Season 3, Episode 3: The Real Housewives of Medieval London

Housekeeping is not timeless, but subject to economic changes, and demographics, and ideological beliefs. Why is housekeeping associated with women? And how do global disasters influence housekeeping and amplify patriarchy?

In medieval London, survivors of the Black Death found themselves living in a world that was both very familiar and also very different. The loss of so many people created a severe labor shortage, forcing employers to raise wages. With higher wages, more people could purchase more items, live in spacious homes, and employ domestic workers to help care for these spaces and possessions.  In the century before the Plague, such domestic labor was primarily a male enterprise. However, the labor shortage created by the Plague made gender roles expensive, and households experimented with household gender roles. It would take yet another economic crisis a century later for domestic work to become exclusively women’s work. 

How both the care of household goods, and indeed, the goods themselves, came to be gendered was neither natural nor inevitable—it was a historical process. While demography and economics shaped London’s changing labor force, religious and moral literature guided the path of change and then justified the outcome. Taken together, these changes appear as backlash against the new opportunities and choices available to women in the first century after the Plague.

View the full episode transcript.

Historian Biography

Professor Katherine French is the J. Frederick Hoffman Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is currently the associate chair of the Department of History at the University of Michigan. Her new book, Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague, is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Production Credits

Episode Producer: Katherine French

Voice Actors: Frank Espinosa, Bethany Donovan, Christopher DeCou 

Host and Season Producer: Allie Goodman

Executive Producer: Gregory Parker

Editorial Board: Alexander Clayton, Henry Cowles, Christopher DeCou, Allie Goodman, Gregory Parker, Hannah Roussel

Image: Cupboard, late-fifteenth century, British (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1910).

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