Maids, Wives, Widows
By Sara Read
(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