Women’s Work in Elizabethan Loughborough
An extract from Elizabethan Loughborough by Anne Richmond (1992) Loughborough Archaeological Society
The kitchen was the housewife's factory and her working hours were as long as those of the outdoor labourer. She was up in the morning around four o'clock, though mercifully there was no cooking of breakfast. Their porridge was made from whatever cereal was available, for the poorer families it was the major part of their diet throughout the day. The inventories infer that feeding the poultry would take the minimum of time, but many homes would have at least one cow to milk. The milk would more often be used for making cheese, rather than butter, which would be a more profitable product. It also kept longer and gave more to the gallon. Its making could have been an almost daily occurrence; the soft for immediate consumption, the hard draining in presses to be put up on a shelf in the kitchen or buttery, and later lugged up to the chamber to hang there in a basket.
When cooking, the poorer households would have little use for the spit, but the cauldron, cooking pulses and bacon, would be in frequent use, and though beans are never mentioned, peas, grey and white, are recorded in a number of inventories. For the better off, the mortar and pestle would have been put to use to pound herbs and spices to flavour meat, while the numerous saucers and small saucepans listed in the inventories were used to cook the vinegary sauces, to serve with meat to disguise the tainted flavour.
Salads were popular, almost any edible plant would go into their making and the flower heads were not excluded. Thomas Tusser in his '500 Points of Good Husbandry' recommended numerous plants which could be put to domestic use for food, distilling for medicinal purposes and strewing on the floor. Some of them are still growing wild today.
Gardens were the women's responsibility. Roses, violets, primroses, marigolds, were no doubt appreciated for their beauty, but their primary destiny was for culinary purposes. Among the vegetables, parsnips, cabbages, turnips and leeks and most of our fruits are listed. It is not so long ago that the herb tea jug stood almost perpetually on the hob and at a complaint of a headache or stomach pain, a cup of the bitter brew of camomile would be administered "In the summer a country walk could be made profitable by gathering wayside herbs to be dried and used at some future date.
The Elizabethan herb garden would have its rue, co¬mfrey (good for wounds). There was of course rosemary, among others. Rosemary for remembrance! It was carried in profusion at funerals. It prevented a miscarriage; put in a baby’s pillow, it soothed the child to sleep, and for certain if strewed among the rushes, it sweetened the air. Fragrant leaves such as raspberry and blackcurrant were sometimes boiled with the last mash, for the small ale which was the children’s allocation, though they were encouraged to drink milk and whey.
Probably pig meat was the most common source of protein, the offal for immediate co consumption and much more of the head in the form of brawn, which was a great favorites the rest salted and hung to dry. Come Martinmas the tanners would be besieged by housewives for the discarded outer bark of the oak for smoking the joints of the culled animals, thus providing a change of flavour and lessening the expense of salt. There is no evidence of a smoke house being in the town, but the chimney would be an acceptable alternative. The ashes from the oak bark would not have been discarded. Together with more ash from burnt bracken from the forest, they were mixed with one third of their weight of quicklime, then boiled in water which, if a good helping from the ‘slop tub' was added, would make the end product more efficacious.
The mixture was then boiled until an egg would float on it. The resulting lye (a form of detergent) was poured off and fat was added at a ratio of three parts of lye to one of fat. This mixture was boiled until it jellied, then cooked and allowed to dry out to give the household a supply of soap. How much soap was used is a matter for speculation. This is a physician of the period giving advice “ On rising, wash your hands and wrists, your face, your eyes and your teeth in cold water”