‘Tis the end of an era.
Okay, it was merely the end of a season, but still. Mary Arden’s Farm has closed its doors to the public for the winter months and I have found myself having to put away my ‘other self’ until the spring. No, I’ve not come down with a dual-personality or anything like that. I mean Mistress Marion, my Tudor alter-ego. Who is this ‘Marion’, I hear you cry? Well, to tell her story one must first venture to England, where we lay our scene, to the home of Master Adam Palmer and his household in Wilmcote, Warwickshire.
The year is 1573. Mistress Marion is 24 and has been in service at Master Palmer’s house for almost 10 years now. Born in 1549 in Sheep-wash Town (Shipston on Stour, where modern-me currently lives) to a merchant father and wool-spinning mother, she is the youngest of 8 children: the elder 7 all being boys. Because of this, she is able to read and write as, being male, many of her brothers went to school and thus were able to teach her how; it was very uncommon for a girl of her status in this period to be able to read, let alone write.
At the age of 12 Marion left home to go into service as a maid. In the Tudor Period, this was about the best you could hope for as a girl – to be a good maid, then later a good housewife. Going into service was a girl’s ‘school’, and from 12 until she got married she would live, eat, sleep, and work in that household. The Master and Mistress of the house were responsible for the girl’s ‘womanly’ upbringing, moral education, and morality in general – for example, to become pregnant during service was a big disgrace. When a young girl entered service she was a maid -it comes from maiden/head- and when she left service to become a wife, she would cease to be a ‘maid’ and would set up her own household. So, Marion began service with the Palmer’s at 12, and over the next 12 years she learned many housewife skills and farming skills, such as: cow, sheep, and goat milking; butter and cheese making; child rearing; making and baking breads; making pies and processing fruits; cleaning; mending and making; sewing, spinning, felting, and weaving; processing meat and skinning and gutting animals; cooking; gardening and plant lore; and animal welfare and handling, among many other things!
You can imagine, being a housewife in the Tudor Period wasn’t easy. Along with the things mothers and fathers do today, a Tudor housewife was expected to do all the things I mentioned above, and then some, along with planning up to a YEAR in advance to make sure her family didn’t starve. In 1573 there’s no refrigeration, no processed foods, no electricity, no Loblaws/Tesco. If you wanted to have food during the winter months you had to have prepared it in advance. Meat needed to be salted or smoked and kept in keevers – big wooden barrels; milk was preserved in the forms of cheese and butter; fruits were keep in pies or jams etc., and many vegetables and legumes were dried. By the time winter arrives you’d better be prepared, else by the spring you may no longer be there…
Now, speaking of food! Tudor food, despite what many people think today, was not too different from our own, however unlike us their weekly menu was rather strict and set out for them. At Master Palmer’s, Marion found that three days of the week weren’t good for her. Being allergic to fish, she most likely wouldn’t have survived past the age of five, as a Tudor household had to eat fish 3 times a week. Friday was a religious fish day, and they ate fish for the Lord did tell them so. However, if you were wealthy enough to pay a dispensation (bribe) to the church, you could have such rare breeds of fish as rabbit-fish, goose-fish, duck-fish, or beaver’s tail-fish: is a beaver’s tail not a fish stuck to a beaver? Do rabbits, like fish, not swim? The very wealthy could even eat venison-fish! (In 500 years not much has changed, has it?)
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Tudors ate fish because the government told them to eat fish. And not just any fish: it had to be sea-fish. (For those of you not too keen on English geography, Wilmcote and Stratford are as far from the sea as one can get in the UK.) As such, the sea-fish that they were eating was heavily salted or pickled, and we have written evidence that they knew it as “stinking stock fish”. While the fish was vile, the reasons behind it were very clever. Under Henry VIII, England had the world’s best navy; he also nearly bankrupt the country paying for it. So when Elizabeth took the throne she cut back the navy and made her subjects eat sea fish. If the populace was buying sea fish then fishermen had a job and were out fishing. These were men who knew the waters, knew how to sail, had their own boats, and were in effect a “home guard”. If the Spanish were ever silly enough to invade England, these fishermen and their boats could be conscripted into the navy to help protect the nation. And instead of being heavily taxed – never a popular decision – the English just had to eat sea fish.
In a household like Master Palmer’s, a yeoman farmhouse – he owned the land he farmed – Marion would expect meat 2-3 times a week. Thursdays and Sundays were typically roast meat days, with Monday as a ‘leftovers’ day. This makes sense, as on Wednesdays and Saturdays there was a large market in Stratford where you could buy fresh meat for the following day. Even today, the English love their Sunday roast; a hallmark from Tudor times. Tuesday was a simple, fasting day, were you might have a more vegetarian-like meal, such as frumenty (a pearl barley risotto), a quelquechose (omelette), or cheese and onion chewits (pasties deep fried in lard.) Mmmmmm.
It is important to note, however, that for the poor every day might be a fish or vegetable day. If you were very poor your diet consisted many of pottage (a stew-like soup), root vegetables, and bread and ale. For the very wealthy, the diet was meat meat meat, sugar sugar sugar. I’m sure we’ve all seen portraits of Henry VIII? 6 foot tall and 6 foot wide? They regarded vegetables as ‘peasant’ and demonic food, as vegetables were cheap and many of them grow down towards hell. The middle class, like the Palmer’s and Marion’s own family, had a varied diet with a decent ratio of meat to vegetables, and they were wealthy enough to afford sugar and spices.
