Brief musing on the ideal late medieval woman

The Luck of Two Magpies takes place in late 14th century England, just at the turn of the 15th century. By then, the black death had halved the population of Europe, the island of Great Britain included. The landed gentry were finding it difficult to hire workers, vassals and even servants at the wages or for the perqs (like a floor to sleep on, and food to eat) that would have sufficed before 1350, the approximate date of the plague. The estate managers, or reeves, of the upper classes of nobility would have a difficult time finding freemen or vassalage to farm. In this regard, their experience paralleled the post-World War I great houses, whose butlers and housemen, maids, huntsmen, gardeners, and other workers found opportunities for advancement elsewhere. And, like the black death, the first world war had winnowed the pool of employable folks, leaving them able to ask for higher wages, opportunities for advancement, and better working conditions.

In fact, after the plague, many landowners gave up farming for themselves (with vassals and freemen) and leased their properties to others to farm—to tenant farmers—for a share of the harvest.

But you can be sure that all the household help were male. Very few if any medieval manors, castles or palaces had women in their workforces. Butlers, pantlers, chamber men, stewards, almoners, knights, squires, yeomen, grooms, sumptermen, clerks, these were the provinces of men. Women were considered too great a temptation to the male staff members. Unmarried women were a threat to the good order of the household. One of the few exceptions was the laundress, who lived outside the manor household and was therefore less of a temptation (though I’ve certainly made her a temptation and more in The Luck of Two Magpies). The other exceptions would be in the department the lady of the house headed. She would have companions and maids, but these were expected to be married.

The image of 15th century beauty: Eve, from The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432.

Eve, from The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432.

That lady of the house would strive to be the ideal of English beauty—blonde and blue-eyed if she came by it naturally, certainly fertile, and demure, with small breasts and a full belly, as witness the image of Eve in the altarpiece painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck and titled “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” Completed in1432, it shows the ideal of beauty for that time (the rounded belly meant she was built to pop out heirs like biscuits). Women’s breasts weren’t a big deal for most men. After all, every woman—except the wealthy classes—nursed her children, so that in public a well turned ankle, said padded belly, and the tip of her perfectly executed shoe were just as fantasy-worthy if not moreso for the male populace. And while we’ve all heard of the willowy figure as ideal, and it may have been the body type of many, in the late medieval period, women’s fashion dictated they wear ‘the pad’, a nicely stuffed pillowy thing worn under her clothing and placed over her belly to create the illusion of pregnancy, and so give the impression of a fertile woman.

See? Today it’s elasticized undergarments to hold things in, then it was the pad to give you more girth. Go figure.

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