Season 3, Episode 3: Transcript

[Reverb Effect Introduction]

Allie Goodman: Care for children, food for families, clean clothes, a healthy living space. These fundamental tasks, which so often feel invisible or unseen, keep our worlds revolving. In other words, housework is the foundation of any society. In the United States, these tasks fall predominantly to women, which has disproportionately prevented them from taking on other occupations that pay better, involve them in global problem solving, or world domination. Pushed and pulled between the needs of their families and the need to earn a living, women have wrestled with what is known as the “double burden,” a burden fueling the wage gap, for centuries. 

The history of housekeeping usually considers how technology, such as refrigerators and washing machines, changed housework. While technological changes make housework physically easier, why women still do the majority of housekeeping gives it an intellectual history.  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, from the Black Death to Covid-19, influence housekeeping and amplify patriarchy?

Welcome to Season 3, Episode 3 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your season producer, Allie Goodman. In this episode, Professor Katherine French will show how the Black Death, which came in the middle of the fourteenth century, similarly disrupted domestic life and helped facilitate gendered dynamics of housework that we still struggle with today. Professor French is the J Frederick Hoffman Professor 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 now.

Section I

Katherine French: In October of 1498, Alice Bartlett, a wealthy London widow, was dying. But her earthly matters were not yet resolved. Lying in her bed, surrounded by her servants and relatives, Alice dictated her will to her priest. She had much to leave, and her will gives us a window into her  material world—her house and what it contained. 

Alice lived in a typical well-to-do house. It was large, two- or three-stories, and lay in the south-central parish of St. Martin Vintry, not far from the modern-day Southwark Bridge. The house had a central hall, where she had hosted guests, a kitchen, probably in the back, a parlor facing the street, and five chambers, two of which were used as bedrooms. She had decorated her hall with tapestries and matching cushions and seat covers; these were costly items, designed to impress. Hangings also covered the walls of other rooms, including her own bedroom, and there was even a spare set stored in the “chamber over the parlor.” Alice’s room also held her elaborately festooned bed, complete with a feather mattress, red bed curtains, and a canopy covered with stars.

Alice Bartlett: I bequeath to John Baldry my second-best coverlet of tapestry work, a plain tablecloth for daily use, and blue curtains now in the dark chamber. I bequeath to Bess Brook my cousin my worst prayer beads and the coverlet now on my bed. I bequeath to Isabel Malby my servant the covering that lies upon my bed in the summer and my plain salt cellar that I use every day. I bequeath to Margaret Holbroke my best prayer beads. 

Katherine French: Her descriptions distinguish which things went to which beneficiary. But her descriptions also help us understand how Alice ran her house, providing clues to who did what in the medieval world.

As Alice delineated her household possessions, she also explained that she rotated her bedding with the seasons, had plain table linens and dishes for daily use, and for special occasions she had a new set of dishes, along with spoons embellished with acorns, wreathes, or silver knobs, covered silver salt cellars, and silver cups adorned with suns. Her decorating expressed her taste, piety, and cultivation, which in turn affirmed and enhanced her family’s status. Through these details, we hear Alice’s pride in her housekeeping skills. But while some of Alice’s household goods might be unfamiliar to us, her attention to them was not; we are conditioned to expect women of wealth and stability to care about this sort of thing. And if HGTV is any indicator, this holds true today: According to one report, 67% of HGTV’s viewers are women, with a median age of 61 and a median annual income of nearly $90,000, much higher than the national average. Yet Alice’s interest in her home is not as timeless as it seems. It is very much the product of the late fifteenth century, a time when consumption was high, and society was grappling with the implications of rapid and profound social change.

Section II

Katherine French: Two centuries earlier, at the start of the 1300s, London had upwards of 80,000 people crammed into a little over a square mile. The city was crowded, and so were its houses. Householders rented out spare rooms, tacked on flimsy additions to create more living space, and slept many people to a single bed. Wages were low, and people spent most of their money on food and rent. Yet even in these crowded conditions, medieval people valued, prioritized, and expected household order. 

