Homemakers have been committing their advice to paper for centuries, but do those tips hold up? An ongoing investigation.
The hardest part of turning my apartment into a medieval home is that I don't have a husband. I also don't have servants, or horses, or a dinner table at which to serve white wine that I've reddened myself with flowers grown in my own garden. I do technically have two hearths, but they're part of decorative fireplaces, so I can't cook anything in them.
A Medieval Home Companion, a book I found on a shelf in my office and promptly confiscated for the purposes of this column, assumes that I have all of those things, probably because it was written for housewives in 14th-century France and not women who live alone in Brooklyn in 2017. It's a collection of fragments written by an unnamed man to his new wife, a 15-year-old girl preparing to embark on a journey of housekeeping that will keep her busy until the end of her days, unless her husband dies first and she becomes a nun, which is something the book's author puts forth as a strong possibility.
I went to Medieval Times to celebrate my 11th birthday (I was knighted and everything), so I was excited about what lessons I might take from the book to turn my own one-and-a-half-bedroom home into one more like the 14th-century French countryside homes. Maybe it would tell me to hang more tapestries or start drinking wine from iron goblets, and then I could figure out where to buy a tapestry and an iron goblet (I currently own neither).
Alas, it's less about what a home should look like and more about how hard it was (is?) to run even a small-scale medieval household. One chapter is about how to kill wolves that might threaten your family, while another is about how to heat up your own urine to get stains out of fur, and while I do own a (vintage) mink jacket, it is currently unstained. "Take Care That You Are Respectably Dressed," a chapter that comes in a section about honor and virtue, advises that before leaving their chambers in the morning a woman ought to make sure that hair, cap, kerchief, hood, petticoat, chemise, and collar are all "neatly and simply arranged, so that no one who sees you can laugh at you or mock you." Lately I've been writing at home wearing a Victorian-style nightgown that I ordered from Amazon, so after I read this section I add a robe (for modesty) and a silk scarf (for my hair) and also, for whatever reason, lipstick and earrings.
I wonder how often people were alone in the 14th century. Women especially — if you were rich and/or royal, someone was always guarding your person to protect your virtue or your life, and if you weren't royal, you were almost certainly caring for your own family or for someone else's. The medieval home was, for husbands like the husband of A Medieval Home Companion, a place of refuge: Several sections are dedicated to gently encouraging wives to make their men happy with food, with cleanliness, with amorous feeling. For the wife, though, her husband's sanctuary was her workplace. That managing a medieval home was a huge undertaking wasn't a total surprise to me, but years as a historian (and an amateur homemaker) hadn't convinced me as thoroughly as this book does that being a successful housekeeper in the Middle Ages meant subsuming many of my own thoughts and whims to the larger project of keeping my living space clean and warm, of keeping the people in it safe and well-fed, and of keeping the people paid to live in it loyal and on-task.
I don't harbor any illusions about how fun it might be to live one hundred, two hundred, eight hundred years ago. In truth, medieval housekeeping served primarily as a way to combat the things (disease, childbearing, hunger, war, wild animals, the weather) that so often made life — even for those with the most money, power, land and servants — a short and brutal endeavor. If I had a working time machine I would not go back to 14th-century France, even to drink the aforementioned white wine sweetened with flowers and herbs, which does sound delicious.
Still, I am determined to find something from this book I can use. I know it won't be from the gardening section, and it probably won't be about my own virtue — there's a cautionary tale about a young woman who used the c-word in public and then everyone in the neighborhood called her a "bawdy whore," so I can only assume my own language means all hope for me is lost in that respect.
The headline "Sloth and Idleness Beget Everything Evil" catches me just as I'm about to give up thinking I might make myself into a good Frenchwoman living in the times of the Kings of Valois. It's common sense, really: scrub the kitchen (or have your servants do it), beat the dust out of bedclothes, check to make sure no food has spoiled, tend to the pets and then to the livestock. Don't be tempted to put these chores off for even an hour, for any delay means to "consider it forgotten — all is for nothing, and it will have to be started all over again." I am fairly sloth-like, and so while I do not want to take this advice, I do make myself wash out the coffee mugs that have been sitting in my sink for several days, sort my laundry and beat the dust out of my collection of IKEA sheepskins (these are the most medieval things I own, I think), and when I'm tired instead of throwing myself onto the couch I go into the bathroom and scour the tub. And while I do it I think less about the wolves and the plagues that might be lurking outside my own door, because for two hours (one thing I have learned is that I probably do not have the attention span necessary to be a good medieval housekeeper) my apartment is both my place of employ and my fortress. I'm trying to get it and keep it clean not just because it "should" be clean, but because if my home is a good home, I will be more able to face the things I read about on the Wikipedia page "France in the Middle Ages."
When I'm finished, I read the section on what to do every night before bed — put a candle in the window, check on the sheep, check on the servants — even though it's only four p.m. That's probably what time they went to bed in Medieval France, I tell myself, so I pour some wine into the most goblet-like glass I can find and feel satisfied that my virtue has proved sufficient to keep sloth and idleness and evil and wolves out of my home, if just for today.
Angela Serratore is the web editor of Lapham's Quarterly and a writer and historian living in Brooklyn.