Nostalgia: The curse of Adam – work

Comfortable new mansions like Nunnington Hall near Helmsley, were handsomely furnished during the lifetime of Shakespeare.
Comfortable new mansions like Nunnington Hall near Helmsley, were handsomely furnished during the lifetime of Shakespeare.

Four hundred years ago, most daily lives in our country were determined by the calendar and the weather. In midsummer, work in field and in the shop began at dawn about four or five o’clock and ended at dusk 18 hours later; and in midwinter the working time covered the eight hours of daylight. Only when we have power cuts do we appreciate the necessity of artificial light.

Nowadays farmers might spend no more than a fortnight a year ploughing their arable fields; but in Shakespeare’s era ploughing with a team of oxen or horses was the most time-consuming and heaviest agricultural labour.

Comfortable new mansions like Nunnington Hall near Helmsley, were handsomely furnished during the lifetime of Shakespeare.

Comfortable new mansions like Nunnington Hall near Helmsley, were handsomely furnished during the lifetime of Shakespeare.

Without underground piped drainage, arable land had to be ploughed frequently to drain its surfaces. If the ground was very wet it might need several ploughings to deepen furrows and raise ridges. The plough was also necessary as a means of controlling weeds: deep and wide furrow ploughing uprooted weeds and thistles. Thirdly, in the absence of artificial fertilisers, the plough was employed to spread animal dung over fallow fields. Finally, repeated ploughing was essential for converting pasture into arable. From September through the winter and following spring ploughing might be almost continuous.

Ploughing was man’s work: it required adult strength and endurance whether the soil was frozen, wet, dry or soft, clay or chalk. Successful ploughing required a close, co-operative bond between man and beasts, whether horses or oxen. The “taming” of young oxen to the plough was more difficult than “breaking in” horses. In traditional, open-field farming, men hired draught animals, harness and ploughshares from each other. Farming was still mostly communal and co-operative: it bonded villagers together in ways unknown in the towns.

Almost every kind of employment then demanded some degree of physical labour, in town as well as in the country. For example, painters of every status from the daubers to the artists, had to make their own paint from natural sources, such as white chalk, animal glue, egg yokes and plant dyes, in their workshops. Grinding out pigments between two hard stones could be dangerous as well as arduous labour. Painters used lead and mercury and were exposed to arsenic dust. Though the Protestant Reformation had deprived them of religious art inside churches, an army of painters were still decorating walls, ceilings and hanging cloths inside the homes of the gentry and nobility.

This was a time when draughty, cold castles were being displaced by comfortable new mansions. Howsham Hall, Malton Lodge, Burton Agnes Hall, Nunnington Hall, Beningbrough and Newburgh were all built and handsomely furnished during the lifetime of Shakespeare.

Women worked at least as long and as hard as their menfolk. Apart from keeping the family home clean and tidy, farmers’ wives and daughters milked cows, baked bread, brewed ale, made butter and cheese, took corn to the miller, fed the poultry and pigs, tended to the herb and vegetable garden and, when they had time, washed, combed and span wool. They repaired and mended the family’s clothing and did the shopping at the weekly markets and annual fairs. Their chief responsibility and priority was to feed the household on what could be afforded within the household budget.

Many Tudor women made their livelihoods from domestic crafts and market trade. In Scarborough, the fish shambles, where catches were gutted and prepared for the weekly markets, were populated mostly by women. Small-scale brewing was dominated by female brewsters, licensed and unlicensed. The wives and daughters of fishermen collected bait, mended nets and knitted caps and jerseys. Though the town’s many craft and trade guilds, such as coal-porters, bakers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, weavers and tanners, were exclusively male, the market places in Newborough and Nether Westgate were run predominantly by female stall keepers.

Single and married women were legally under the authority of their fathers, brothers and husbands and were excluded from public office, guilds and trade apprenticeships. The only apprenticeship orphaned girls could follow was that of housewifery under the tutelage of a family. As such they were being prepared for marriage and the management of their own homes. However, when a woman of means was widowed, potentially she won her independence. Except in York, she might continue her husband’s business. Mrs Thomasin Farrer, who is thought to have discovered South Cliff’s spa waters, seems to have lived alone in Scarborough conducting some kind of trade during 20 years of widowhood.

Though evidence of it is exclusive, some Scarborough women were probably employed as seamstresses, making and mending every kind of clothing for local sale or as laundry maids, serving the bigger households and taverns. And to be a spinster, a woman did not have to be unmarried.

A few desperate or dissolute females resorted to prostitution. In the descriptions of the time, they became “trulls”, “whores”, “harlots”, “Jills” or “drabs”, and their pimps were called “bawds”. Archbishop Grindal’s visitors to Scarborough in 1575 identified two places of ill-repute in the town. In one, James Garstange and Jane Sharrocke were harbouring “abominable adulterers”, “incestuous persons” and “other evil livers”; in the other, Christopher and Alice Dickson were suspected of keeping house for “evell livers and such as be of noughty behavior”. There were possibly many more such dwellings in a seaport like Scarborough.

If found guilty of running a bawdy house, the offenders were whipped through the main streets tied to the back of a cart with a paper stuck to their foreheads describing their offences. Afterwards they were permanently ostracised from the town.

Alice Partridge had been dismissed from Lady Margaret Hoby’s service for the inadequacy of her work and in 1598 had been directed by a bawd in London to the home of Mr Brooke, a rich brother of Lord Cobham. Here was a case of a serving woman who had lost her position and her protection and was desperate enough to exploit her sex for money.