Medieval rulers, from the king down to London’s mayor and city council, believed that well-governed households were the foundation of a well-governed kingdom and city. The city laws intoned: 

City Laws: “that every person and householder keep good rule of themselves as well as among their servants” 

Katherine French: and judges described criminals as 

Judge: “men of evil disposition, who fostered evil rule in their houses.” 

Katherine French: The law presumed women played a major role in creating this household order. 

Bracton, Thirteenth Century Legal Treatise: “a woman came of age whenever she can and knows how to order her house and do the things that belong to the arrangement and management of a house, provided she understand what pertains to storage and security, which cannot be before her fourteenth or fifteenth year since such things require discretion and understanding.” 

Katherine French: Preachers used a well-kept house as a metaphor: 

Preacher: “You must confess like a woman cleans her house. She takes a broom and sweeps together all the uncleanness of the household. And lest the dust spread and cover the place, she sprinkles it with water. And when she has gathered all the dirt together, she casts it with great violence out of the door. So, must you do likewise; you must cleanse the house of the soul, and make it holy in the sight of God.” 

Katherine French: While the law and medieval influencers placed women at the center of managing a household, such management involved many tasks—and not all were equal. Today, some people take great pride in cooking up delicious meals, while others avoid cooking at all costs. Some willingly do the laundry, because keeping clothes looking good is a priority. Washing dishes, taking out the garbage, and cleaning house are usually resented, and when possible, outsourced to others, at low wages, or to machinery.

Medieval households took a similar approach. Even modest households had at least one domestic servant. In “The Serving Maid’s Holiday,” a popular moralizing poem, a maid laments her mistress’s constant demands that prevented a secret rendezvous with her lover Jack. Among her jobs are sweeping the floor, lighting the fire, cleaning shoes, and kneading bread. Another poem called “How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter,” admonished 

Poem, “How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter”:

Let your servants be not indolent
And note who works with firm commitment,
Reward them promptly with their pay.
And for those who do little, just send them away.
With many tasks when time is short
Then go yourself and do this work
All will be the better for your model.
As pride, rest, and idleness are not economical. 

Katherine French: Relying on medieval literature to tell us how medieval people actually lived is a lot like relying on HGTV to tell us how anyone lives today. It creates aspirations for viewers, which have an impact on the products available in stores and choices real people make, but they don’t tell us what people actually do. Likewise, medieval moral literature tells us what medieval Londoners aspired to. But it leaves questions: Did housewives really supervise their households? Who worked as domestic servants? While the servant in “The Serving Maid’s Holiday” is a young woman, the servants in “How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter,” are implied, not described.

Medieval society had different kinds of household organizations. In rural aristocratic households, servants were young men, who gained valuable training and formed important social and political connections from their positions. Men, therefore, performed most of the cleaning, provisioning, and cooking. Elite mothers did not fully care for the children either, as wet nurses, nannies, and tutors fed, clothed, bathed, and taught the children. Peasant women, however, did much of the work within the house, while men worked in the fields. 

In London, and indeed, in any medieval city, the boundary between business and domestic tasks was porous. Merchant and artisan households combined manufacturing and trade with domesticity, with wives helping their husbands manage house-based workshops and businesses. Some women were skilled artisans or experienced merchants in their own right and many urban women ran their own businesses, such as weaving silk ribbons, brewing and selling ale, mending clothes, hawking unsold produce at the end of the day, or practicing midwifery. Large urban populations gave employers the upper hand, making the majority of urban domestic servants men. 

The origins of these patterns lie in many places: the military focus of aristocratic life, the lure of cities for male employment, and the higher status of male as opposed to female domestic servants. What is also clear is that biology was less important than we might think.

Section III

Katherine French: Things began to change in 1347 when the Black Death, that is bubonic plague, arrived in Europe via Asian trade routes. There had been no outbreak of plague in Europe since the sixth century and Europeans could do little to protect themselves. 

