She shall have knowledge of all sorts of hearbes

‘I hope my mate will ease my state’

These fragments come from The English Housewife, written by Gervase Markham, and first published in 1615.  Markham’s book, which contained advice on everything from perfuming gloves to curing the plague, became an instant best-seller and served as a domestic bible for middle class women everywhere. What follows are his general remarks on what constitutes an ideal housewife, illustrating the extent to which the role of wives and women in the 17th century was tightly bound up in notions of the home.

She ought, above all things, to be of an upright and sincere religion, and in the same both zealous and constant; giving, by her example, and incitement and spurre, unto all her family to pursue the same steppes, and to utter forth by the instruction of her life these vertuous fruits of good living.  Let our English Housewife learn from the worthy Preacher and her Husband those good examples which she shall with all carefull diligence see exercised among her servants.  It is meete that our Housewife be a woman of great modesty and temperance as well inwardly as outwardly; inwardly as in her behaviour and carriage towards her Husband, wherein she shall shunne all violence of rage, passion and humour, coveting less to direct than to be directed, appearing ever unto him pleasant, amiable and delightfull, and though occasion, mishaps, or the misgovernment of his will may induce her to contrarie thoughts, yet vertuously to suppresse them, and with a milde sufferance rather to call him home from his error, than with the strength of anger to abate the least sparke of his evil, calling into her minde that evil and uncomely language is deformed though uttered even to servants, but most monstrous and ugly when it appears before the presence of a Husband.

Outwardly as in her apparrell and dyet, both which she shall proportion according to the competency of her husband’s estate and calling, making her circle rather straight than large, for it is a rule if we extend to the uttermost we take awaie increase, if we go a hayre breadth any part, wee builde stronge forts against the adversities of fortune.  Let the Housewifes garments bee comely, cleanly and strong, made as well to preserve the health as adorn the person, altogether without toyish garnishes, or the glosse of light colours, and as farre from the vanity of new and fantastic fashions, as neere to the comely imitations of modest Matrons.  Let her dyet be wholesome and cleanly, prepared at due hours and cookt with care and diligence, let it be rather to satisfie nature than our affections, and apter to kill hunger than revive new appetites. Let it proceede more from her owne yarde than the furniture of the markets.

 One of the most principal vertues which doth belong to our English Housewife is the preservation and care of the familie touching their health and soundnesse of bodie.  It is meete that shee have a physicall kinde of knowledge how to administer many wholesome receipts or medicines for the good of their healths, as well to prevent the first occasion of sicknesse, as to take away the effects and evil of the same when it hath made seazure on the body.

I hold the first and most principall knowledge of our Housewife to be in Cookery, together with all the secrets belonging to the same; because it is a duty really belonging to the woman, and shee that is utterly ignorant therein may not by the lawes of strickt justice challenge the freedome of marriage, because indeed she may love and obey, but she cannot serve and keepe him in that true dutie which is ever expected.  She shall have knowledge of all sorts of hearbes belonging to the Kitchin, whether they bee for the pot, for sallets, for sauces, for servings, or for any other seasoning or adorning, which skill of knowledge of the hearbes she must get by her owne labour and experience. She shall also know the time of the yeare, month and moone in which all hearbes are to be sowne, and when they are in the best flourishing, that gathering all hearbes in their height of goodnesse, she may have the prime use of the same.

After her knowledge of preserving and feeding her family, our English Housewife must also learne how, out of her own endeavours, she ought to cloath them outwardly and inwardly; outwardly for defence from the colde and comelinesse to the person; and inwardly for cleanliness and neatness of the skinne, whereby it may be kept from the filth of sweat or vermine.

When our English Housewife knowes how to preserve health by wholesome physic, to nourish by good meate, and to cloth the body with warme garments, she must not then by anie means be ignorant in the provision of bread and drinke; she must know both the proportions and compositions of the same; and for as much as drinke is in everie house more generallie spent than bread, being indeede made the verie substance of all entertainment.

To conclude, our English Housewife must be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchfull, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good Neighbour-hood, wise in discourse but not frequent therein, sharpe and quicke of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affaires, comfortable in her counsailes, and generally skilfull in all the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation.

In subsequent posts I’ll be exploring Markham’s chapters on cooking, gardening, and preserving, and sharing some of his household tips and tricks.

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  • March 1, 2011 - 4:51 am | Permalink

    “chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchfull, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good Neighbour-hood, wise in discourse but not frequent therein, sharpe and quicke of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affaires, comfortable in her counsailes, and generally skilfull in all the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation.”

    My wife to a T.
    Good post.

  • February 5, 2011 - 11:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Almasi, Hope your wife has some comely cloathes. Thanks for your comments. In addition to reading habits, and print culture, the text also tells us a great deal about the expectations placed on a wife, and indeed, on the limitations of her role. That she was at the centre of domestic life is no surprise, but the impossible moral strictures to which she is bound, delineated in Markham’s description, attest to the religious patriarchal control which made it so difficult for women to have any degree of authority or agency.

  • February 5, 2011 - 10:32 am | Permalink

    Great post! Thanks for this. I loved the last paragraph the most, I’m going to show it to my wife. What do you think? Hahaha. And on the top of this, I’m going to blame you for the expectations… Of course, written by a man. Now seriously, this is a very important document for understanding early 17th C quasi-middle class reading habits and print culture.

  • February 4, 2011 - 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Lady D, I think we have to accept that these sorts of books were written by men because women were far too busy removing staines from linnen and bottling cherries to bother with publishing.

  • February 4, 2011 - 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the kind comments, and Barbara, for sharing on your blog. Great to know people enjoy the snippets!

  • February 4, 2011 - 3:56 pm | Permalink

    lovely post – but notice it is a man who prescribes as to how the ideal housewife should comport herself?

  • February 4, 2011 - 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Great idea for a post! Featured it on one of my blogs looking at 17th century women in America. Thank you so much. Barbara

  • February 4, 2011 - 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Nice post thank for sharing.

  • February 4, 2011 - 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, so pleased you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for tips on scented gloves and serving a banquet!

  • February 4, 2011 - 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Love this. Thanks for sharing it.

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