Today, you and I, and a teen-age bride, learn about
medieval life. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1393 a wealthy old Paris
burgher married a girl of 15. We don't know his
name or exact age. But when he married, he wrote a
book that opens a fine window on late medieval
The title was The Householder of
Paris. This older man had to see to his
bride's upbringing as well as her well-being. So he
wrote this handbook on housewifing for her.
While he clearly wrote in great joy and love, much
of it reads like a 20th-century feminist's worst
nightmare. He says a lot about a wife's duty to her
husband. Still, there's no question that he means
to place her at the center of his own life.
He leaves out nothing. He explains how to manage
servants, buy a horse, cook, garden, and select the
best eels at market.
He says much about medieval diet. Sugar didn't find
its way from the Caribbean to Europe for another
two centuries. They use a little honey, but the
greater interest is in seasonings -- salt,
horseradish, saffron, cinnamon, and mustard. They
eat duck, chicken, pig, and lots of vegetables. He
tells how to make barley water for the sick.
The Plague had recently killed half the people in
Europe. Now it came back every few years to kill
off more. No one yet understood that fleas carried
plague germs. Part of the book is nevertheless
devoted to keeping fleas out of the marriage bed.
Hourglasses were a fairly new technology. He
explains how to prepare hourglass sand by cleaning
the stony dust from sawed marble. So we cross the
transom and enter a 600-year-old household. We
catch the smells and tastes of a different way of
And what about the question of feminism in all
this? In that arena, things aren't quite what they
first might seem:
The very last item is a recipe for making three
pints of ink. This book is for a girl who could
read and who'd mastered the complex art of writing.
His household was a large enterprise. He was
training a 15-year-old to become its business
Modern readers will trip as he harps on words like
piety and duty. Perhaps women did have far to go.
Yet medieval women had made huge strides toward
personal liberty and empowerment. Hold this passage
to the light and see how it refracts:
... women, to whom God has given natural wisdom
... ought to have perfect and solemn love for their
husbands. And so I beg you to be very loving and
Is this the voice of a Neanderthal, or a
gentle man looking for natural human harmony? It is
after all a plea, not a command. In the end it says
far more about change in a distant age than it does
about an old man trying to cement an asymmetrical
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds