Women, Food & the Medieval Households


From book, The Great Household in the Late Medieval England by CM Woolgar, (and this is what excites me) women actually start holding positions in the household –including those in the kitchen. Prior to the mid-15th century, in most households, men held the positions of responsibility within the household – from servants to attendants, from Chamberlain to Pantler, but it seems as family groups began to be hired on by the larger household to hold responsibility for specific areas, women actually began to have specific office roles in the household and the kitchen as a result – including the kitchen and cooking.  While the art shows us that woman was the primary cook for her individual family, stepping outside the home provided her income and a job as well.

How would one learn to cook and then lead the household office of the Kitchen? On the job training. According to Woolgar, that is how most household servants learned what they were supposed to do – such as apprenticeships. This method of passing the craft included not only the training in recipes and how to cook what and when, but also information and education of budgets and acquiring the provisions necessary to feed the household and any guests that were in residence – whether the household was in one place or on the move from one holding to another. The cost of food and drink necessary to feed the household was a large percentage of the expenses for that household.

What was the household and how many people would this entail? A household was brought together to support the Lord and/or Lady and included people such as immediate or foster family, advisers, council, military support – depending on how they were needed and the contracts written for those people. For some members of the household, food and drink were included with their contract, for others, they just received payment for services and were responsible for their own food and drink. The departments that supported the household could be large or small depending on the size of the household, but consisted of 4 major areas – then others depending on the size of the household or specialty needs at a time.

There were specific positions and responsibilities of the various members of the household. Woolgar’s breakdown is below for the various offices.

  • Butler – the domestic officer in charge of the buttery, ale, beer & wine, and the cellar
  • Pantler – the official responsible for the pantry, typically for bread, cheese, and napery (table linens)
  • Kitchen – the office responsible for food preparation for the household and hospitality
  • Marshalsea – the domestic office responsible for the Stables

If the household was of sufficient size, these household offices broke down into smaller divisions. For the Kitchen, these would include:  Confectionary, Larder, Saucery, Butchery, Scullery, and Poultry.

So, how does this all relates to what I’m looking at and working to recreate? For me, its about the food and how to work within our modern mentalities to figure out and learn to look at historic cooking through the medieval mindset. There are tools to help us do this and for me, open fire cooking is one of the first steps for doing this.


About historiccooking

A wife and mother of one little girl who is still a YUPPIE that just happens to enjoy recreating history - all aspects of how people lived in the medieval era, specifically my research focuses on 14th and 15th century England and this blog will discuss the food, cooking, equipment, and life around food in that period.

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