Robert of Avesbury, London clerk, 1348: It began in England in the county of Dorset about  the first of August and immediately progressed without warning from place to place. It killed a great many healthy people removing them from human concerns in the course of a morning. Those marked for death were scarcely permitted to live longer than three or four days. It showed favor to no one except for a very few of the wealthy. On the same day 20, 40, or 60 bodies, and on many occasions many more, might be committed for burial together in the same pit. The pestilence arrived in London at about the first of November and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemas and Easter, more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other churchyards in the city. 

Katherine French: The mortality rate was between 40 and 50 percent. The plague would return every twenty to thirty years and England’s population would remain low, not reaching pre-plague levels until the sixteenth century.

Survivors of the Black Death found themselves living in a world that was both very familiar but also very different. Buildings, roads, and institutions like the law or city government survived but there were far fewer people to maintain them or use them. The loss of so many people created a severe labor shortage, forcing employers to raise wages. In London, the Saddlers Guild complained to the city council 

Saddler’s Guild Representative: “we could not find apprentices or workers to help us, and that conditions were so evil that a gallon of beer had doubled in price and other necessaries had also risen in like proportion.” 

Katherine French: The king and the parliament tried to freeze wages with the Statute of Laborers. 

Statute of Laborers: Because of the malice of servants who were idle and unwilling to work after the pestilence without taking outrageous wages, it was recently ordained by our lord the king, with the assent of the bishops, nobles, and others of his council, that such servants, both men and women, should be obliged to work for salaries and wages which were customary before the pestilence. 

Katherine French: As we might expect, efforts to freeze wages were unsuccessful, and workers from skilled artisans to piece workers demanded and received higher wages. 

Higher wages gave many people access to items that previously had been too expensive. They bought more clothes, and better food and drink, which they ate and drank off of new and more stylish dishware. They put soft mattresses, down pillows, and brightly colored bed curtains, quilts, and bedspreads on their beds; they put more furniture, and decorative wall hangings with coordinating throw pillows in larger and nicer houses. These items made their lives more comfortable and more enjoyable. With decreased demand, London rents declined and there was no need to rent a tiny room in a larger house. Households could spread out. It was no longer necessary to sleep among your tools, or eat sitting on your bed.

With increasingly cluttered houses, however, someone had to care for the new clothes, dishes, and bedding. Unless clean clothes were to be mixed in with pots and pans, tending to these new things created new household tasks. What priorities and categories guided medieval decisions about household organization? Who was to do this work? And what role did the lack of people play? 

Part of the process of adopting new objects or technology is deciding who gets to use them, who cares for them, who fixes them. Proper use can be coded by status and by gender. Things—whether weapons or lipstick—are routinely gendered and using them is part of what creates and reinforces gender roles. We don’t have advertisements, marketing surveys, or diaries to help us understand how medieval consumers learned to use their new goods, but looking at who people like Alice Bartlett left their possessions to when they died is one way of seeing who medieval people expected to use them. 

After the plague, in the flush of rising consumption, Londoners left the items most associated with housekeeping to men and women equally. For example, in 1384, Martha Russell gave her former servants Alice and William each a water basin and a pitcher. Without indoor plumbing, servants used these items to carry water around the house. Londoners also thought dishes, linens, and bedding equally appropriate bequests for men and women. In the first century after the plague, up until about 1450, Londoners employed both men and women as domestic servants, because a clean and ordered house was more important than having a young man do this work. After all, in a labor shortage, gender roles are expensive, because they further limit the people to do a job, further raising wages. 

In fact, Londoners in this era associated very few items to one sex or the other. Weapons and books were the exception, and they were mostly given to men and used by men. Women generally didn’t fight and had lower rates of literacy, so the gender of these two items doesn’t surprise us. But weapons and books serve as a test case, because they show us that gendering items was not random or accidental. Now, if we want to see how housekeeping changed in London houses, we can try to find when Londoners started gendering the items used by domestic servants in feeding, caring for and managing a household, and its residents—that is dishes, table linens, bedding, chests, water basins and pitchers.

