such huswifely courses this virtuous Lady spent a part of her aged and weake yeares untill her death.”
Life was, however, by no means all work for the ladies of the manor-house. There was time and to spare for lighter employments and diversions. We hear a great deal of games, especially of chess, in the households of people of rank, and the number of so-called chamber games shows that the ladies had many hours for recreation. There was dancing too, and lute-playing, and a little conning over ballads and romances. For although the damoiseaux frequently could not sign their names, and found it hard work to spell out the words of the breviary, the demoiselles, if they were not very skilful with the quill, were fairly proficient in the art of reading, which was more cultivated by women than by men.
In the intervals between needlework and housewifery, there would be strolling in the garden on fine days, weaving garlands of flowers—a favourite mediæval pastime; and in summer weather, when the lanes were passable, rambles outside the domain and occasional rides. It is easy to understand how much more essential was the garden to the enjoyment of the women-folk in days when out-door exercise was comparatively difficult. There would be a little visiting among the dependents in the hamlet, and for the lady herself, in cold wet seasons, a great dispensing of herbal medicines for rheums and ague. At all times there were the doles to the poor, gifts which were thought due from the great house. Religious observances occupied a portion of each day, though the length and number of these depended on the character of the inmates. Still, there would be certain outward forms of devotion to be gone through in almost all large households. Few great ladies were so punctilious in their devotions as the Princess Cecil, mother of Edward IV., who used to rise at seven o’clock and say matins with her chaplain. After that she heard a low mass in her chamber. A little later in the morning, when the slight breakfast had been partaken of, she would go to the chapel to hear divine service and two low masses. She said evensong with her chaplain, and then went again to chapel.
In ordinary households the saints’ days would be observed, the great fasts kept, and mass heard at regular intervals. Sometimes the abbot of the neighbouring monastery would pay what might be called a pastoral visit to the lord and lady of the manor, accompanied by some of his monks, mounted on mules, accustomed to pace the rough or miry roads. Besides these clerical visitors, there would be strangers to be entertained every now and then, and if they were of high degree, the lady herself would see that their wants were supplied, and would sup and converse with them.
Life in the mediæval manor-house, though it was a life much secluded from the noise and bustle of the world, was one full of activity and varied occupation. There were so many necessary duties that must be performed, that the absence of entertainment and of the pleasures of art and literature was not felt. The horizon was limited. Interests were concentrated within a narrow compass, but what is unknown is not missed. For the women the manor-house was the world. It is recorded as a merit on the part of Lady Joan Berkeley (mentioned above), that in the forty-two years of her married life she never travelled ten miles from her husband’s houses in Somerset and Gloucester, “much less humered herselfe with the vaine delightes of London and other cities.” If a great lady like the wife of Thomas Lord Berkeley lived so circumscribed an existence, it is easy to imagine how small was the circle of women of less degree. But this limited area of thought and activity does not seem to have been a bad nursery. Writing of the fifteenth century, Sir James Ramsay says—
“If we are led to form an unfavourable opinion of the male aristocracy of the period, far otherwise is it with regard to the ladies. Whether as wives, sisters, or daughters, their letters create most favourable impressions.”In feudal times it was not all noble ladies who could live in peace and seclusion in their homes, protected from strife and rude alarms. The châtelaine was often called upon to take supreme command in her lord’s absence, and if trouble arose and the castle were attacked, the mistress was not only the nominal but the actual head of affairs. We do not find in those days that women shut themselves up and declined to interfere because they did not understand politics. On the contrary, they responded to the need with alacrity. The great lady put down her embroidery-needle and took up the sword when danger threatened. She did not fasten herself up in the solarium with her maidens, but took the command of the household.
A notable heroine in the Wars of the Roses was Lady Joan Pelham, wife of Sir John Pelham, Constable of Pevensey Castle. In 1399 Sir John was in Yorkshire with Henry Duke of Lancaster, fighting against Richard II. Lady Joan, left in Pevensey Castle, was fiercely attacked by the Yorkist forces from Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. The castle was in great danger, and there was much difficulty also in obtaining provisions. The long letter which she wrote to her husband during the siege has the additional interest of being the earliest letter extant written by an English lady.
“My dere Lord,Compiled from sources in the public domain.
“I recommande me to yowr hie Lordesehippe wyth hert and body and all my pore myght, and wyth all this I think zou, as my dere Lorde, derest and best yloved off all earthlyche Lordes; I say for me and thanke yhow my dere Lorde, with all thys that I say before, off your comfortable lettre, that ze send me fron Pownefraite that com to me on Mary Magdaleyn day; ffor by my trowth I was never so gladd as when I herd by your lettre that ye warr stronge ynogh wyth the grace off God for to kepe yow fro the malyce of your ennemys. And dere Lorde iff it lyk to your hyee Lordeshippe that als ye myght, that smyght her off your gracious spede whych God Allmyghty contynue and encresse. And my dere Lorde, if is lyk zow for to know off my ffare, I am here by layd in a manner off a sege, wyth the counte of Sussex, Sudray, and a greet parsyll off Kentte; so that I ne may nogth out, nor none vitayles gette me, bot with myche hard. Wharfore my dere if it lyk zow, by the awyse off zowr wyse counsell, for to sett remadye off the salvation off yhower castell & wt. stand the malyce off ther sehures foresayde. And also that ye be fullyehe enformede off there grett malyce wyker’s in these schyres whyche yt haffes so dispytffuly wrogth to zow, and to zowl castell, to zhowr men, and to zuor tenaunts ffore this cuntree, have yai wastede for a grett whyle. Farewell my dere Lorde, the Holy Trinyte zow kepe fro zour ennemys and son send me gud tythyngs off yhow. Ywryten at Pevensay in the castell, on Saynt Jacobe day last past.“By yhowr awnn pore, J. Pelham.
“To my trew Lorde.”
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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915