Maids, Wives, Wid­ows

By Sara Read

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

(Pen and Sword, 192 pages, £19.99) Sara Read takes us into the world of 16th-cen­tury women here, ob­serv­ing them at work, in the home, as moth­ers, in n religious life anda in pol­i­tics. She e also pro­vides ana in­sight into their so­cial lives, health, food and drink, dress, men­stru­a­tion, hygiene, child­birth and child­care.

Women rarely washed ex­cept for their hands and feet – their hair was combed through with creams made from laven­der and cloves and only washed once a year. Beauty treat­ments were of­fered for those of “stink­ing breath” and “a rank savour of the arm­hole”. Pluck­ing out un­wanted hairs, along with wip­ing the body with wine and rose wa­ter, was thought to help di­min­ish un­savoury odours. Men­strual cy­cles were be­lieved to be af­fected by the moon, and san­i­tary pro­tec­tion con­sisted of ‘clouts’ and ‘rags’ – pieces of linen which were washed and reused. For men­strual cramps, the so­lu­tion was her­bal mix­tures or blood­let­ting at the an­kles to help en­cour­age the flow of blood down­wards. Ni­cholas Culpeper’s ‘ belly­band’ helped sup­port the stom­ach of preg­nant women and myths abounded – in his Direc­tory for Mid­wives of 1651 Culpeper de­clared that if a preg­nant woman “saw any­thing cut with a Cleaver, she brings forth a di­vided part of a Hare-lip”.

This book has no ref­er­ences, but is a good in­tro­duc­tion for stu­dents or gen­eral read­ers.

Julie Peak­man is a so­cial

his­to­rian and au­thor

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