Stereotypes about the early modern household and the reality

When people think about the early modern household, most think of the stereotypes regarding to gender roles. Even though I took modules on early modern topics before, taking HR650 allowed me to realise some of my thoughts on the early modern household were not necessarily correct. This blog post will look at the stereotypes about gender roles, the spaces/rooms in the household and their purpose, and household hierarchy. I will try to give an example for certain cases which proves the stereotypes slightly or fully incorrect.

  1. Household hierarchy

The household was seen as the husband’s castle, but the household was not organized “towards a rigorous spatial segregation of the sexes”.[1] Instead the lines between household work was blurred, the tasks overlapped between the spheres. [2] The wife did not have as much power as the husband, but her power within the household was still significant. Mistresses had to overtake as the head of the household when their husbands were away, which meant their authority was respected within the household. In addition as Amanda Flather suggests in Gender and space in Early Modern England, most of the time women had the keys for the house/rooms, which gave them the freedom and power to go wherever and whenever they wanted within the house.[3]

Family picture from early modern England
Picture taken from: https://www.elizabethi.org/contents/essays/marriage.htm


After the husband and wife, their children were next in the household hierarchy. Even though they did not have much power, they were still above the servants. After the children in the hierarchy, the male servants (if there were any) were next and lastly the female servants. Female servants had the least power. (Plus they could be assaulted by their masters too) Servants did not have any privacy as they did not own the keys for their own rooms, which meant their master and mistress could walk into their room if they wanted to.

  1. Gender roles

 The stereotypes of early modern gender roles are usually about how women belonged in the kitchen, mostly working within the household, and not having any power in their marital relationship. Some primary sources suggest the opposite however. As the example of Alice Le Strange’s household records show us, wives could handle money, even sort out some businesses. She noted their financial situation; how much money they earned, what did they spend that money on, basically about the movement of money within their household. She wrote about everything related to the household.[4]

Pages from Alice Le Strange’s record book
Image taken from: https://norfolkwomeninhistory.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/lest-bk15.jpg

Furthermore it was not only Alice Le Strange dealing with the financial situation of the household, since women had the keys, they most likely knew where the money of the household was stored. Women also payed bills and rent, (even sold goods,) which means they did not only do the domestic tasks.[5] This proves the theory of how a marriage in the early modern times was more an economic partnership rather than a love based relationship.
In addition Alice Clark’s research suggests that in the pre-industrial economy when many businesses where operated in the household, women had a chance to take part of the agricultural work and trade.[6] The borderlines between men’s and women’s jobs were blurred, everybody was part of most tasks.

  1. Rooms/spaces of the household

The size and the numbers of the room within a household depended on where the house was located. Houses in towns and on the countryside looked significantly different, especially their layout. Based on the drawing found in The English Husbandman, the kitchen and other food preparation rooms (either for their own consuming or to sell products) were one third of the whole household. These rooms were clearly not open to visitors. But surprisingly not only women and servants went into these rooms, children and husbands went into them as well. From the dining parlor (marked B on the picture below) there was a room for the mistresses’ use (marked D on the picture below). The reason why I am pointing that out is because according to Gender and space in Early Modern England all sexes could enter all rooms.[7] Even though some room names included their owner, it might have been used by everyone living there.

The ideal house plan by Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman (1613)
  1. Spaces within the household and their purpose

As mentioned before there were no gender specific rooms in the household, the lines were blurred. For example when we think of a kitchen, we associate the space with women and servants. Even though it was the place where women and servants actually worked together, everybody in the household could come and go. Moreover, some husbands/men actually were interested in cookery. There was a discussion about this topic in one of the seminars which I found very interesting. The discussion was about how not all elite women kept records of the household, sometimes their husband took over. They could add small changes to some recipes as well. Before taking this module I would never have imagined men taking an interest in cookery or recipe noting in this time period.  Some liked to experiment, which means they were welcome in the kitchen and even used it. Interestingly since medicine making and cookery were similar to the processes of practicing chemistry, at this age women were naturally in the “scientific field”. Even though women most likely had more knowledge on the subject, only men could publish their discovery, such as Henry Baker’s observation of the blackcurrant jelly to cure sore throat. This is another example of how women were associated with medicine and healing, but it was still only men being able to publish their discoveries.

In conclusion it can be said that even though husbands/masters were the head of the household, their mistress/wife had more power than the stereotypes let us believe. Spaces within the household were not gender specific, for example men did go about the kitchen too. In addition men actually took part in cookery and recipe books even though the stereotypes suggest those were female task.

Bibliography

Flather, Amanda, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007).

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Markham, Gervase, The English Husbandman (1613).

Whittle, Jane and Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

…….

[1] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 40

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 75

[4] Jane Whittle, Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and gender in the early seventeenth-century household: the world of Alice Le Strange (Oxford, 2012), Chapter 2.

[5] Amanda Flather, Gender and space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2007), p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 43


2 thoughts on “Stereotypes about the early modern household and the reality

  1. The myth busting is great, and it’s so ordered and neat! I love it! (that makes me sound a little nerdy but its just so pretty)
    Do you think their roles in the household extended beyond the stereotypical because they wanted to do them or were perhaps talked into them?

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you liked it! Personally I think they shared the tasks because it was more practical and efficient that way. So therefore I would say they extended their household tasks because they wanted to. But I could also imagine that they were talked into sharing the stereotypical roles. What do you think?

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