It’s often said that a woman’s work is never done. Yet, how would that saying stand in these modern days against the work of women only 100 years ago? With so many modern conveniences at our disposal, our work is small in comparison with those women whose housework would be physically exhausting to us.
The Ballad of the Tyrannical Husband is a 15th century poem about a husband who complains that his wife doesn’t work enough while he’s toiling in the field. Her replies to him show the amount of work a wife was expected to do, a lot of which we would never conceive of. She is up in the night to see to the children, and gets up before her husband to milk the cows and take them to pasture. Her other jobs in the day include making butter and cheese, feeding the chickens and animals, and taking the geese to the green. She also pounds flax, thrashes grain, cards and spins wool and bakes and brews ale. All this time she looks after the children and cleans the house. In his turn he tells her that they will swop jobs (he obviously thinks he can do better); he shall do hers and she his. She gives him some instruction of what needs to be done, but he then tells her he knows enough.
The poem is incomplete, but it leaves to the imagination what happened next. I would like to think that he didn’t do a good job and becomes more appreciative of his wife’s capabilities.
Jhesu that arte jentylle, for joye of Thy dame,
As Thu wrought thys wyde worlde, in hevyn is Thi home,
Save alle thys compeny and sheld them from schame,
That wylle lystyn to me and tende to thys game.
God kepe alle women that to thys towne longe (belong),
Maydens, wedows, and wyvys amonge;
For moche they ar blamyd and sometyme with wronge,
I take wyttenes of alle folke that herythe thys songe.
Lystyn good serrys, bothe yong and olde,
By a good howsbande thys tale shal be tolde;
He weddyd a womane that was fayre and bolde,
And hade good inow to wende as they wolde. (had sufficient [wealth] to go)
She was a good huswyfe, curteys and heynd,
And he was an angry man, and sone wold be tenyd (enraged),
Chydyn (chiding) and brawlynge, and farde leyke a (behaved like a) feynd,
As they that oftyn wyl be wrothe with ther best frend.
Tylle itt befelle uppon a day, shortt talle to make,
The goodman wold to the plow, his horse gan he take;
He calyd forthe hys oxsyn, the whyt and the blake,
And he seyd, “Dame, dyght our denner betyme, for Godes sake.”
The goodman an hys lade to the plow be gone,
The goodwyfe had meche to doo, and servant had she none,
Many smale chyldern to kepe besyd hyrselfe alone,
She dyde mor then sho myght withyn her owne wone. (dwelling)
Home com the goodman betyme of the day,
To loke that al thing wer acordyng to hes pay, (pleasure)
“Dame,” he sed, “is owr dyner dyght?” (ready) “Syr,” sche sayd, “naye;
How wold yow have me doo mor then I cane?”
Than he began to chide and seyd, “Evelle mott thou the! (may you suffer)
I wolde thou shuldes alle day go to plowe with me,
To walke in the clottes that be wette and mere, (swampy)
Than sholdes thou wytt what it were a plowman to bee.”
Than sware the goodwyff, and thus gane she say,
“I have mor to doo then I doo may;
And ye shuld folowe me foly on day,
Ye wold be wery of your part, my hede dar I lay.”
“Wery! yn the devylles nam!” seyd the goodman,
“What hast thou to doo, but syttes her at hame?
Thou goyst to thi neybores howse, be on and be one, (repeatedly)
And syttes ther janglynge (gossiping) with Jake an with John.”
Than sayd the goodwyffe, “Feyr mot yow faylle!
I have mor to do, who so wyst (knew) alle;
Whyn I lye in my bede, my slepe is butt smalle,
Yett eyrly in the morneng ye wylle me up calle.
“Whan I lye al nyght wakyng with our cheylde,
I ryse up at morow and fynde owr howse wylde; (in disarray)
Then I melk owre kene and torne them on the felde.
Whyll yow slepe fulle stylle, also Cryst me schelde!