In the Palmer household Marion would get three meals a day. Breakfast was an hour after the sun rose, and could be anything from porridge to bacon with toast and eggs! Supper was the evening meal, a small affair of some cold cuts of meat and cheese, maybe some pottage before bed. The main meal was dinner, and it was taken in the middle of the day. Because the Tudors lived by the sun, the middle of the day could be at 11am, or it could be at 2pm, depending on the time of the year. Dinner was the main meal as having perhaps woken up and started work at 5am, you needed the energy and rest by then. Similarly, for the Tudors the sun always rose at 6am and always set at 6pm, regardless of the time of year: so a “summer hour” might be 2 of our hours, and a “winter hour” maybe 40 minutes.
As well, on any given day Master Palmer may have hired 5-25 day labourers to work for him on the farm. They were invited into the home and to this meal as part of their daily wage. Not only did it help to pay them and give them energy, but it also allowed the Master to find out how work was going. The dinner was had at a board – not a table, but a board on trestles – and the meal was in essence a board meeting: the Master, at the Head of the Board, sat on a chair and was the ‘Chairman of the Board’.
Now back to Marion, and the more social aspect of Tudor life. This is were in some cases history disappears and we have only speculation as to how people were. Marion would get up an hour after sunrise and begin her maidly duties; sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in the house, sometimes out on the farm. She would have her three meals, then go to bed with the other half-dozen maids, AND the daughters of the house, when the sun set. Her daily clothing consisted of a shift (a nightie), a kirtle (an over-dress), an apron, a partlet, and a coif (like a bonnet). Hair had to be covered at all times, even while sleeping, and a woman’s ears especially had to be covered! They believed that the devil sits on your left shoulder and, among other things, whispers into your ear and tells you to do bad things. Women are more likely to listen to the devil; case in point Eve in the Garden of Eden. Men never had to cover their ears as, lets face it, they don’t listen to anyone! Marion’s kirtle was died with madder, a root plant, that gives cloth a reddish-orange colour. Madder and wode (blue) were the colours of service as they were the cheaper dyes and associated with the working/maidly class. This is something that carried on into the modern era in the form of blue jeans/coveralls, and is where the term “blue collar” has its origins.
Every year what Marion looks forward to most is May Day: the one day a year when young maids could ‘let their hair down’ (but, their head had to be bedecked with a garland of flowers) and have fun and frolic and dance around the May Pole – and even talk and dance with boys! As the majority of the work was gender-based, men and women were often segregated by their daily tasks, and young maids especially would be kept away from boys to ensure their morality and purity.
It was during May Day, 1573, that her eyes fell upon Master Thomas, the local blacksmith. Their courtship was short and towards the end of May they were wed. At 24, Marion was at a good and proper age to marry; anything younger was a bit off the mark. She was very excited to be married. She spent hours preparing and making the perfect braid for the ceremony. I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression “to tie the knot”? For the Tudors, a wedding ceremony was usually held outside and was called a hand-fasting: during the ceremony the couple’s hands would be tied with a braid and they would be ‘hand-fasted’ as man and wife.
On her wedding day, Marion spent the morning preparing and getting dressed, then when ready she and her sponsor were collected by a piper and led into the barn (modern note: Tom and I ‘married’ twice that weekend, and it rained the first time) for the ceremony. After breaking with the past by filling a pot with past sins and smashing it on the ground, they said their vows, offered each other a token of how they would provide for each other, then Master Tom gave Marion a ring – for the poor, a braid was the only token, for the wealthy, braids and rings were used. Lastly, they had their hands tied, were blessed, then jumped over a bonfire to symbolize courage in the marriage – as one does. Dancing and a feast followed. As far as society was concerned, a hand-fasting was a legal wedding, and the couple were married.
From that day the man and woman had a year and a day to call it off and have the ‘divorce’ be socially accepted. This gave the woman the chance to get out of an abusive relationship or one in which her husband couldn’t truly support her. For a man it gave him an out from an abusive wife, or one who could not cook/clean etc. The real reason, however, for the year and a day was so that the couple could try to conceive and have a child, and if not, then the man could find a new wife (even if he was at fault and she not barren!). Luckily, this aspect of marriage has not continued into the modern era, unlike many of the other aspects of the Tudor ceremony!
Once married, Marion would have left Master Palmer’s household and, with Tom, would have set up her own home and eventually had children. Child birth was the #1 killer of women, followed by fire deaths, so it’s no wonder actually that many women decided, instead of marrying, to stay in service and become “old maids”. It meant you didn’t have to pay people to work for you or your house, you didn’t have to go through childbirth, and you had a place to sleep, food to eat, a new set of clothes every year, and a set yearly wage – 10 shillings a year! It was a very cushy job.
So, while Marion did get married, it only really lasted two days before things went back to normal and she continued to stay in service. There, she continued her studies of spinning and cooking and looked forward to what the future held in store for her. God willing, Marion will return next year to continue her life: scaring people at All Hallow’s, painting maple leaves on sheep for a festival that hasn’t yet occurred, and dressing Master Tom in a coif; and I very much look forward to the things we’ll learn together and the shenanigans we can get up to again.
(Photos courtesy of Shashika Poopalasingham).