How were women treated in the 16th centuries?

  • Regarding work:
    • In the 16th century the professions were closed to women (doctors, lawyers and teachers were always male) and female employment was often menial and low paid.
    • Most of male trade members employ their wives or daughters in their workshops.
    • Furthermore if a craftsman died his widow often carried on his trade.
    • In the 16th century some women worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailoresses, milliners, dyers, shoemakers and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen.
    • Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers or confectioners.
    • Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets.
    • A very common job for women in the 16th century was domestic servant. Other women were midwives and apothecaries.
    • However most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife's help.
    • In the 16th century most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family's bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat and making pickles, jellies and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers).
    • Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the families candles and their soap. The Tudor housewife also spun wool and linen.
    • A farmer's wife also milked cows, fed animals and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell.
    • On top of that she had to cook, wash the families clothes and clean the house.
    • The housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family's illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.
    • Poor and middle class wives were kept very busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house they had to organise and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate.
    • Very often a merchant's wife did his accounts and if was travelling she looked after the business. Often when a merchant wrote his will he left his business to his wife - because she would be able to run it.
    • In their spare time, rich women liked to hunt deer and hares with dogs.
    • Wealthy women also played cards.
  • Regarding education:
    • in the 16th century girls did not go to school. However girls from well off families were usually educated at home. Some women were taught to read by their husbands or by the parish priest.
    • In the early 16th century some upper class women learned music and dancing and needlework. They also learned to read and write and they learned languages like Greek and Latin, Spanish, Italian and French. However towards the end of the 16th century girls spent less time on academic subjects and more time on skills like music and embroidery.
    • Boys and girls from poor families were expected to start working and contributing to the family income from the time they were about 7 years old.
    • Even in wealthy families girls were supposed to work e.g. by weaving or reading suitable books.
  • Regarding marriage:
    • Most women in the 16th century were wives and mothers. Life could be hard for spinsters. Often they lived with relatives but they had to work long hours to support themselves.
    • In the 16th century marriages were usually arranged, except for the poorest people. Divorce was unknown.
    • Legally girls could marry when they were 12 years old.
    • Childbirth was risky in the 16th century. Many women died 'in childbirth' (actually they usually died after giving birth because the midwives hands were dirty and the unfortunate woman became infected.
    • Poor women tended to give birth about once every two years. Rich women gave birth more often, perhaps once a year. That was because poor women breast-fed, which reduced their fertility. Rich women gave their babies to wet nurses to breastfeed.

  • Regarding common beliefs:
    • Despite the print revolution, most Europeans remained illiterate.
    • The common man's sense of the world around him was individual and experiential, not scientific.
    • sixteenth-century society was imbued with the magical. Magical solutions abounded for medical problems, changes in the weather, disastrous harvests, and for prediction of future events. Use of magical powers for evil was considered witchcraft. Consultation with the black powers of evil spirits and the devil, himself, brought the repressive powers of the churches into play.
    • Prosecutions for witchcraft became common in the sixteenth century. Women were most often the objects of prosecutions for witchcraft.
  • Regarding communities:
    • Households existed within a community structure, either rural or urban.
    • Communities were organized by the secular and ecclesiastical lords. Rural lords established conditions of labor and land usage.
    • The village church was both a spiritual and social center, a focal point for holidays and celebrations.
    • Communities expressed their social solidarity by ceremonial activities in which all members of the village participated. In rural villages, priests led residents in annual perambulations of the lands. In towns, ceremonial processions were more formal and reflected the greater social stratification of urban life.
    • Weddings were significant ceremonies for the entire community. Marriages bound families-and often wealth-together. They marked the admission of a new household to the community. Because property and community approval were involved, weddings were public affairs.