This week I came across a book that I’d honestly forgotten I owned. A treasure of information that speaks out to us from an elderly man living in France in the late 1300s. He married a girl who was 15—not an unusual practice in that era—and knowing she was young and inexperienced, wrote her a book of “moral and domestic instruction” to guide her. This was not only meant to benefit their marriage, but any others she might have in the future (considering she was likely to be widowed young), and for any others who might also read the book after his passing. It is called A Medieval Home Companion, and if you can get past the idea of an old man marrying a 15 year old, it is actually a very sweet book full of fascinating historic material. The husband touches on everything from prayer, to gardening, to dealing with nearby wolves dens. It is worth a read if you can find a copy in print. Today for my post I’m going to share some passages directly from the book. No matter how much I research and speculate on how things could have been, nothing is better than hearing the voices of those who lived in that era and seeing history through their eyes.
From the section on gardening, under the heading August and September:
In August and mid-August, sow hyssop. Sow Easter cabbage at the waning of the moon; also parsley, for this won’t go to seed at all.
Green vegetables, like parsley, that are in the earth send out new shoots five or six times. They can be cut above the stalk until the middle of September. After that, do not cut them at all, for the stems will rot, but strip away by hand the leaves on the outside, not those in the middle. At this time remove all seeds of green vegetables, for because the weather is cold, the seeds can’t ripen. Once the seeds are stripped away and discarded, the stem puts out new greens. At this time, thin the leaves of parsley instead of cutting it. After Septebresse, plant peonies, dragonwort, lily bulbs, rose bushes, and gooseberry bushes.
From the section Take Care That You Are Respectably Dressed:
Here I want to speak a bit about clothes. Concerning this, dear sister, if you will take my advice, you will be very careful and pay great attention to your resources and means, in accordance with the social status of your relations and mine, whom you will visit and be with every day. Take care that you are respectably dressed, without introducing new fashions, and without too much, or too little, ostentation. Before you leave your room or the house, first see that the collars of your shift, your petticoat, your frock, or your coat do not overlap, as is the case with some drunken, silly, or ignorant women, who, not considering their reputation or the propriety of their rank or that of their husbands, go about with gaping eyes, heads appallingly elevated, like a lion, their hair sticking out of their headdresses, and the collars of their shifts and dresses overlapping—walking mannishly and conducting themselves before people indecently and without shame…So take care, fair sister, that your hair, your cap, your kerchief, your hood, and the rest of your attire are neatly and simply arranged, so that no one who sees you can laugh at you or mock you. Instead, you should be to all the others an example of order, simplicity, and decorum.
From the section You Must Be Mistress of the House:
Know, dear sister, that after your husband, you must be mistress of the house—master, overseer, ruler, and chief administrator—and it is up to you to keep the maidservants subservient and obedient to you, and to teach, reprove, and correct them. And so, prohibit them from lessening their worth by engaging in life’s gluttony and excesses. Also prevent them from quarreling with each other and with your neighbors. Don’t let them speak ill of others, except to you and in secret, and only insofar as the offense affects your interests and to avoid harm to yourself. Forbid them to lie, to play unlawful games, to swear foully, and to speak words that suggest villainy or that are lewd or coarse, like some vulgar people who curse “the bloody bad fevers, the bloody bad work, the bloody bad day.”
From the section To Keep your Soup from Burning:
…stir it often, pressing your spoon against the bottom of the pot so that it won’t stick there. As soon as you notice that it is sticking, stop stirring it, take it off the fire immediately, and put it in another pot.
To get the burnt taste out of soups, take a fresh pot and put your soup in it. Then take a little leaven, tie it in a white cloth, and throw it into your pot. Leave it there only a short time.
To make all soups less salty without adding or taking out anything, take a very white cloth, put it on your pot, and turn it over often. The pot must be kept far away from the fire.
To take salt out of butter, melt butter in a dish on the fire and the salt will fall to the bottom of the bowl. This salt is good for soup. The rest of the butter remains sweet. Another way is to put your salted butter in fresh water, knead and pound it with your hands, and the salt will stay in the water.
From the section Other Small Matters:
To make water for washing hands at table:
Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.
To make white wine red at table:
In summer, take the red flowers that grow in wheat, which are called perseau, neele, or passe rose, and dry them so they can be made into powder. Secretly throw them into a glass with the wine, and it will turn red.
To write on paper a letter that no one else will see unless the paper is heated:
Take sal ammoniac and melt it by moistening it with water. Then write with this and let it dry. This will last about eight days.
From the section Concerning Worship and Rising:
…At the hour when you hear the bell for matins sound, you should praise and pay your respects to our Lord with some salutation or prayer before going back to sleep.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s small glimpse into the past.