“Than make I buter ferther on the day;
After make I chese, – thes holde yow a play;
Then wyll owre cheldren wepe and upemost they,
Yett wyll yow blame me for owr good, and any be awey.
“Whan I have so done, yet ther comys more eene, (remains more to do)
I geve our chekyns met, or elles they wyl be leyne:
Our hennes, our capons, and owr dokkes be-dene. (all together)
Yet tend I to owr goslyngs that gothe on the grene.
“I bake, I brew, yt wyll not elles be welle:
I bete and swyngylle flex, (pound flax) as ever have I heylle: (health)
I hekylle the towe, I kave, and I keylle, (I separate the chaff from the grain, and I stir the pot)
I toose owlle and card het and spyn het on the wheylle.” (I pull apart wool and card it and spin it on the wheel)
“Dame,” sed the goodman, “the develle have thy bones!
Thou nedyst not bake nor brew in fortynght past onys;
I sey no good that thou dost within thes wyd wonys, (spacious dwellings)
But ever thow excusyst thee with grontes and gronys.”
“Yefe a pece of lenyn and wolen I make onys a yere,
For to clothe owreself and owr cheldren in fere; (together)
Elles we shold go to the market, and by het ful deer, (pay full price)
I ame as bessy as I may in every yere.
“Whan I have so donne, I loke on the sonne, (see the dawn)
I ordene met (provide food) for owr bestes agen that yow come home,
And met for owrselfe agen het be none, (before it is noon)
Yet I have not a feyr word whan that I have done.
“Soo I loke to owr good withowt and withyn,
That ther be none awey noder mor nor myn, (nothing missing neither more or less)
Glade to ples yow to pay, lest any bate (argument) begyn,
And fort to chid thus with me, I feyght (think) yow be in synne.”
Then sed the goodman in a sory tyme,
“Alle thys wold a good howsewyfe do long ar het were prime;
And sene the good that we have is halfe dele thyn,
Thow shalt laber for thy part as I doo for myne.
“Therffor, dame, make thee redy, I warne thee, anone,
Tomorow with my lade to the plowe thou shalt gone;
And I wyl be howsewyfe and kype owr howse at home,
And take my ese as thou hast done, by God and Seint John!”
“I graunt,” quod the goodwyfe, “as I understonde,
Tomorowe in the mornyng I wyl be walkande:
Yet wyll I ryse whyll ye be slepande,
And see that alle theng be redy led to your hand.”
Soo it past alle fo the morow that het was dayleyght;
The goodwyffe thoght on her ded and upe she rose ryght:
“Dame,” seid the goodmane, “I swere be Godes myght!
I wyll fette hom owr bestes, and helpe that the wer deght.”
The goodman to the feeld hyed hym fulle yarne;
The godwyfe made butter, her dedes war fulle derne,
She toke agen the butter-melke and put het in the cheryne,
And seid yet of on pynt owr syer shal be to lerne.
Home come the goodman and toke good kype, (made an observation)
How the wyfe had layd her flesche for to stepe: (meat to marinate)
She sayd, “Sir, al thes day ye ned not to slepe,
Kype wylle owr chelderne and let them not wepe.
“Yff yow goo to the kelme (oven) malt for to make,
Put smal feyre ondernethe, sir, for Godes sake;
The kelme is lowe and dry, good tend that ye take,
For and het fastyn on a feyr (if it catch on fire) it wyl be eville to blake. (burnt)
“Her sitt two gese abrode, kype them wylle from woo,
And thei may com to good, that wylle weks sorow inow.”
“Dame,” seid the goodmane, “hy thee to the plowe,
Teche me no more howsewyfre, for I can inowe.” (know enough)
Forthe went the goodwyff, curtes and hende,
Sche callyd to her lade, and to the plow they wend;
They wer bese al day, a fytte here I fynde,
And I had dronke ones, ye shalle heyre the best behund.
Here begenethe a noder fytte, the sothe for to sey. . . .