We all have these “ideas” about what it must have been like to be a lady living in a castle with a handsome lord. Or even what it would be like to be a knight defending a strategic fief for the king. Well not to bust any bubbles but…
The management of any home in the late middle ages and early renaissance was a feat as complex and time consuming as the management of some of today’s small governments. And for the most part it was the lady of the house whose duty it was to run the house. To find time to “sit and work embroidery” was a rare pleasure for most ladies. One almost never found by a common woman.
On an average day the lady of the house could have to oversee everything from the setting of menus, some needing to feed dozens, to the buying of foods, organizing hunts, the care of livestock and directing planting and harvesting. The collection of water the distilling of wines and ales and the heating of cooking fires would be just a few every day duties a lady would see too.
She would also be the one responsible for ensuring such things as weaving, spinning, dying and use of cloth happened productively. The making of things the house would need such as soap, candles and torches. Even with the establishment of guilds for each of these products many homes were self sufficient and didn’t “shop” for basic home items.
All chores, while usually done by others were overseen by the lady of the house and failure for the completion would fall on her shoulders. However, there was more a lady would be responsible for.
The very defense of a home would be the lady’s responsibility if the house fell under attack while the lord was away. Direction of soldiers, knights or just the house staff to defend the gates, the fields and the shires could be a responsibility a “lady” would have to meet.
Then, if there happened to be guests in the home the lady was the one responsible for all the entertainments. This could include hunts or just riding, meals, readings and stories, dance and music, possibly the access to… well, to put it politely… sexual pleasures. The lady of the house would also be the one responsible for the bathing and dressing of any “higher” visiting lords, and yes bathing was an important task so much that several descriptive manuscripts existed detailing how a bath should be given. The lady of the house would know these things.
Often in most homes it would be the lady who would be responsible for “education”. In the early English Renaissance period education was making a huge come back. Henry the VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, never known as “queen mother” because she never was, was noted during her life for establishing a sort of “public” education system. Prior many, including nobility could not even read and had to hire ministers from the church to do all their reading and writing. Any lady who could read would be expected to pass on that knowledge to any child born to the house.
I hope these facts do not completely strip the ability to romanticize history just a little bit. Pageantry and intrigue, scandalous affairs and bitter rivalries still existed. Knights and “romantic love” from afar were standards of the time as can be found in the writings.
I only tell you these facts so you have an easier time accepting what skills the sweet protagonist of ‘The Debt’ could actually posses. Women of 1490 were strong, smart, skilled people who had great responsibly; every bit the same as today’s women.