This happened after about 1450, a century after the plague, when Londoners began to associate these very items with women. At the same time, other items such as cushions, wall hangings, and fancy cups—all of which had value, and which were also important to a properly furnished house—remained ungendered. The gendering of household furnishings did not change across the board, but the items that Londoners increasingly bequeathed to women were the ones that played a central role in housework. This change reflected changes in who was doing the housekeeping in London houses. While before the plague, London domestic service had been largely a male job in London, by the fifteenth century, it had become a low-status female job, often carried out by poorly paid immigrants from the countryside.

Section IV

Katherine French: But why, exactly, did this happen? 

In the mid-fifteenth century London experienced a serious recession that affected men and women differently. The recession grew out of an imbalance in trade between Europe and Asia and a lack of gold and silver to mint money. As a result, manufacturing slowed, unmarried women could no longer get jobs as pieceworkers, and the wives of artisans could no longer work in their husband’s workshops. The only work unmarried women could reliably find was domestic service—and married women now had more time to supervise them. Some parents gave housekeeping goods to their daughters and nieces to help them set up a household in a difficult economic climate, and these practices persisted beyond the recession. They reflect a tightening of the association between women and the house, and an increase in the numbers of women who sorted, cleaned, tidied, and managed all the things that the rise in consumption had brought into houses. 

In changing household organization, Londoners tapped into the existing religious and legal discourse that associated women with housekeeping, but had not matched their lived experiences—either before the plague or in the first century after it. In this time of economic uncertainty, however, the largely illusory and yet seemingly timeless image of women managing the household and doing the housework provided comfort and certainty, providing a moral frame that motivated Londoners to organize their household that way. In a similar fashion, HGTV programming reinforces the idea of family togetherness, a moral frame that helps explain the current popularity of open-concept floor plans. While demography and economics shaped London’s 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. 

Although some women resented the effort, drudgery, and tedium of housekeeping, other women found meaning in this work, especially its supervisory aspects. Housekeeping allowed them to create a beautiful place to live, gave them managerial authority, and added status and respectability to their family; housekeeping offered women moral authority and domestic power.

Section V

Katherine French: By the mid-sixteenth century, housewife was a label applied to women regardless of marital status. It meant a woman had the skills of housekeeping, something she may have even learned as an apprentice. As such, housekeeping became a means of judging a women’s reputation, both in terms of the kind of house she kept, and the way she kept her own body. 

As the US is seeing in the current pandemic, housework: who does it, how its components are valued, and its relationship to women’s social status are all sensitive to material and economic realities, but also rooted in the underlying structures of patriarchy. In the US Labor Department’s August 2021 jobs report, only 12 percent of the new jobs went to women. Women are staying home in greater numbers than men, and shouldering a greater proportion of the household and childcare responsibilities. According to one estimate, at this rate, it will take women nine years to return to their pre-pandemic employment levels. 

Housekeeping is not timeless, but subject to economic changes, demographics, and ideological beliefs. It is something that gives some women a creative outlet, as evidenced by the popularity of HGTV and the seasonal decorations available at craft stores or at Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn, but its responsibilities also create complicated dynamics, amplified by patriarchy, that hold women back in their careers, generate animosity between neighbors, and attract attention; if garbage is on the lawn, windows are broken, or children are neglected. Women’s role as housekeepers is also not natural or inevitable. Six centuries later women still struggle with caring for a house and a career, so much so that the issue is now a major source of political debate in the US. Recently the US Congress failed to pass a family leave policy and fund daycares because many in Congress believe it will cost too much, while throughout the US, businesses large and small are hampered by the lack of workers, in part because women can’t find adequate, affordable daycare and staying home is just easier in the shor term. 


Allie Goodman: Thanks for listening, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Professor Katherine French. Another thank you to voice actors in order of appearance Frank Espinosa, Bethany Donovan, and Christopher DeCou. Our editorial board is Professor Henry Cowles, Alexander Clayton, Christopher DeCou, and Hannah Roussel. Gregory Parker is our executive producer, and I’m your season producer and host, Allie Goodman. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.

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